The term “Werther Effect” has come to symbolise a type of mass psychosis, initially ascribed to the rash of suicides after the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774. For Dr. Andrew Piper (McGill) and Dr. Mark Algee-Hewitt (Stanford) it represents something quite different. Using topological visualization models, the “Werther Effect” project at McGill tracks the lexical and thematic influence of Goethe’s work across the landscape of his later corpus and the larger sphere of the 18th-century literary corpus. While Goethe verbally discounted his youthful novel, the work of Dr. Piper and Dr. Algee-Hewitt has shown underlying patterns of language repetition that may be found throughout his oeuvre.
This form of text analysis is based not on explicit references (as in traditionally accepted in literary scholarship), but rather on the quantification of data gleaned from the text and the analysis of results. In the case of Goethe’s Werther, the patterns reveal the continuing important of the novel as a case to think about the significance of material objects for aesthetic experience. As a form of “multi-dimensional reading”, the “Werther Effect” illustrates the more latent and dispersed connections between works of literature.
Funded by SSHRC, the initial project considers the 255 works in Goethe’s corpus. However, moving forward, Dr. Piper hopes to expand his consideration of Goethe’s lexical influence on the 18th century literary corpus more generally. He and Dr. Algee-Hewitt are beginning data collection using a collection of about 12 000 works in German, from across the 18th and 19th centuries, the results of which will be rendered using topological models. Drafts of two forthcoming articles, as well as the topologies of “The Werther Effect” may be found on the project website.