Thankful for Beta Testing

With tryptophan receding, I am moved to give thanks to the technical staff at the University of Alabama Digital Humanities Center and to the members of the advisory board. As I write, a mostly functional version of the project database and user interface is being tested, and prospective static content for the final site peer-reviewed, all with an eye towards a public debut in spring 2018.

Although our original plans had called for an exclusively noSQL database, experience and the rapidly growing corpus of marginal marks and annotations have required us to modify our approach. The beta site employs a hybrid of a SQL and noSQL database, one that capitalizes upon the former’s speed in filtering and querying and the latter’s flexibility and ease of updating. Thus, a simple differentiation between verbal and nonverbal forms of marginalia is married to a Json field containing a readily expandable set of categories and subcategories that both allows for more precise identification of the myriad types of marginalia found in the Mill Library, and accommodates the discovery of new forms of marginalia as the data is collected. This hybrid approach should permit such additions without requiring updating the pre-existing dataset or large-scale data migrations.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, we would do well to recall what Mill himself advised, in his Introduction to the System of Logic (1843): “Until we know the particulars themselves, we cannot fix upon the most correct and compact mode of circumscribing them by a general description” (CW 7.3). Which is to say, time and beta testing will provide the evidence to test this refined technical approach. Enough now to appreciate those (including the indefatigable Tyler Grace) who have gotten us this far.

Albert D. Pionke, Project Director

Farming James Mill’s Marginalia in the Fields of David Ricardo

Tucked into the top row of the C shelves of the Mill Library is an unassuming collection of tracts—written in response to the Corn Bill (ultimately passed in 1815) and the early nineteenth-century agricultural depression that led to the Luddite disturbances— and bound together under the title Corn and Labour.  Those with the fortitude to forage past An Enquiry into the Causes of the High Price of Corn and Labour; Wages Must Rise; Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Difficulties and Internal Distresses of the Country, and its sequel, Hints, Addressed to the Serious Consideration of the Tradesman, the Agriculturalist, and the Stockholder; and Thoughts on the Causes and Consequences of the Present Depressed State of Agricultural Produce; will find a rich harvest of marks, annotations, and editorial corrections from James Mill sown throughout the margins of his friend, David Ricardo’s, Essay on the Influence of the Low Price of Corn on the Profits of Stock.

Obviously reading with an eye towards future republication, Mill has meticulously numbered each paragraph, not as they were originally written, but as he would like to see them recombined and broken.  Note, for instance, his imperative to wrap a sentence-length paragraph into the existing paragraph 42 below:

Sentence long paragraph written by Mill on David Ricardo's  Essay on the Influence of the Low Price of Corn on the Profits of Stock

Note also the annotation, which concludes by yoking “profits of stock” to “the cost of producing food.”  Food for the thought of capitalists in a period of agricultural protectionism.

Many of the annotations grow to considerably greater size than this, however, with those found on pp. 4 and 12 hinting at just how much grist there was for the elder Mill among the fertile fields of free trade promoted by Ricardo:

Mill's marginalia gets larger in scope

Mill would not, of course, have made many friends among the followers of General Ludd with his closing observation that prices of corn, and hence profits of stock, may only be raised “nominally” without lowering “the wages of labour.”

Whatever the hypothetical reception of his marginalia among agricultural laborers, it seems clear that Mill was most concerned to produce an effect upon Ricardo, whose argumentative plowshares he wanted to help sharpen into swords.  His helpfully critical editorial persona is perhaps easiest to see on p. 44:

Mill writes critical editorial marginalia on this page.

Here, Mill asks Ricardo to clarify his rejection of Thomas Malthus’s approval of Adam Smith’s statement about the relative value of improvements made in agriculture and manufacturing, writing simply “How can they be compared?”  On this same page he also suggests a new paragraph break at “Productive” and a subsequent paragraph wrap through “employed on the land?”; with these specific editorial changes proffered in order to emphasize the disagreement with Malthus in the first place, and to better define the terms of that break in the second.

Neither Ricardo’s subsequent pamphlet, Proposals for an Economical and Secure Currency, nor the remaining two tracts in the volume, receives much attention from Mill, who has apparently cast his immediate stock of editorial seed upon corn prices and stock profits.  The results achieved by Ricardo only two years later in Principles of Political Economy and Taxation suggest that Mill’s editorial labor was not performed entirely in vain, even if, up until now, it has remained hidden in the margins of this earlier and more occasional text.


– Albert Pionke

Crane Flies and Paper Dolls

I’m coming to the end of my second, three-month stint here in the Mill Library, and am now almost two-thirds of the way through the collection. My spreadsheet has more than doubled in size since my last blog post – it’s gone from around 12,000 entries to over 26,000 – as I’ve moved through philosophy, politics and economics to classics, religion and now literature. The sheer number of marks and the variety of books that they appear in continue to be surprising; we didn’t know what to expect in the classics section of the collection, for example, but there was extensive annotation in edited works of Aristotle, Plato, Ovid and Sallust, among others. These findings reinforced the impression of John Stuart Mill as a reader that we were starting to formulate from his annotations of earlier volumes. An edition of the works of Sallust from 1665, for example, is peppered with handwritten, pencilled definitions of Latin terms.

In his own autobiographical writings, Mill stated that he had read ‘all Sallust’ by the age of twelve. These markings may well have been for his own benefit, but they could also indicate the role that he played as teacher and tutor to his younger sisters. In 1819, he wrote in a letter to Samuel Bentham that his sister Wilhelmina had read some Sallust, and that another of his sisters, Clara could too, ‘after going through the grammar.’

We see not only Mill the tutor, but my favourite –sassy Mill, the editor and critic. He was a pernickety reader of Greek and Latin texts, frequently crossing through the printed text and offering his own interpretations and definitions of terms nearby in the margins. Inaccuracies, outlandish arguments and unsubstantiated claims transformed Mill the editor into Mill the critic. He could be extremely acerbic in his commentary on the works of others, even if – in the case of contemporaries like Thomas Carlyle or George Grote  –he enjoyed a personal relationship with them. We see Mill witheringly challenging the assertions made by Thomas Arnold and George Grote in their histories of the Roman Empire and Greece, respectively.

Yet, as Albert has pointed out in a previous post, there was often a stark difference between Mill’s private and public comments. For example, incredulous question marks and exclamation points noted in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s England and the English don’t tally with Mill’s description of the work as ‘the truest [book] ever written on the social condition of England’, and the author as ‘a writer of acknowledged merit’, in an open letter in the Monthly Repository (1834). These comments not only reveal Mill the critic, but Mill the friend and colleague. They suggest that there was a clear distinction in his mind between what could be expressed in the privacy of his library, and in the more public setting of a printed review.

This is a project with incredible scope for engaging scholars of earlier periods and other interests. What can a crane fly, mummified in the pages of one volume, tell us of the early modern paper-making process? What does a reader’s crude pen sketch of a figure tell us of early modern understanding of anatomy?

I’ve written here before about other traces of reading – interleaved notes, folded and uncut pages –but there is evidence to suggest that these volumes also served other functions for their readers. The most exciting – and mysterious – of my recent extra-textual finds are these three figures, tucked between the pages of Arnoldus Vinnius’ Institutionum Imperialium, a vast, heavy, seventeenth-century tome.

The first I found were these two, who seem to be bending over backwards (someone suggested they were proof of the existence of nineteenth-century yoga!). One of them looks like it was cut out of a printed volume, and the other is a hand-drawn pencil copy. Both are coloured with watercolour. A few pages later I found the female figure, also printed and neatly painted in watercolour. They give few clues about their origin, creator, or purpose; presumably they were placed in here to keep them flat, and then forgotten about. The style and printing form would suggest early nineteenth century, and the hand on the back also looks as if it dates from around this time. Could it be John Stuart Mill’s? Are these figures evidence of a relationship between Mill and Harriet Taylor’s daughter Helen in her early childhood? Helen was born after he and Harriet Taylor met, but as far as I am aware we know little of their early relationship.

At this stage, that is as far as I can go; a speculative leap that invites further research. The sheer number of volumes in the collection and marks found mean that I can’t really linger too long on any one volume, however intriguing or mysterious the findings might be. But this is really the point of the project, or at least my role in it: to find the marginalia, in order to eventually facilitate others to come up with the answers!

– Hazel Tubman, Research Assistant, Somerville College, Oxford

Mill Marginalia and Property Insurance

My work on the project began in August 2016 and spanned a few months and various tasks until the end of the semester in December. As I was a research assistant to Dr. Pionke, my job description was basically identical to Carissa’s, so I won’t repeat what she has already written about the job except to say that I spent a great deal of time typing in spreadsheets and attempting to decipher Mill’s handwriting.

Fast-forward a few months, and I have graduated from the University of Alabama, am no longer working on the project, and have managed to stumble into a temporary job in the property department of an insurance company.  At first glance, these jobs seem incredibly different. After all, what could the study of margin notes in the books of a nineteenth century writer and philosopher have in common with property insurance? Oddly, more than one would expect.

Admittedly, these similarities are mainly logistical in nature. For example, I still spend a great deal of time typing in spreadsheets. Now, instead of information about authors, editors, and publications, it’s policyholders, mortgagees, and personal articles floaters. Excel, however, is a staple program in many operations, and so its role in both academic and insurance spheres is rather unremarkable. The aspect of my insurance job that really caught my attention and drew these parallels in my mind is the amount of time I spend in my cubicle, squinting at haphazardly-scrawled New Business applications for homeowner’s insurance and attempting to decipher policy numbers, addresses, or endorsement descriptions. This task reminded me greatly of pressing my face up close to my computer screen in an attempt to decipher certain margin notes in Mill’s books that verged on indecipherable.

Clearly, insurance and John Stuart Mill differ more than they coincide, but what I find interesting about the overlap in method – however small – is how different avenues for written text yield distinct personae of the writer. For instance, Mill’s longer notes or the notes on full pages at the ends of chapters tend to be much neater than the notes he took while in the midst of reading. These hastily-scribbled notes seem to indicate that in many cases, Mill did not write his margin notes with the intention that they should be read by anyone other than himself. I tried to remind myself of this possibility as I sat hunched over specific margin notes and struggled to decipher letters from the squiggles. Of course, that was not always the case, but the untidy nature of the notes suggests a sort of candidness. Not only was Mill likely too preoccupied with his reading to worry about the neatness of his handwriting, but he also was not going to great lengths to present the critical persona he assumes in his published works.

The similarly-rushed handwriting of insurance applications seems to indicate something different. The obvious answer is that the purpose of these applications is to provide basic, accessible information that is required in order to extend insurance coverage. Yet, the underwriters and not the applicants themselves fill out the applications, and there are occasional instances where the underwriter makes a minor mistake in the address field, for instance. As the amount of insurance coverage and the premium are determined in part by the location of the property, this mistake is one that applicants would be unlikely to make themselves. What this avenue of written text seems to indicate then is an impersonal distance between the writer of the text and the party that is directly affected by it.

To conclude, this was my first experience participating in a research project, and though there were many aspects of the job that interested me, this multi-faceted nature of the written word and its ability to create different personae of the writer has been my main takeaway. I’ve found myself trying to apply these same ideas to the various forms of text I encounter from day to day – from marginalia to insurance applications to text messages to the narrators of the novels post-graduate life has finally allowed me to get around to reading.

— Lauren DavisResearch Assistant To Professor Albert Pionke at the University of Alabama

John Stuart Mill . . . Poet?

That John Stuart Mill valued the poetry of the British Romantics, preeminently that of William Wordsworth, is amply attested by his famous account of his own mental breakdown and recovery within his Autobiography (CW 1.148-63).  That Mill appreciated the early promise of a later skillful adapter of Romantic poetics, one who would ultimately succeed Wordsworth in his position as Poet Laureate, is evident from his 1835 review essay of “Tennyson’s Poems” (CW 1.395-418). That Mill himself imbibed and helped to articulate the poetic principles shared by Wordsworth and Tennyson becomes clear in his still-anthologized distinction between the “heard” and the “overheard” from “What Is Poetry?”—itself first published in January 1833 in the Monthly Examiner and later republished as the opening section of his longer “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties” in Dissertations and Discussions (1859) (CW 1.343-53).  That Mill, as an adult, ever attempted to put these principles into practice by writing his own poetry is nowhere in evidence in his published works (in his Autobiography, Mill does recount that “writing verses . . . was one of the most disagreeable” facets of his childhood education, retrospectively judging that the “verses I wrote were of course the merest rubbish, nor did I ever attain any facility of versification” [CW 1.17-19]).

Mill’s marginal annotations to Percy Shelley’s Posthumous Poems (1824), however, provides evidence that even the more mature Mill was not immune to the temptation of original poetic composition.  On p. 164, in the interlinear space between lines four and five of Shelley’s “Stanzas: Written in Dejection, Near Naples,” appears Mill’s characteristically cramped script:

Percy Shelley's Posthumous Poems annotated by Mill

It is difficult to discern whether Mill intended for his “The breath of the moist earth is light!” to replace, supplement, or merely reflect upon Shelley’s original “The purple moon’s transparent light.”  It is also impossible to reconstruct the spirit in which Mill wrote his own line.  With only six pages of Posthumous Poems containing any sort of marginalia, there is simply insufficient evidence within this particular book to speculate about intent.

What is obvious is that Mill has adopted Shelley’s iambic meter and appropriated Shelley’s end-rhyme, even as he has ignored the syntax of Shelley’s poetic sentence.  Also readily apparent is the relative amateurishness of Mill’s line, which is built entirely of monosyllables, one wasted on a preposition and another on a conjugation of “to be” that neglects to achieve the taut anaphora of Shelley’s opening line; and which includes an adjective, “moist,” that jarringly shifts attention from the play of light upon the landscape to the emission of water from it.  As an example of original composition, then, Mill’s handwritten line seems eminently forgettable.

As a tangible sign of Mill’s engagement with second-generation Romantic poetry, however, one that reveals Mill taking the time to appreciate the form of Shelley’s line by reproducing it, this annotation seems worth noting.  Moreover, although Mill’s annotation is impossible to date precisely, it is tempting to imagine the young John Stuart attempting to come to terms with what he would later term the “crisis in my mental history” by either reading or recalling his reading of Shelley’s “Stanzas,” and seeking from that experience the solace for his own dejection, not in nature directly, as occurs for Shelley’s poetic speaker, but in nature “overheard” thanks to Mary Shelley’s posthumous publication of the poem.

Albert D. Pionke, Project Director