Underwood authors new book on literary history

Ted Underwood
Ted Underwood, Professor

Professor Ted Underwood has authored a new book about recent discoveries in literary history and the changes that made those discoveries possible. His book, Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change, will be published by The University of Chicago Press Books in March and is available for pre-order.

In the book, Underwood shows how digital archives and statistical tools can deepen our understanding of issues that have always been central to humanistic inquiry. Large digital libraries like HathiTrust have made it possible for historians to survey hundreds of thousands of books across several centuries. Underwood explains how quantitative methods have become more flexible, "allowing us to grapple with slippery perspectival questions that wouldn’t have been suited to numbers in the twentieth century."

Underwood's work reveals how literary genres (like fiction and poetry) have tended to specialize with the passage of time.

Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change (book cover)

"Three hundred years ago, the language used in fiction was pretty similar to the language used in histories or biographies," he said. "But a gap gradually opened up between those genres. Today fiction tends to describe the world close-up and in slow motion; writers will spend a whole page describing what a character sees and smells walking down a street. Biographies rarely do that. But this wasn't a sudden revolution, brought about (say) by modernists in 1910. It was a very gradual shift, and we need numbers in order to trace the arc of change."

According to the publisher, Distant Horizons illustrates how digital methods can bring into focus the larger landscape of literary history and add to the beauty and complexity we value in literature.

Underwood is a professor in the iSchool and also holds an appointment with the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In addition to Distant Horizons, he has authored two other books about literary history, Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (Stanford University Press, 2013) and The Work of the Sun: Literature, Science and Political Economy 1760-1860 (New York: Palgrave, 2005). His articles have appeared in PMLA, Representations, MLQ, and Cultural Analytics. Underwood earned his PhD in English from Cornell University.

Updated on
Backto the news archive

Related News

Jett defends dissertation

Doctoral candidate Jacob Jett successfully defended his dissertation, "Towards a General Conceptual Model for Bibliographic Aggregates," on August 12.

Jacob Jett

Schwebel selected to lead CCB

Historian and children's literature scholar Sara L. Schwebel has been named director of The Center for Children's Books (CCB) and professor of information sciences at Illinois. She previously served as a professor of English and women's & gender studies at the University of South Carolina (USC). Prior to her academic career, she taught English and history to middle school students in Connecticut and Virginia.

Sara Schwebel

Bashir promoted to associate professor

Masooda Bashir has been promoted to the position of associate professor at the School of Information Sciences, effective August 16, 2019. Bashir joined the iSchool faculty in 2013. She previously served as assistant director for social trust initiatives in the Information Trust Institute (ITI) at Illinois, where she led multiple ITI educational initiatives, including the Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates program and the Illinois Cyber Security Scholars Program (ICSSP). 

Masooda Bashir

Knox named 2019-2020 Centennial Scholar

Associate Professor and BS/IS Program Director Emily Knox has been named the iSchool's Centennial Scholar for 2019-2020. Endowed by alumni and friends of the School, the Centennial Scholar award recognizes outstanding accomplishments and/or professional promise in the field of library and information science.

Emily Knox

New appointment for Ocepek

The iSchool is pleased to announce that Visiting Assistant Professor Melissa Ocepek will transition to the role of assistant professor, effective August 16.

Melissa Ocepek