Text: Deborah Bernhisel, “Toward a Concordance of Edgar Allan Poe,” Susquehanna Alumnus (Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, PA), vol 49, no. 2, Spring 1980, pp. 2 and 17 (This material is protected by copyright)


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Toward a Concordance of Edgar Allan Poe

For the past two years, a protect has been underway at Susquehanna involving production of a concordance — an alphabetic index of words with the context in which they appear in the text— of the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe. Concordances, which can be valuable aids to literary scholars, have been complied tor other authors, but not tor Poe. Although a simple concept, the undertaking involves many hours of painstaking work, even in today’s computer age. What follows is a first-person account by one of those who have worked on the project: Deborah M. Bernhisel ’78, an English and Latin major who is currently a communication arts teacher tor the Shikellamy School District in Sunbury


“Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore’ ” was a familiar enough quotation to me as an undergraduate at Susquehanna. No self-respecting English major would fail to recognize this as a quotation from Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem “The Raven.” Yet, since those undergraduate days, this line and thousands of others by the same author have taken on a new dimension for me.

My renewed interest in the 19th century poet and storyteller came as a result of the 1978 Modern Language Association Convention in New York City. At a session sponsored by the Poe Studies Association, a paper was presented which discussed research possibilities involving Poe and his works, one of which was to produce a complete concordance of his prose and poetry. Dr. Elizabeth Wiley, professor of English at Susquehanna, heard the lecture, was struck by the suggestion, and returned to campus brimming with enthusiasm for the task.

Her enthusiasm was contagious and, within a short while. Dr. Wiley had enlisted support on campus, including that of Dr. Donald Housley, director of faculty development, and Dr. Wallace Growney, director of academic services in Susquehanna’s Computer Center. Dr. Wiley presented a written proposal to the University for a Summer Research Grant, and received funding to investigate the feasibility of compiling a Poe concordance.

The actual physical labor began in the spring of 1979. In preparation for a concentrated effort in programming and compilation during the summer, Dr. Wiley, with the help of Barbara Bryan ’79, began surveying the material at hand, namely the Poe short stories found in The Belknap Press Edition of the Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, as edited by Thomas Olive Mabbott. This particular edition and its sister volumes were to serve as the basis for the concordance, and from its pages Barb and Dr. Wiley needed to calculate the logical and grammatical length of Poe’s phrases, so they could be fed into the SU computer, with the extraneous words to be excluded from the final listing.

With summer came my involvement with the project, as clerk, typist, and proofreader. The summer’s goal was to produce a small sample of the computer-compiled Poe concordance, and my job initially was to supply the computer with the necessary raw material. At first, we decided to include 17 stories, the number in the Poe collection entitled The Folio Club. These stories were to be typed into the computer line by line in an exact reproduction of the page as printed in Mabbott’s edition, and to be proofread twice to ensure accuracy. This material was then to be run through a program designed to sort through the stories word by word, eliminate unnecessary words (based on the list compiled in the spring), and list the remaining words alphabetically along with the lines in which they appeared. The [column 3:] product of this collation would then be edited into phrases and printed for distribution to prospective supporters.

Stage one, typing and proofreading, was rather simple, although extremely time-consuming. In fact, by the end of the 11th story, I had used up approximately 100 hours of computer time. The work was tedious. It was necessary to type a volume number, page number, and line number for each line of the text, and the computer system required exact spacing of the typed characters. Proofreading was no easier since the computer only printed out what it had previously received, typing errors included. The text needed to be read through several times, and even then errors managed to slip by.

After hours and hours of typing, reading, and more typing, the first compilation was run. During the typing-proofreading stage of work. Dr. Growney and student assistant David Lynch ‘80 wrote a program which would allow the computer to search out each word, list it separately (along with its line of text, volume, page, and line number), eliminate the extraneous words, combine like words into single listings, tally the number of times each word appeared, and then alphabetize the final product. After several trials with individual stories, the program was run on the 11 stories already in the computer’s data base.

The result was both exhilarating and depressing. The computer run proved successful, completing in 20 minutes a task which would have demanded weeks of normal human labor. The only drawback was that the printed result was a pile of computer printout nearly three inches thick, all of which needed to be carefully checked against the text to ensure its accuracy, especially in regard to the reliability of the program itself.

Proofreading the master printout proved to be as tedious and time-consuming as it appeared, but the work had its recompense Now that we were dealing with compiled material, we were able to make observations about the feasibility of the concordance and, even more interesting, observations about Poe’s word choice. The text was no longer a solidified unit. We were dealing with individual words and the phrases in which they appeared. At a glance, we could tell how often a word was used in a given story or how often a word was used in the 11 stories. The words were being dealt with as entities in themselves rather than as units in an overall literary structure.

Possible patterns in language and word choice began to become noticeable during these sessions. Poe’s vocabulary began to appear as rather extensive. Often a particular word would appear only once or twice in the 11 stories. Spelling inconsistencies were also noticeable, although the reason for the spelling shift could not be determined through the printout. Negative image words occurred [page 17:] repeatedly in the listing, especially negative adjectives. Hyphenated words also appeared in abundance as did words of Poe’s own coinage.

None of these early observations can lead to conclusive statements about Poe’s writing style and choice of words. They do, however, seem to indicate patterns of language which might be common to Poe. The 11 stories, approximately one hundred pages, comprise too small a sample for conclusions, but are enough to arouse curiosity.

In order to test our last stage of production, we were forced once again to limit the material being used. Two stories, “Metzengerstein” and “Shadow-A Parable,” were fed, in edited form, into the computer. The task meant recalling the originally-texted story, running the sort segment of the program, and modifying the resulting list. Once the modifications were made, the sort and compile segment of the program was run (with some changes in the program). Copies of the resulting printout were then printed as samples to be distributed to interested persons and organizations.

Thus, a sample of a possible concordance has been completed, but the project itself has just begun. Michael Kistler ‘82 is now making further modifications on the existing computer program to increase speed and efficiency, edited material is still being fed into the computer data base, and Dr. Wiley is busy distributing the seven-page sample to Poe Studies Association members and other interested scholars. Input from people outside the project is vital now to help improve the format and content of the concordance as well as its potential usefulness. Financial backing, on a large scale, is becoming a more pressing necessity. The entire project will take years of hard work and dedication to complete, but with each small step and bit of encouragement, the enthusiasm spreads and the dream comes closer to reality.





[S:0 - CPEAP, 1989] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works-Concordance of the Poetry of EAP (E. Wiley) (Acknowledgments)