Of and For the Web; On Having Built "The Last Man Home Page"

Steven Jones

When Stuart Curran remarked, at last spring's Society for Textual Criticism conference, that the Romantic Circles edition of The Last Man amounted to a kind of "Last Man Home Page," it sounded at first like a typically brilliant witty put-down. Nobody mounting anything, however simple, on the Web after 1994 wants to be accused of building a home page. But as he explained what he meant and I thought about it, I realized he was exactly right (though still brilliant and witty), and that he had articulated a family resemblance between my serious Mary Shelley project and all those cat-picture, animated-gif, gaudy-buttoned, DIY pages out there--a family I finally had no desire to deny and of which I was, the more I thought about it, quite proud.

Now, underlying the home-page question are some serious editorial questions, which I don't mean to gloss over. Is HTML too "lite" for scholarly editions? Should we work only in SGML or raw ASCII, building for posterity's inevitable changes in platform? Or should we build somewhat more ad hoc, perhaps more ephemeral, but also more widely and immediately accessible texts for the current environment? If I lean toward the latter (or think it possible to do both HTML and SGML texts), am I selling my editorial soul to a nascent mass medium, pandering to our Dilbertized, short-attention-span culture?

For now, I have thrown in my lot with the Web. This edition of Mary Shelley's triple-decker novel of plague and extinction was brazenly conceived and executed as a series of Web pages. It was built within the limits of HTML 2+ and second generation browsers. Not a cd-rom project ported to the Web or a letterpress edition translated into SGML or HTML, it was from the beginning produced by and for the Web (ca. late 1995). It was scanned, edited, coded, and mounted in less than a year, with the simplest page design possible--for elegant backward compatibility to small screens and slow processors--and with the idea that, if it shared the cheesy disadvantages of the Web it would also share the advantages, including being easily revisable (I can PICO-edit a fresh lexia or "page" from any phone line in the world) and a familiar, unpretentious accessibility (any high school student with a basic HTML editor can produce and submit the same). The Web is limited and frustrating but it is, nonetheless, our only existing system of world-wide networked hypertext, and that's the environment I wanted to work in.

A Web edition is porous--open to fairly unpredictable as well as planned linkages--and potentially unstable (it can crash or go offline at any time, and design decisions are sure to look outdated in a year as browsers and HTML standards change). But a Web edition is also potentially open-ended, always under construction in the good sense. Overall, these seem to me enormous advantages for an experimental hypertext edition of a literary work. I am not at all ashamed to have built a Website edition (but it is interesting, professionally speaking, that I might feel the need to assert this.)

trystero horn
Oedipa in the Sybil's Cave; or, "obliged to add links"

When I was a graduate student working on (Percy Bysshe) Shelley's obscure satiric writings, one of my greatest pleasures in doing scholarly research was the discovery that, as I had always suspected anyway, everything was connected. As in a Pynchon novel or a season of the X-Files, I would find the telltale signs of interrelated themes, intertextualities, epistemic constructs, recurrent tropes, and cultural obsessions everywhere, like some long-lost secret code. Shelley's pistol practice turned out to be arguably related to his need for the public rhetoric of retaliation, a loose leaf among his manuscripts turned out to be torn out of a notebook now on another continent, imagery from political cartoons governed serious poems, and publishers were indirectly as well as directly affected by social and political censorship. This kind of paranoia (as the Angels call it) is of course known in Hell as cultural overdetermination.

One of the things not just hypertext but especially Web hypertext can emphasize for students and readers of literature of the past is this exciting sense of multiple interconnections. It can call attention, for example, to the cultural nodes where composition, publishing, and reception meet in very specific contexts. One of the things I tried to highlight in The Last Man was this kind of node, whether thematic or contextual. For example, when it comes to publishing as an enterprise and a mediation, this novel allows us to tell some pretty interesting stories, starting if we like with the author's letters, in which she reveals how constrained and rushed she felt by the process, then moving on to the publisher, Colburn, who was known for his blatant puffery and heavy marketing of society novels for parvenu readers, then ending up, perhaps, with the Keepsake and other annuals, the publishing medium Mary Shelley was pulled into during the time she was bringing out her dark triple-decker. I deliberately avoided spelling all this out in footnotes. Instead, I tried to merely mark it out as one possible path the user could follow through the links in and out of the novel itself. Though I didn't want to just say so in an editorial voice inhabiting the textual apparatus, such a path seems to me to suggest a compelling reading of The Last Man: as a strange and serious, sometimes excessive parody of the silver-fork novel, the sort of thing written by the young Disraeli or T. H. Lister, also for Colburn's publishing machine. (It seemed all too perfect that Lister himself had also written a parody of the "Last Man" sub-genre for the Keepsake!)

Or, take music. It is an important formal structural device in the book and a theme that points us to important contextual matters. Jean de Palacio long ago laid out in tabular form the shift within the fiction from one kind of music to another as the novel progresses. Hypertext makes it possible to link a basic annotation to each instance of thematized music in the novel, as well as to notes on Haydn's Creation (scored for and performed on organ by Shelley's friend Vincent Novello) as an inspiration for Shelley's composition (her letters tell us so). And to link to Novello's score itself. (Any keyboardists out there on the Net?) And to some MIDI-produced audio clips. I immediately found that this music (the full MIDI file on my hard drive more so than the limited sample made available over the Net) made an uncannily appropriate background, like a silent-film accompaniment, for the image of John Martin's painting of The Last Man, which I was using on the "cover" of the edition. The "chance"--actually complexly overdetermined--layering of the tonalities of organ music and painting go a long way toward "explaining" the "sublimity" of the novel. With my students, the accident (not really an accident, of course) of the whiff of silent horror films invoked by this simple multimedia juxtaposition led to some very interesting discussions, indeed, involving Lon Chaney and Victorian "multimedia" as well as that other, first novel by the Author of The Last Man.

Connections Yet Unmade; a Wish List at the End of a Year

There are a few things I've been meaning to do for about a year now to this "published" but obviously unfinished text. They include:

  • Add more critical essays, including perhaps some written expressly for this edition.

  • Make autonomous but interlinked hypertexts out of other short works by Mary Shelley, and not only the four or five already linked to the edition (as I write this, some of this work is nearing completion by other hands).

  • Encourage the building of "deeper" Mary Shelley resources at Romantic Circles that will enable me to augment the annotation and contextual materials (some of this work is also already underway on several fronts: here's one excellent example).

  • Increase and improve the linked lexias on some key thematic nodes, beginning with "gender" and "disease"--with both of which I've only just made a beginning.

A year later, I remain surprisingly hopeful about all of this and about the likelihood I'll continue getting feedback and suggestions, submissions of new lexias, and hints for new links. One of my reasons for hope is the present occasion, which may look to you like a virtual conference but looks to me like a collaborative node ripe for the hyperlinking. (Talk about infection....)

--SJ (28 August 1997)