Rime of the Reagan Library

Rime of the Reagan Library: Remixing Digital Literature as a Critical Method,” a multimodal, hypertext essay I co-authored with Margaret Bertucci Hamper and Lauren Gottlieb-Miller, has recently come out in the Fall issue of Hyperrhiz, a journal dedicated to research in new media, e-literature, and internet art. Hyperrhiz developed as a new media incarnation of the journal Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, which publishes projects that take a Deleuzian approach to research. Given the rhizomatic nature of hypertextuality, we thought Hyperrhiz was a great forum for our project.

Our essay grew out of a graduate seminar at UW-Madison taught by Jim Brown (now at Rutgers-Camden). The project is a critical analysis of Stuart Moulthrop‘s hypertext novel, Reagan Library, which we remixed by substituting  the text Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner with Moulthrop’s text. Our aim was to show the expressive and rhetorical elements that function at the level of software code.


Our project remixes Stuart Moulthrop’s 1999 hypertext novel Reagan Library. Moulthrop’s work suggests that hypertext fiction is a “crime against the humanities,” a sardonic reference to the academy’s trivialization of electronic literature. We argue that Moulthrop’s work invites its readers to engage with his text at the level of code, and our project takes up this challenge through the performance of a remix. It is a scholarly intervention in the field of software studies, demonstrating one way in which new interpretive frameworks can be applied to produce meaning from electronic texts.We argue that Moulthrop’s work invites its readers to engage with his text at the level of code, and our project takes up this challenge through the performance of a remix. It is a scholarly intervention in the field of software studies, demonstrating one way in which new interpretive frameworks can be applied to produce meaning from electronic texts. We argue that remix is a key method for engaging electronic literature because it allows us to access the expressive capacity of computational processes. Our remix of Reagan Library allowed us to understand the underlying structure of Moulthrop’s work while simultaneously providing a new framework to revisit a canonical text, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and engage with it in a new way. We used the remix as an occasion for exploration and invention and as a new way to approach scholarship in the humanities. Engaging with Reagan Library’s code allowed us not only to better understand its narratives but also to uncover a more complex, nuanced argument about the nature of memory, both human and nonhuman. Our essay guides readers through the process by which we gained access to the digital underbelly of Reagan Library, explores our findings, and showcases the remix that grew out of this work, which is hyperlinked at the conclusion of our essay. Ultimately, our project attempts to demonstrate another possible intervention for writing and thinking about electronic literature.

We’d like to thank Jim Brown for his guidance on the project, Stuart Moulthrop for generously taking time to discuss Reagan Library with us, and Helen J. Burgess at Hyperrhiz for bringing the project to fruition.


Please pay (hyper) attention in class!



In the Spring semester of 2014, I was a TA for an introduction to Literature course called “Literature in Videogames,” taught by Professor Jim Brown. The purpose of the course was to explore how narrative and videogames intersect. The main question driving the course was: how do certain objects—be they games with narrative elements, electronic literature, or interactive fiction—challenge our definitions of these two categories? We also explored the broader cultural significance of games—their status as legitimate objects of intellectual inquiry, how they perpetuate or challenge gender and racial stereotypes, and their ability to address ethical concerns.

Some of the topics we explored included narratology, ludology, interactivity, simulation, immersion, hypertext fiction, and freedom vs. constraint in digital environments. We read novels about videogames, including D. B. Weiss’s Lucky Wander Boy, a wry and very witty look at videogame obsession, and Ernest Cline’s dystopic Ready Player One, a story of total immersion, and a virtual smorgasbord of 80s pop culture. We read some challenging essays on videogame theory from a engrossing collection called First Person. We also got some experience writing code by building our own hypertext videogames using Twine, a very user-friendly platform, and one that has really helped marginal groups enter the exclusionary realm of videogame design. Plus, we had some fascinating guest lectures from game designers Porpentine (maker of the Twine game Cyberqueen) and Matt Haselton (designer and ”problem solver” from Filament Games).

And of course, we played videogames, from classic games like Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Joust, and Galaga to newer games like Braid, Gone Home, and Unmanned. Since lecture was held in the college library computer lab, each student had their own computer, which enabled us to play games in class. One of my favorite class sessions was when we ended lecture about fifteen minutes early so that students could play a classic videogame of their choice (dozens of which are emulated online). Prof. Brown had all one hundred students turn up the volume on their computers to max level, and suddenly we were in a time warp—we had transformed the entire computer lab in College Library into a video arcade from 1983. It was a veritable symphony of videogame sounds, from the squishy, relentless munching of Pac Man, to the rapid-fire shots of Asteroids and Space Invaders, to the chiming hops of the Frogger avatar; all of which was colored by the various sonic accents that sporadically emerged through this exuberant cacophony— Galaga’s dive-bombing insects, Donkey Kong honking and stomping the platforms, and Pac Man’s ghost swallowing. The only thing missing was the sound of quarters plopping into arcade machines. In retrospect, we should’ve played Rush’s Moving Pictures through the overhead speakers, just to enhance the verisimilitude of the scene.

So what does all of this stuff have to do with hyper-attention and twitter? Well, professor Brown was experimenting with what N. Katherine Hayles calls “hyper-attention,” in which attention is dispersed to a number of different objects simultaneously (as opposed to “deep attention,” which is a focused, analytical attention to a single object, like a novel). During Jim’s lectures, each student had to tweet five times about the lecture using our course hashtag, #eng177. The tweets took a few different forms. Some students used their tweets as a note-taking tool so they could remember important concepts or arguments (e.g., “ludology is the study of games”). Others offered their own insights or questions about the lecture, inviting other students to respond. As this happened, attention was being distributed to several different objects simultaneously—to Jim’s lecture, to composing tweets, to reading and responding to other students’ tweets, to the images that were on the monitor, to the actual book or essay that was being discussed.

But the lecture tweeting wasn’t an end unto itself. What really made tweeting a great learning tool was that students had to write short multimodal essays using Storify, which would draw a large part of its content from the tweets. Storify is a great program that allows users to create their own stories using content from social media services such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Storify is a very useful tool for making coherent sense of the information overload usually experienced with social media. Our storify essays compiled tweets, images, relevant links, youtube videos, and the student’s own writing, which would frame a all of this digital media around a more focused idea. Students would combine their own descriptions with various digital media and weave together an analysis of some important concept or argument, like ludology, or the exploitation of code in Ready Player One, or the manipulation of time in Braid, or whether or not Gone Home was actually a game (a very contentious debate among gamers since its 2013 release).

Another great thing about tweeting is that it can invite some interesting surprises from the outside cyberworld. In a lecture about imitation, Professor Brown was discussing “The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird,” an article by video game theorist Ian Bogost. Ian Bogost caught wind of this and decided to join our tweet stream. Students got quite a thrill out of this unexpected visit from the author whose work we were discussing. (It was like a cyber version of Annie Hall, when Marshall McLuhan magically appears to weigh in on a discussion of his own work—except Professor Bogost a lot more generous about the comments we were making). Here’s an excellent storify by one of our students, Lawrence McCaigue, about the surprise Bogost visit.

It was really gratifying to see how well conceived and creative these Storifys could be, so I’ve included a couple more that I thought were done particularly well. Here’s a very insightful storify written by Tom Scheinoha about D. B. Weiss’s Lucky Wander Boy, in which Tom explores the idea of life-as-videogame, discussing the protagonist’s refusal to see his life as anything but a videogame, causing his psychological decline and his objectification of women as videogame plot points.

For the class’s final project, we paired students and had them write a collaborative storify on the games Braid and Gone Home. Here’s one written by Kailee Andrews and Arslan Amhad on the controversial game Gone Home. Arslan and Kailee examined this game as an example of interactive, environmental storytelling in which physical objects function as clues to reveal both an embedded narrative and layered horror tropes. Their analysis also notes how Gone Home‘s traditional horror tropes mirror the psychological horrors of ‘coming out’ as a gay, suburban teenager.

My co-TA, Becca Tarsa, wrote an article for the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative about Storify and Twitter, in which she asked me a few questions about using Twitter and Storify in the classroom. So instead of continuing here, I might as well give you a link to Becca’s article.

Thanks to all the students in English 177, who wrote some great Storify essays, and whose enthusiasm about this experimental lecture format made this a successful class, and special thanks to Tom Scheinoha, Kailee Andrews, Arslan Amhad, and Lawrence McCaigue for allowing me to show their exemplary work.

Toxic Talk: Breast Cancer Rhetoric and ‘The Tyranny of Cheerfulness’

This essay looks at the breast cancer epidemic from a rhetorical perspective and suggests that breast cancer is not just a physical and biological problem, but a problem of language. I wrote the essay last year, and it was published in  the most recent issue of The University of Chicago’s Colloquium magazine. Here’s a link to the essay. And here’s a link to the main page for issue 4, which, like previous issues, has several excellent pieces on an eclectic range of topics.


John Clare Manuscript Letter (Part II)

The Bibliographer and the Bookseller

Since my last post about the John Clare manuscript letter, Sara Guyer put me in touch with Yvonne Schofer, the bibliographer who discovered the manuscript. Yvonne, who gave me some very useful and interesting information, was the Humanities-English bibliographer for Memorial Library from 1980 until she retired in 2007.

First, I should correct an inaccuracy from the previous post: UW’s Memorial Library building was not completed until 1953. Thus, the book English Poetical Autographs initially would have gone to The University of Wisconsin’s Historical Society, which housed all of the Humanities books until Memorial Library was built. After the book was transferred—with thousands of other books—to Memorial Library in 1953, it sat in the basement for nearly five decades until Yvonne looked through the book and discovered the letter in 2001.

Yvonne recalls, “I regularly looked through the literature sections of the Cutter collection, finding items that were, for various reasons, in need of better protection, either for conservation or transfer purposes. That is how I came across the book of literary autographs, published in the 1930s, of no particular interest or value since similar books were common at that time, but containing the Clare fragment next to the facsimile of his handwriting.” Yvonne was personally excited about the discovery because she had spent two years working on her English Literature degree in Northamptonshire, where Clare, needless to say, has always been a celebrated figure.

I was also able to get in touch with Keith Fletcher, grandson of the founder of H. M. Fletcher, the London bookseller who sold the book of autographs to the University in 1948. H. M. Fletcher was located in London’s Cecil Court, near Charing Cross Road, and the University of Wisconsin had been doing business with them since the early twentieth century. According to Yvonne, since there was no antiquarian book trade in Wisconsin back then, and most private collections in the Midwest were sold in Chicago, UW often bought books from English booksellers. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to track where the book came from because, as Mr. Fletcher explained, they usually purchased books by truckload and kept no itemized records. Yvonne speculates that the book of autographs probably came from a private collection. Who’s private collection? It’s impossible to know.

I thank Yvonne Schofer and Keith Fletcher for their assistance, and, in the mean time, we’ll continue working on the missing word. Auf wiedersehen.

Manuscript Letter Written by John Clare



Addressed to:

Mr. Clifton, Bookseller, Peterbro [Peterborough, England]

Letter Transcription:

Dear Sir

   Can you send me a proof to day by the carrier + if not I hope you will finish the whole by Saturday as I want to try my _____ directly

   I ought to have told you that I sent the Prospectus yesterday by Mr Duckles (or somebody else) Bowes + I hope you got it safe + I fancy you would set it up immediately so I have written this by the carrier to inquire if you have done so

      Yours, Mr. J. Clare

Northbro [Northborough, England]



There is no date on the manuscript, however, Clare almost certainly wrote the letter in August of 1832, soon after his move to Northborough. The addressee, Mr. Clifton from Peterborough, became Clare’s printer in August of 1832 and on September 1st, Clifton printed one hundred copies of a prospectus for The Midsummer Cushion, to be sent out to potential subscribers. Presumably, this is the prospectus Clare refers to in the letter. The section that was torn from the bottom left corner of the letter may have contained the exact date. The only dating information still visible is “Wednesday,” which means the letter could only have been written on the 1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd, or 29th of August, 1832. September 1st fell on a Saturday in 1832 and could be the Saturday Clare refers to in the letter, which would make Wednesday, August 29th, 1832, the most probable date of the letter.

The identity of “Mr. Duckles (or somebody else) Bowes” is not entirely clear, although he seems to have been the carrier who delivered the prospectus from Clare to Clifton. In addition to printing the prospectus, Clifton actually offered to publish The Midsummer Cushion. In an August 1832 letter to Jane Mossop, Clare writes, “Clifton offers to print the Verses at a reasonable price but I fear any thing printed out of London will go a good way towards crushing the matter so I must wait before I promise it & hear from London.” Clifton, of course, did not end up publishing the verses as Clare eventually found a London publisher in Whittaker & Co. After many of the poems were edited or omitted, The Midsummer Cushion turned into The Rural Muse, which was finally published by Whittaker in 1835. This would be the last collection of Clare’s poetry published during his lifetime.


While working on a project for Robin Valenza’s seminar on computational approaches to literature in the Spring of 2013, I serendipitously encountered the unpublished manuscript in The University of Wisconsin’s Special Collections library. Initially, I was looking for archival editions and manuscripts of Clare’s poetry in order to scan them and perform side-by-side textual comparisons between different editorial interventions. I became interested in doing this after reading Sara Guyer’s article “Figuring John Clare: Romanticism, Editing, and the Possibility of Justice,” which discusses the scholarly obsessions and the welter of difficulties involved in editing Clare’s poetry. During my search, I came across this holograph, and I’m interested in tracking its path from Northborough, England to Madison, Wisconsin.

How this letter made its way from the hand of John Clare to the Special Collections Library at the University of Wisconsin is somewhat of a mystery. What we do know is this: The manuscript letter was originally archived in the University of Wisconsin’s Special Collections Library in 2001 after Yvonne Schofer, the special collections bibliographer, found it inserted in a copy of English Poetical Autographs: A Collection of Facsimiles of Autograph Poems from Sir Thamas Wyat to Rupert Brooke, a fairly ordinary book published in 1938. The letter was discovered between plates 25 and 26, on which were printed facsimiles of Clare’s poem “Sudden Shower” and John Keats’s “Ode to the Nightingale.”

The University of Wisconsin’s purchasing records show that the University of Wisconsin purchased the book in 1948, ten years after its publication, from an English bookseller named Fletcher. The book remained in the Memorial Library bookstacks for fifty-three years until Schofer discovered it in 2001. It is likely that Fletcher acquired a used copy of the book with the letter already inserted. The previous owner of the book appears to have been comparing the handwriting in the Clare manuscript to the handwriting in the facsimile poem. This individual perhaps forgot about the letter or died having left it in the book.

Of course, transcribing Clare’s infamously bad handwriting and erratic spelling is a notoriously difficult task. The above transcription (with many thanks to Tom Szidon, Nina Szidon, and Jackie Teoh for helping me transcribe it), is missing one word that we were unable to decipher, but we’re still working on it. And I invite comments that might have an insight into that missing noun (or suggestions about possible errors in the transcription). I am continuing to track the history of this letter and will post new information as I acquire it. Thanks for visiting!