UA Professor Finds John Stuart Mill in the Margins

From the June 2018 Desktop News | More than a century after John Stuart Mill’s personal library was donated to an Oxford college, a University of Alabama English professor and a team of international collaborators are allowing a broader audience access to the history literally hand-written by Mill into the margins of his books.

Dr. Albert Pionke
Dr. Albert Pionke

Mill, arguably the preeminent English-speaking philosopher of the 1800s, annotated extensively as he read, and, along with his father, utilitarian philosopher James Mill, may have inscribed as many as 50,000 examples of verbal and nonverbal marginalia in his personal collection, later donated by a relative to Somerville College, Oxford, in 1905.

Designated a special collection in 1969, the Mill Library has recently become the focus of increased scholarly attention. Dr. Albert Pionke, a UA professor of English and specialist in Victorian-era literature and culture, is digitizing Mill’s marks and annotations, creating an online web application and associated database, Mill Marginalia Online.

“Having access to Mill’s unvarnished reactions to his reading is as close as we will ever get to witnessing one of history’s foremost minds in the process of thinking,” Pionke said. “Being able to watch this groundbreaking philosopher, political theorist and critic at work has simply never been possible before, and should serve as a virtual gold mine for scholars of John Stuart Mill.”

At its launch in April, Mill Marginalia Online contained close to 10,000 marks from about 200 books. Pionke estimates as many as five times as many nonverbal marks and verbal annotations will eventually emerge from the entire 1,700-book collection.

Pionke’s partnership with Somerville College, which includes librarian and archivist Dr. Anne Manuel, represents the most wide-ranging examination yet of the Mill marginalia. The search has uncovered dozens of different kinds of marginalia including question marks, chevrons, arrows, seven types of scores – and even a single musical note.

By making the marginalia in Somerville’s John Stuart Mill Collection accessible and searchable anywhere in the world, Pionke hopes to use Mill’s own words and myriad nonverbal marks to return him to virtual life.

Mill lived through one of the most turbulent periods of British history, and his thoughts written in the margins are uncensored reactions to his time.

“Recovering his marginalia not only gives us unfiltered access to one of the 19th century’s foremost philosophical, political, and social thinkers, it also provides an unprecedented window on the larger cohort of writers, ideas and political events that shaped Victorian England itself,” he said.

Pionke’s initial research suggests that Mill’s written notes most often express his dissatisfaction, even with books of which he otherwise approves.

For instance, the collection contains a copy of the influential and oft-cited Democracy in America by French social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, who inscribed volumes three and four, published in 1840, “in friendship” to “John Mill.”

Despite trading amicable, intellectually engaged letters on the subject of democracy with the Frenchman as he prepared the second part of his treatise, and publishing an overwhelmingly positive review of the work in Britain, Mill withheld his empirical objection to de Tocqueville’s cultural comparisons between American and British culture.

At the end of chapter titled, “Some Reflections on American Manners,” Mill wonders, in a handwritten endnote, “How is it possible for one confessedly ignorant of England to say what is, and what is not, really American in their manners?”

He also took the opportunity to record his dismissal of his transcendentalist contemporary, American Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson’s Essays, published in 1841, helped launch him to international attention, but Mill’s thoughts of the work are summarized in his own rewrite of the title in his copy of the book, Sentimental Essays in the Art of Intimately blending Sense and Nonsense.

That discovery, first published by British historian Frank Prochaska in 2013, led Somerville librarians to put out a call for a scholar to sift and archive more of the Mill collection. Pionke responded, and the partnership formed.

UA funded Pionke’s work and hosts Mill Marginalia Online itself. Somerville, through private donors and external bodies like the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation and Britain’s National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, is identifying and cataloging the extent of marginalia in the collection along with conserving the physical books.

UA undergraduate students helped Pionke archive the photos and transcribe their contents. At UA Libraries, Dr. Emma Wilson has overseen the work of technical specialist Tyler Grace in writing the database and user interface code. Mary Alexander, a metadata librarian, also worked with Pionke and Wilson to develop the project’s unique method for recording information. All of this technical architecture will be freely available for use in future digital humanities projects.

Scholars of Emerson, de Tocqueville and other writers whose books Mill annotated while reading could all benefit from access to Mill Marginalia Online. However, according to Pionke, the benefits of digitizing Mill’s marginalia extend beyond such single-author research. Broader inquiries into Victorian social and intellectual history, the evolution of reading practices, book history and international publication methods as well as other fields will all find material they can use in the margins of Mill’s private library.

“We have no idea what the research questions of the future might be,” Pionke said. “All that we do know is that future scholars will want all of the information we can give them.”