A Second Pandemic Publication

In April 2020, the second of three new publications on Mill’s marginalia appeared in ILCEA4, the Revue de l’Institut des langues et cultures d’Europe, Amérique, Afrique, Asie et Australie, which put out a special issue on international Digital Humanities research (https://journals.openedition.org/ilcea/8568).  My contribution, “Handwritten Marginalia and Digital Search: The Development and Early Research Results of Mill Marginalia Online,” sought to introduce the journal’s international audience to Somerville’s John Stuart Mill Collection, the ongoing collaborative effort to digitize its marginalia, and Mill’s specific marginalia in Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la Démocratie en Amérique (1835-40) and Auguste Comte’s collected works, including Cours de Philosophie Positive (1830-42) and Système de Politique Positive (1851-54). 

The scope of this article thus allowed me to acknowledge the important previous work undertaken to assemble Charles Darwin’s Library and Melville’s Marginalia Online, both of which were models for Mill Marginalia Online.  I was also able to recognize two of the granting bodies supporting our digitization efforts, the NEH and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, to talk about the exciting early discoveries made in Mill’s library, and to attempt a technical description of the project suitable for non-technical readers.

The specific marginalia in Tocqueville and Comte’s works was selected for its importance in nineteenth-century intellectual history and to appeal to the journal’s many French readers.  Mill also annotated very differently in response to Tocqueville and Comte.  The former prompted a relatively small number of significant verbal comments, often skeptical, in response to his then-friend’s analysis of America’s great social and political experiment in representational democracy and over-determining expressions of public opinion.  These are in contrast to his published encomiums concerning Democracy in America.  Mill’s much greater number of marks in Comte’s works are, as detailed in my previous post, much briefer and appear undertaken to support his very public critique of Comte’s intellectual legacy.

Mill arguably did more than anyone else to introduce his countrymen to the ideas of both Tocqueville and Comte.  His reviews of 1835 and 1840 elevated Tocqueville’s concerns about “the tyranny of the majority” and the tension between liberty and equality to the forefront of subsequent debates over the character of England’s emerging democracy.  And, as he himself recognized in his Autobiography and as subsequent historians of sociology have endorsed, Mill “contributed more than any one else to make [Comte’s] speculations known in England” (CW I.271).  However, as the marginalia in his personal copies of both men’s work attests, Mill initiated this intellectual leavening of British intellectual history with radically different methods of reading and annotation.

—Albert Pionke, Project Director

Progress in/and a Pandemic

There is nothing quite like personnel changes followed immediately by a global pandemic to upend one’s original plans for project updates, whether of the technical or narrative variety. However, with a new upload of data drawing ever closer, I am pleased to welcome Riley Hines and Patrick Motley to Mill Marginalia Online. Riley replaces the intrepid and invaluable Kaitlin Wright, who has graduated from UA, as the project’s newest research assistant. She has been eyeballs deep in Mill’s Classics collection since August 2020, deciphering marginalia in English, Latin, and Greek, while also discovering a new form of underlining, which we hope to feature in a future upload and metadata upgrade. Patrick replaces James as the Alabama Digital Humanities Center’s IT Technical Specialist; although, James has generously remained only a consult away as Patrick settles into his new role.

Unfortunately, travel restrictions brought on by the pandemic have prevented me from planned visits to the friendly confines of Somerville College and the John Stuart Mill Collection for the collection of fresh photographic data. Not altogether idle, however, I have produced a number of articles about Mill and his marginalia that are beginning to make their way into print.

Appearing first, at the beginning of 2020, was “Mill, Comte, and the Literature of Sociological Critique,” the first chapter of The Socio-Literary Imaginary in 19th and 20th Century Britain: Victorian and Edwardian Inflections (Routledge). This essay seeks to place the 917 marks and annotations found on 685 pages of Mill’s copies of nine different titles by French positivist and inventor of the term “sociology,” Auguste Comte, in the context of both their decades’ long relationship and Mill’s statements about the complementary functions of Art and Science in his System of Logic (1843). In a nutshell, although Mill was initially impressed by Comte’s scientific achievements—in fact, the first edition of the System of Logic was primarily responsible for introducing those achievements to the English-speaking world—he became progressively more suspicious about Comte’s social prescriptions and more impatient over the Frenchman’s bizarre obsessions, with the number thirteen for example, finally offering a devastating critique of both on the basis of both Science and Art in Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865).

The marginalia scattered unevenly throughout Comte’s works, over 95% of which are nonverbal marks, record Mill’s research for this later published work. They also suggest, indirectly, that the only very lightly marked and annotated copy of Comte’s Cours de Philosophie Positive (1830-42) may not be the original edition that Mill recorded reading with great assiduity in his letters from 1837, 1838, and 1841. Perhaps the London Library holds this unrecognized treasure of marginal proportions!

Subsequent posts shall feature additional recent publications.

—Albert Pionke, Project Director

New Collaborators and Fresh Data

I write to welcome Anne McDivitt and James Michelich to Mill Marginalia Online.  Anne is the new Director of the University of Alabama Digital Humanities Center and James is the Center’s new IT Technical Specialist.  Both rushed to learn the technical details requisite to upload the latest tranche of data, collected during my March 2018 trip to Somerville and transcribed with the indefatigably keen eye and nimble fingers of Kaitlin Wright.  Many thanks to the three of them for their prodigious labors.


The results of all their efforts are now available for searching: slightly more than 3600 new examples of marginalia, including the now-complete transcription of Mill’s books on law; the Mill family bible, a rare edition made unique by hundreds of handwritten additions; the published works of James Mill; and a large number of books, many in multiple editions, by John Stuart Mill, some with evidence of his editorial hand.  Of the last grouping, the meticulous corrections made by Mill in the French edition of his On Liberty, translated by Dupont-White, indicates his great desire to be correctly understood by those in his second home.


Collectively, this new data represents a substantial addition to Mill Marginalia Online, which has now digitized nearly 25% of all marginalia in Mill’s library.  Corrections, refinements, and technical updates are also ongoing, so please check back now and again to see what’s new.


—Albert Pionke, Project Director

March by the Numbers

I just concluded a highly productive visit to the always hospitable Somerville College (special thanks to Anne, Sue, Matthew, Kate, Jane, and Beth), with the following quantitative results:

1 Tea with John Stuart Mill, at which there were . . .

4 presenters: Andrew Dalkin, speaking on Mill’s often downplayed commitment to his day job at the British East India Company; Bethany Slater, reporting on the state of the marginalia census, 42,000 items and counting, as well some surprisingly well-preserved botanical specimens stored within books that otherwise received very little attention from Mill; David Howell, showing early analyses of the over one terabyte of hyperspectral imaging data amassed so far; and myself, surveying the multitude of media recently featuring John Stuart Mill, as well as enumerating updates already made to and planned for Mill Marginalia Online – the latter one day to include the future processing of . . .

9819 photos, of pages from . . .

220 volumes, which together accounted for . . .

105 separate book titles, and featured between . . .

7216 and 7321 individual examples of marginalia (the precise number will depend on the final transcriptions).

Qualitatively, there were also myriad exciting finds.  In addition to those featured in my previous posting (A Fortnight in Oxford), I offer, first, what may be the most eloquent nonverbal mark discovered so far, in Thomas Arnold’s three-volume History of Rome:


James Mill had been gone for over seven years by the time volume three of Arnold’s History was published, but even so it seems his “natural love” had not been forgotten.

Second, the 1844 English translation of German historian B. G. Niebuhr’s own History of Rome yielded a rare, because precisely dated, annotation on page 130 of volume 1:


This comparative observation on the progress of civilization in Sicily provides both an example of Mill’s hand from 1855, and an unusually specific record of what he was reading in his 49 year.

–Albert Pionke, Project Director

A Fortnight in Oxford

My most recent data-gathering trip to Oxford has seen Burgersdijk’s Institutionum Logicorum dethroned as the single volume with the greatest number of individual examples of marginalia. Appropriately, the neo-Aristotelian has been supplanted by Aristotle himself, specifically a 1621 Frankfurt edition of Aristotelis de Anima Libri Tres, Graece et Latine, with slightly more than 1800 total marks and annotations. These include some at-this-point inscrutable date and number combinations, like this one from p. 7:

Whether September 29th was the date Mill read this work while studying with his father, or whether its significance lies elsewhere is difficult to determine. Even more unclear is the significance of the number that follows, which cannot correspond to one of the only slightly more than 400 pages in the volume. Moreover, there are no marks or annotations on p. 705 of any other edition of Aristotle’s work held in Somerville’s Mill Library. And every one of the date and number pairings in the bilingual Aristotelis de Anima Libri Tres adheres to this format and includes a similarly large number.

Also discovered on this trip is what promises to be the volume with the largest proportion of verbal annotations to nonverbal marks, George Grote’s twelve-volume History of Greece. Mill reviewed Grote’s History in 1846 and 1853, but he appears to have read the volume with the additional purpose of helping Grote to revise for a second edition. Hundreds of pages include meticulous commentary, including corrections to Grote’s Greek quotations, detailed observations on Greek topography, suggestions for clarifying Grote’s prose through the elimination of overly-vague words and phrases, and, of course, close engagement with Grote’s historical narrative and ideological implications. My rough estimate, based upon the five volumes I have already photographed, is that annotations outnumber marks roughly four to one; and each volume features well over one hundred annotations, many quite lengthy. The following close up on the outer margin of p. 417 of volume 3 provides a glimpse of the care with which Mill approached his reading:

Anyone who has written even a single volume would be grateful for this level of close attention, and Mill keeps up the pace for twelve volumes!  This despite Grote’s rather embarrassing slip in the handwritten dedications to volumes three and four (that from the title page of volume four is below):

Note the spelling of Mill’s middle name. Hardly a strategy for endearing oneself to a reviewer, even when accompanied by “faithful regard and friendship,” but Mill seems not to have let it bother him. He didn’t even note the mistake in an annotation.

–Albert Pionke, Project Director