SJU Professor Reconstructing Melville's Puzzle

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

It's not often that English professors get to play detective, but to piece together an accurate picture of American novelist Herman Melville (1819-1891), scholars have had to do just that. Peter Norberg, Ph.D., associate professor of English, recently won a $35,795 National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship that will allow him to continue his research into the work and life of Melville, and publish his findings in the electronic archive Melville's Marginalia Online.

Melville was an avid reader, and as he perused books, he would underline passages, check-mark key points and make notes in the margins, sometimes even composing passages he later included in his own fiction and poetry. Scholars estimate that Melville's private library grew to over 1,000 personally annotated volumes. After his death, friends and family inherited a small portion of the publications, while most went to local bookstores and libraries. So far, 285 of Melville's books have been recovered, leaving over 700 unaccounted for.

"Few manuscript pages exist for Melville's major works. Biographers suspect he destroyed most of his personal papers at one stage in his career; so to find evidence of his composition process, you have to go to the books he was reading at the time," said Norberg. For example, scholars don't have Melville's original Moby Dick manuscript, but have located Thomas Beale's 1839 book, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, in which Melville wrote extensive notes. After a careful study of his annotations in this volume, Norberg's colleague Steven Olsen-Smith uncovered evidence that Melville originally planned an alternate ending for his famed Moby Dick.

To allow students and researchers the opportunity to make similar discoveries, Norberg joined Olsen-Smith as general associate editor of Melville's Marginalia Online in 2006. Olsen-Smith, associate professor of English at Boise State University, originated the project and serves as general editor. The two have collaborated with five other contributing scholars to make Melville's marginalia available to the public in a fully annotated critical edition accessible online at

Norberg also noted that, with the help of Evelyn Minick, director of the Francis A. Drexel Library, and Michael Foight, special collections and digital library coordinator at Villanova's Falvey Memorial Library, he has arranged for the use of Villanova's high-quality digital scanner to scan copies of the same editions owned by Melville. "The text of these books will serve as the basis for future critical editions produced for our archive," Norberg explained. With funding from the NEH fellowship and a new partnership with Villanova University, Norberg will have the time and technology to expand the archive.

"The fellowship offers us a remarkable opportunity to further our understanding of the intellectual context in which Melville wrote his major works," Norberg added. Already on sabbatical this semester, Norberg will use his fellowship to extend his sabbatical until January 2009, when he will return to teaching full-time.

--Sarah Whelehon '07 (M.A.)

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