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Student Researchers Spend Summer with an Icon of American Literature

By:    Published 11:28 am / June 29, 2010

“All men live enveloped in whale-lines.”

So exclaims Ishmael, the iconic narrator of Herman Melville’s treasured epic “Moby Dick.” The passage is part of a larger musing on existential determinism, one that relates in an ethereal way to four young scholars in the English Department devoted to researching Melville’s life and work.

They are Joshua Preminger, Eric Austin, Nate Spann and Scott Clark (left to right above), all interns on a project led by associate professor Steven Olsen-Smith. He is the primary researcher responsible for tracking the recovery of Melville’s dispersed personal collection of around 1,000 books and serves as general editor of Melville’s Marginalia Online, an archive of markings and annotations in the books that survive from Melville’s library.

The interns have been assisting Olsen-Smith in transitioning the project to a new digital format that will display high-resolution images of marked and annotated books with commentary on the significance of such “marginalia” related to development of the author’s intellect and craft. The most recent addition to the archive is Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” which Olsen-Smith was able to borrow from collector William Reese.

“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.”

But before parallels can be identified, they must be seen. Due to the age and condition of the book, some marginalia are badly faded while others have been erased or written over. Using the stacking, filtering and sharpening features of Adobe Photoshop, the interns are painstakingly unearthing the secrets of Melville’s scribbling.

“I view the process as literary archaeology,” said Preminger. “This is an opportunity to provide analysis on undiscovered material, like a new dig.”

“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 added.

Undiscovered material ranges from rough notes on imagery to extended observations on Dante’s art and reputation. While the research team’s primary objective is to find, restore and catalog such items, they also are allowing themselves a little careful interpretation.

“It’s a biographical study that provides insight into what Melville was thinking and his own creative processes and preoccupations,” said Austin, who is in the elite club of people who have read “Moby Dick” twice. “It’s astounding to see how much reading and analyzing he did, all of the astute observations he made. That’s a big part of what makes me passionate about this work.”

The work is done in a small room on the second floor of the Language Arts Building. It is plastered with Melville flotsam, from black and white portraits to this quotation from his adventure story “White-Jacket”:

The horn seemed the mark of a curse for some mysterious sin, conceived and committed before the spirit had entered the flesh. Yet that sin seemed something imposed, and not voluntarily sought; some sin growing out of the heartless necessities of the predestination of things; some sin under which the sinner sank in sinless woe.

“He was interested in the way impulsive, unplanned, unpremeditated acts could be seen as sins. He marked up an according section of Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ as he was exploring damnation and whether or not we have free will,” Austin said. “Seeing these words and marks actually written by Melville’s hand was really exhilarating.”

At Boise State’s Undergraduate Research and Scholarship Conference on April 12, the interns presented “‘Copious Floods of Eloquence’: Melville’s Reading of Dante,” a selection of photographs and prose commentary devoted to marginalia made in Melville’s copy of “Divine Comedy.” Out of about 250 projects, their poster exhibit was honored as the best based on a popular vote.

“While the hard sciences have more room to put forth groundbreaking discoveries, there are still a lot to be made in the liberal arts. The conference allowed us to provide an example of that,” Preminger said. “People will be writing about these discoveries in journals.”

In fact, the interns are contributing to a paper that will be submitted for publication in Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. While the readership represents a small population of dedicated academics, the thrill and fulfillment of the work is undiminished.

“It may seem like a narrow field, but Melville was a writer who really examined life — history, philosophy, religion, literature. To study Melville is in many ways to study the world,” said Preminger. “But you can’t really say what his work means. His meaning is kind of like the white whale. You can’t capture it, but you can chase it.”

To read more about Melville’s Marginalia Online, visit