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Retweeting the Classics

Bookish joke-accounts—and the serious people behind them.
(Photo: Radiokafka/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Radiokafka/Shutterstock)

The greatest authors speak directly to us, addressing our innermost questions with an intimacy that startles.

Last month, I received a very specific set of instructions, via Twitter, from Geoffrey Chaucer. The message was private. It smacked of adventure and intrigue:

Syr Ted, Graunt mercye for yower interest! Yf ye aske Professir Legassie ye maye gayne moore of the knowlech that ye seeke.

This clue, despite its cryptic, beyond-the-grave quality, was, in fact, a response to a note I had sent to @LeVostreGC just a few hours before. My DM was essentially fan mail (@LeVostreGC is very, very good at what he does), but also an expression of curiosity: What breed of man or woman delivers such inviting daily commentary on such disparate subjects as Lolcats, Sappho, John Gower, the Loeb Classical Library, the folly of nostalgia, and the likelihood that seafaring cannibal rats are playing Settlers of Catan? Moreover, who can do these things in lucid, convincing Middle English?

Here, I must bite my tongue out of respect for @LeVostreGC, and out of concern for his followers; one suspects that fixing a name, face, and biography on the man behind the curtain would detract from the singular pleasures of following this outlandish feed. Users will go certain lengths to ensure privacy—now more than ever, when doxxing, or outing, once-anonymous Twitter feeds has become its own cottage industry.

In Chaucer's case, I was more than happy to settle for an in-character interview.

“Ich joynid twytter by cause blogginge was too stressful,” Chaucer tells me, “the which ys a sad comment on the busynesse of lyfe.”

His Twitter credo is a bit of jolly idealism: “Ich love my followers by cause so manye of them seeme to be writeres or makeres of verse. Twyttere ys a space for creacioun and art.”

When I ask about John Gower, Chaucer's IRL nemesis, @LeVostreGC responds with dry disdain: “John Gowere hath a couple accountes. Oon yn Frensshe. Oon yn Latyn. Oon yn Englisshe. Thei are all terrible.”

The moments we share with historical figures on Twitter can be as trite as a roman candle exploding across a Facebook page, but there are richnesses, too—for literary social media types, and for the authors themselves. For every account born of Webby frivolity, there's another that began as an outlet for obsessive enthusiasms—or even political programs.

These projects can be reclamatory, in two broad and sometimes-overlapping categories: the biographical, and the political. “DorothyParker Quotes” (@_DorothyParker; 2,200 followers) dutifully reposts her namesake's quotable irreverencies but also takes care to re-establish Dorothy Parker as a flesh-and-blood human, whose reflexive wit was in part a mode of self-protection. Novelist Ellen Meister launched the Parker account after her first social media venture—a Parker Facebook hub—broke 100,000 followers. Reviewing the page's FAQ, the Paris Review dubbed it the “ne plus ultra of Facebook FAQs.”

Regardless of the platform, Meister is careful to emphasize Dorothy the woman and not just Dorothy the wit.

“Many people know Dorothy Parker for her razor tongue,” Meister says, “and aren't aware that she had a fragile heart as well as a durable passion for social justice. As a novelist and a keeper of her flame online, I feel a responsibility to let people know about these important layers.”

Even a post as simple as Parker's poem “Afternoon” (1928) suggests a less jagged version of the Algonquin maven than usually prevails, even as @_DorothyParker's followers re-broadcast the predictable barbs; recent hits have included "You can't teach an old dogma new tricks;" "Heterosexuality is not normal, it's just common;" “If you wear a short enough skirt, the party will come to you;” and, "Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words."

Mary, Queen of Scots (@TheQueenofScots; 10,800+ followers) is another reclamatory account, a juicily polemical feed that advances the traditional Marian agenda. A provocatrix who is always happy to debate systems of government with @Pres_Washington, @TheQueenofScots is the creation of a young Englishwoman now studying as a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame; she became an ardent defender of Mary around four years ago, at the age of 16, after she “stumbled on” Antonia Fraser's biography. Meanwhile, the telegenic resurgence of the Tudors in the popular imagination seemed a good time to enter Twitter on behalf of the Catholic queen.

“I felt the most extraordinary empathy for Mary,” @TheQueenofScots’ creator says. “Her life just leapt off of the page, and in an utter coincidence, I found an account role-playing as Anne Boleyn, whom I loathe—Anne herself, not the role-player—and I decided that through Queen Mary I could speak with other history nerds, vindicate Mary and play out my love for and interpretation of her to a wider audience. As a knee-jerk monarchist and a Catholic, I fully support Mary's succession to Elizabeth after Elizabeth's death, which is the same stance that Mary herself adopted before the trauma of her imprisonment led her to more extreme options.”

Besides fellow Catholic history nerds and scholars of the period, Queen Mary has attracted a fairly staggering audience among Scottish separatists, especially given the coming Independence Referendum in September. “Thanks to the astronomical rise of the Scottish National Party, anything against England or English policies usually garners massive support,” she says. “My Scottish Nationalist followers absolutely eat anything anti-English with a spoon. It's a strange mixture of wonderful and frightening to see history take shape in that way.”

“The historical role-playing community on Twitter is so beautiful,” the woman behind @TheQueenofScots continues. “We all have the same mindset and we finally have a place to share it.”

Meister echoes this sentiment.

“The most rewarding thing about the page is discovering how many smart, witty, literate people are out there,” she says. “It makes me feel like there's hope for the world. I think Dorothy Parker would like that, too.”

CASSANDRA AUSTEN IS A decidedly less political presence on Twitter (@AustenWomen). Cass is the genial brainchild of Audrey Bilger, professor of literature at Claremont-McKenna College, who created the account in 2010 after a brainstorming session with writer and photographer Lisa Jane Persky. (Persky also runs the delightful “Chickens in Literature” account and corresponding Tumblr.)

“Cassandra came to mind immediately because she was Jane Austen’s earliest fan and a source of inspiration for her sister,” Bilger says. “She was also, arguably, Jane’s first publicist.”

Bilger tends to speak about @AustenWomen in the third person, an approach with manifold charms.

“Her favorite feeds are @ChawtonHouse, @DailyJaneAusten, @JaneAustenLIVES, and @pemberleydotcom. As is fitting for someone who lived a relatively sheltered existence,” Bilger says, “[Cassandra] tweets only when the spirit moves her, and I don’t feel obliged to make her speak on a daily basis. Even though she’s not prolific, she is in such good company in the Austen Twittersphere that she collects followers on a regular basis. She’s not concerned with numbers. She knows that true influence arises from the quality, not quantity, of readers you attract.”

Cass' followers are a smallish bunch—just shy of 600—but deeply invested; dyed-in-the-wool Austenites know that Bilger is both a decorated scholar and a superfan, and they are inclined to pay her heed. This companionability, in the end, is the account's richest reward.

“Cassandra Austen’s first tweet included a quotation from one of Jane’s letters,” Bilger says: “'It is a pleasure to be among people who know one's connections & care about them.'”

CERTAIN BEHIND-THE-AVATAR searches end in Chaucerian mystery; others are less Sherlockian. Mark Sample, director of the digital studies program at Davidson College, is the primum mobile behind a number of popular author-bot accounts—many of them hilarious, all of them nearly completely automated. Sample's accounts fall into two broad categories: those that use word-substitution to mess with existing poetry in nonsensical or surrealist ways; and those Sample has programmed to mash-up two existing tweets into something either head-spinningly discordant or strangely sage.

“For bots based on a pre-defined template (say, an Imagist poem), all the bot does is substitute words, Mad Lib-style,” Sample tells me in an email.

For example, @blackboughbot is based on Pound's famous "In a Station of the Metro":

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

The bot finds a four-syllable noun to substitute for 'apparition,' a two-syllable plural noun to take the place of 'faces,' and so on. I use two different sources to find these words: Wordnik, a database of millions of words and definitions with an API that any developer can take advantage of; and RiTa, a codebase for natural language processing that includes a 40,000-word lexicon. The advantage of RiTa over Wordnik is RiTa can count syllables. So, anytime I need the bot to parse with the same prosody of the original (like @favthingsbot), I use RiTa.

Sample uses Wordnik “when I want to be sure I get really oddball words.”

The mash-up accounts are arguably Sample's masterpiece—Walt FML Whitman (@WhitmanFML, which just turned one year old) is especially heady. For these, instead of working with sentence templates, Sample uses a Javascript variant to combine already existing tweets. @mobyschtick, which mixes Melville lines with tweets from Rob Delaney, is one case in point:

The bot searches for a conjunction in the tweets and then pairs the two different tweets together at the conjunction, discarding what comes before the conjunction for one source tweet and discarding what comes after the conjunction for the other source tweet. This method generates fairly natural sounding sentences, at least in terms of syntax. The humor comes from the disruptive juxtapositions: A Whitman line about a Civil War battle paired with some teenager's tweet about breaking curfew. With @whitmanfml there's almost always this mashup of the somber/profound with the inane/narcissistic. @mobyschtick is generated using a similar process. You might have noticed that this particular bot is mostly inactive. That's because Rob Delaney's tweets often have no conjunction in them, which leads @mobyschtick to generate ungrammatical or fragmented tweets. Every once in a while I go back and try to play with the sentence-making algorithm, run it a few times, get frustrated, and then turn the bot back off.

Most of the time—“99.99%,” he claims—Sample doesn't futz with the auto-generated content. “Occasionally,” he acknowledges, “I have gone back and deleted a tweet that even the most generous reading of would find hateful or bigoted. I can't recall the exact details, but once one of my William Carlos Williams bots used such a combination of words that taken together the meaning was anti-Islamic. I deleted that tweet.”

FOR EVEN THE SAVVIEST lit personages, the formal strictures of Twitter make some things hard to pull off. Chris Dashiell runs an excellent Tristram Shandy account (@TShandyEsq), where he tweets the novel in full, by hand. (No automation or Javascript variants here!) When I ask him how one goes about reproducing the formal oddities of that book (which includes a wordless black page in its first volume), Dashiell responds simply: “There are some things in Shandy that may be impossible to translate into tweet form.”

At the same time, Tristram Shandy's famously choppy, aposiopetic sentence-style makes certain sense on Twitter, at least from a technical perspective; Shandy's creator Laurence Sterne was an enormous fan of the em-dash. Then there's actual “data input,” which is really just copy-and-pasting.

“The actual task of tweeting the text is easier than one might think,” Dashiell says, “because the book is online in the Gutenberg library. Sometimes I need to check against my copy of the book when I think the Gutenberg might have been transcribed incorrectly. I've been right a couple of times.”

For the user, it can also be hard to choose, as the Nietzschesespeciallycontinue to multiply. The most promiscuous literary presence on Twitter is, of course, Shakespeare, whose various accounts I will not number here. Few of these, though, match the simple satisfactions of following Willy Shakes (@IAM_SHAKESPEARE; 46,200+ followers), a bot that tweets all of Shakespeare, line by line. (Started in 2009, @IAM_SHAKESPEARE has recently lapped itself for the second time.) In a thoughtful post on Slate in October 2011, Dana Stevens identifies one of the primary pleasures of the Willy Shakes account:

At times, @IAM_SHAKESPEARE can be almost like a tarot deck or a Magic 8 ball, coming up with the image or word of advice you didn’t know you needed. Single-word “widows” at the end of a line of verse can make for wonderfully enigmatic Shakestweets like this one, which popped up one night as if to admonish me for staying up too late:


Such moments of naked abruptness requisition the formal simplicities of language, abstracting words and fragments from their context and even from the most basic concerns of logic. This abrupt and gnomic type of pronouncement is not unlike the @Horse_ebooks approach; really, the main difference between a @Horse_ebooks post and (say) an isolated tweet from @IAM_SHAKESPEARE is that the former has its inconcinnity, its weirdness, built in; in the latter case, the user who re-broadcasts a sequestered line of Shakespeare becomes complicit in the acontextual mischief.

It may or may not be coincidental that last year's most notorious mock-Twitter account takes its name and avatar from the creature whom Jonathan Swift, in Gulliver's Travels, cast as more reasonable than man—perhaps, indeed, too reasonable, too cold, its morals too much like algebra. In a recent New Yorker profile of Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender, @Horse_ebooks' founders and proprietors, Susan Orlean quotes a curator at the Whitney Museum: “[The account's] 'play with identity, and the fusion of the human and the machine' placed Bakkila and Bender firmly within the genre known as 'net art.'” This triumphalist label feels rather silly, but the uneasy negotiation between “the human and the machine” is at the heart of the humor and surprising warmth of literary Twitter presences. The Web afterlives of canonical writers are bound within these diametrics: In abstraction, automation, isolation, recapitulation, their words weave through servers and are culled by algorithms and finally re-emerge—like any classic however preserved—at once alien and familiar on the collective tongue.