Book Project

Averaging Americans: Why US Literature Started Thinking Statistically discovers a significant trend in US literary history by computationally analyzing more than 18,000 works of US fiction across the long nineteenth century. American authors increasingly make generalizations about individuals and groups of people using statistical reasoning, and become increasingly confident in asserting fixed characteristics as central tendencies of groups.

I argue that this trend reflects an increasing awareness of and anxiety about questions of population, polity, and representativeness, one that manifests in the attempt to shore up qualitative judgments through quantification. Statistical reasoning is central to issues of race, class, and power that have preoccupied scholars of the US for decades, yet its influence on American literature has too rarely been studied. This is not because writers of the period were unacquainted with the power of statistics to (mis)represent the world; Mark Twain famously warned his readers about “three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”