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Scholars Study Herman Melville’s Copy of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’

By:    Published 1:02 pm / March 31, 2010

American writer Herman Melville is celebrated for his enduring works, from the epic novel “Moby-Dick” to the novella “Billy Budd.” But a small community of scholars is dedicated to searching his collection of books by other notable authors for “marginalia,” scribbles in the margins that reveal something about Melville the reader and the “profound influence of his reading on the growth of his intellect and on the composition of his own fiction and poetry.”

Associate professor of English Steven Olsen-Smith is a leader in that scholarly community. He is the primary researcher responsible for tracking the recovery of Melville’s dispersed personal library of around 1,000 books and serves as general editor of Melville’s Marginalia Online, a long-term project devoted to the editing and publication of markings and annotations in the books that survive from Melville’s library.

Olsen-Smith recently borrowed Melville’s copy of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” from collector William Reese as part of the Marginalia project’s pending transition to a new digital format that will display photographic images of marked and annotated books with commentary on their significance to Melville’s writings. The book will be on campus through March 31, and Olsen-Smith’s student interns currently are working to catalog notations and recover erasures.

“Scholars have consulted the copy before, but our extended work with the book here at Boise State has allowed us to recognize dimensions of evidence that those researchers missed,” Olsen-Smith said. “The book’s presence on campus represents a huge step forward for the Marginalia project since it launched in 2006, and I am especially pleased to have been able to make it the subject of student research.”

At Boise State’s upcoming Undergraduate Research and Scholarship Conference April 12, Olsen-Smith’s interns Eric Austin, Scott Clark, Joshua Preminger and Nate Spann will present “‘Copious Floods of Eloquence’: Melville’s Reading of Dante,” a selection of photographs devoted to marginalia made in the Hell, Purgatory and Paradise sections of Melville’s copy of “Divine Comedy.”

“Melville marked subject matter dealing with issues of free will and fate, original sin and divine justice, and aspects of subject matter and rhetoric that relate to the book’s epic character,” Olsen-Smith said. “It is clear Melville read and marked the book at different points throughout his life, and the interns are identifying parallels between the marginalia to Dante and subject matter in his writings.”

As for the erasures, they have never been addressed by scholars or mentioned in publications about Melville’s copy of Dante. Recovering the first has involved making out two stages of inscription and three stages of erasure, what Olsen-Smith calls “a significant forensic challenge.” The second erasure may actually be a case of fading, but it has been almost as difficult to decipher. The content ranges from the transmission of literary influence to slavery as America’s national “vexation,” insights into Melville’s mind and the time in which he lived.

These details will become key parts of the Marginalia project’s new digital form, which has been made possible by cooperation with several individuals and institutions. Olsen-Smith and his interns received technical guidance from photography specialist Shawna Hanel of the Boise State Art Department. Harvard University and the Berkshire Athenaeum provided the project complete page-by-page scans of Melville’s copies of works by Shakespeare, Spenser and Emerson and his marked and annotated copy of the Bible, among other books. Woodstock Seminary of Georgetown University loaned Melville’s copy of Wordsworth’s poetical works, and Villanova University has been scanning the Berkshire and Woodstock holdings for the project.

Reese, who owns the largest private collection of books from Melville’s library, has agreed to lend them to Boise State for digital capture, starting with Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”

To read more about the Marginalia project, visit

Click here for the photo of the week.