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Today I address a subject never mentioned on this blog—part of my own digital project, The Lyon Archive. I’ve hesitated to share my work because it’s still under construction. I keep waiting for the perfect moment to unveil the site as finished. Yet, in so doing I’ve neglected one of the most important and transformational features of DH—its emphasis on process and revision, and its invitation to wonder. DH tools may sometimes help us to create finished, final presentations. But they also help us to think through interpretive problems, providing a place to experiment, remake, and speculate. In the case of my own project, the Lyon Soundscapes Map, the digital is not merely applied to the scholarly problem, but instead I show that the two—scholarship and digital map—can be energized through their contact with one another.
Many moons ago I happened upon two rare nineteenth-century diaries. Finding the diaries was an incredible accident which I detail in my current book project (I’ll keep you in suspense until it’s published). The diaries, kept intermittently from 1822-1839 by Abraham Septimus Lyon, offer fascinating and rare glimpses of the experiences of a young man educating himself and attempting (and failing) to establish a business in London. Ultimately, Lyon’s bankruptcy forced him to leave England for Jamaica. The diaries chart his fall from a hopeful young man to one experiencing the despair of destitution and flight.
A.S. Lyon lived in London’s East End, an area imagined in the nineteenth century as dangerous and dirty, where prostitutes, drug addicts, and shoeless beggars dwelled in dark streets. Descriptions of Jack the Ripper and his murderous rampages made the East End “known” to the world in the 1880s. Yet, such descriptions often prevent us from registering the vibrant cultural and intellectual life of working class East Enders. For a fuller discussion of this problem see my article: “1800-1900 Inside and Outside the Nineteenth-Century East End.” Lyon’s diary reminds us of what we stand to gain by looking beyond such sensational, one-dimensional spatial narratives.
As a form of “writing from below,” Lyon’s diaries create an intimate account of the everyday life of an ordinary citizen. Compared with novels that convey character development, tension, and narrative climax, a diary might seem dull. My challenge was to find a way to interpret Lyon’s writing that would help me register the sense of vibrancy he encountered as he meandered through noisy Victorian city streets, berating himself for his failing business, or hoping his latest crush would return his love. As a first-generation Jewish immigrant whose father fled antisemitism in Europe, Lyon had to negotiate his assimilation process, his desire to fit in as an English Jew, and his ultimate ostracism from London upon his descent into poverty. As I worked with the diary I began to wonder, how might I use a map to hear Lyon’s writing amidst the bustling context of his London world? What could the sound of his voice help me to learn about his perspective as a young East End writer and business owner? And how might an exhibit of digital objects, such as playbills, paintings of the actors he saw on the London stage, or the sounds of an opera he attended amplify questions subtly hinted at in the written diary?
The diaries—because of their linear, day-by-day form—may lead to an emphasis on the significance of Lyon’s destinations. Michel de Certeau helpfully observes that urban walkers create “intertwined paths [that] give their shape to spaces. They weave places together” (The Practice of Everyday Life, 1984; Trans. Steven Rendall, 97). And in weaving together, Lyon gives shape and voice to his knowledge of those destinations. This Soundscape Map Exhibit was created as a way to read the diary through the spatial lens of a nineteenth-century physical map, and to locate Lyon’s movement in space and time and through sound. He doesn’t mention horse’s hooves, but we know he must have heard them. He doesn’t mention the sound of crowds of people or the music at the theatre, but again, we know these sounds would have been part of his experience in London. What if we could hear what he sees as he walks to and from the theatre? What if we could hear his pen moving across the diary page? What if we could find ways to think about the juxtaposition of events or destinations he mentions, from one Synagogue to another, or from his office—the counting house—to the ball? How are these destinations related through Lyon’s engagement with books he was reading or global events he mentions throughout the diaries?
These questions inspired the Lyon Soundscapes Map, a digital exhibit that invites us to interpret the experience of an East Ender’s path through the bustling Victorian streets of London, and to wonder about his difficult life lessons on failure and hope. The diary entries appear on the map in chronological order (the entries are sequenced chronologically by pin-number), and each movie works to foreground the lived experiences recounted and imagined through Lyon’s diary entry for that day.