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Digitizing Critical Responses to Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno”

Julia Bannon, Kelly Hammond, Patrick Grady O’Malley, Travis Bartley and I joined forces to create an annotated edition of “Benito Cereno” by Herman Melville with the purpose of examining critical responses to this novella from 1855 when it was first published to 2018 and seeing how digital tools inform and transform the annotative process.

First and foremost, annotating digitally made it possible to work collaboratively, showing not only how fluidly technology allows us to add to a text from many angles (and potentially from many fields) but also how easily shared enthusiasm generates compelling scholarship. We had a Google Doc and then Kelly started an email chain which felt effortless and flowed. Part of the reason why the collaboration worked so well was that we had chosen to work with Manifold, a new CUNY and University of Minnesota Project, for us an absolute delight. We had first considered Hypothes.is and then Medium, and would surely been happy working in either, but Manifold immediately outshone both.

Our choice to examine critical responses to “Benito Cereno” over time was interesting because it led us to approach the text from multidisciplinary angles. The historical perspective we sought engaged us in a form of distant reading in which we explored how critical thought chronicles political shifts and how these are reflected in responses to a text at given points in time.

“Thus science may implement the ways in which [a human] produces, stores, and consults the record of the race” (Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic, 1945).

Annotation as a tool for historical analysis could, with enough collaborators and time, get huge. The scope of our inquiry seemed to me to beg some qualitative analysis, and I wanted to download all the critical responses to “Benito Cereno” that we added to our annotated digital edition and then upload them to Voyant as a corpus that would quantitatively track how responses changed over time, then add the resulting word cloud and charts to Manifold to see what stands out. Unfortunately, I had to put this foray on hold because I spent an inordinate amount of time looking for 19thcentury responses to “Benito Cereno” which I can confidently conclude are few and far between.

Looking for 19th-century critical responses to “Benito Cereno” without physically going to a research library is a fascinating task because it shows how important the work of creating good searchable digital collections is, and how the choice of what to recover and include in these collections informs scholarship that is increasingly digital, with funding that is always scarce. Searching for something that is not readily there also shows a niche Melville scholars could fill: a searchable database of all of Melville’s correspondence would be amazing. A searchable database of Putnam’s magazine including letters to its editors would also be amazing. These may, of course, exist, and if they do, please share. For my part I found some awesome resources:

Melville Electronic Library (MEL)

Cornell University Making of America Project

Melville’s Marginalia

I also want to mention NINES (Nineteenth-Century Scholarship Online) which looks interesting but you have to be a subscriber if you want to explore. Also, the login is insecure.

With the abundance of online material that can be added to “Benito Cereno,” it was at times a challenge for me to stay on track. But this is true in any research. As I worked on our annotated edition of “Benito Cereno” I had to keep stopping myself from adding resources that contextualized the story and instead tell myself to keep focused on critical response. I did upload a video of an Ashanti funeral, mainly because I wanted to see what an uploaded video looked like in Manifold. It looked great.

To say a few more words about Manifold, I love the fluidity and intuitiveness of its back end. I love what Manifold says when you delete a resource: “The resource has been destroyed. [Resource] has passed into the endless night.” Ha, too nice. Long live the spirit of play!  And the spirit of multilingualism; I found that Manifold detects French, which is really cool. Matt Gold told me that it detects many other languages too.

In terms of limitations in my use of Manifold, I would have liked to be able to format the annotations so as to paragraph, italicize, bolden and so on. I would have liked to be able to hyperlink to other Manifold resources and external websites in my captions for and descriptions of the resources and links I create in Manifold. For the purposes of our annotation of Benito Cereno, which looks at critical responses to Benito Cereno over time, I would have liked to color code annotations according to time periods (for example, 1855-1889, and then a color for 1890-1909, 1910-1929 and so on). I think, however, that I should be able to do a lot of these things and just don’t yet know how. I had a look at The Perversity of Things project and saw that things I wanted to do in Manifold, like embedding images in the text rather than adding them as resources whose icons would show up in the margin, or hyperlinking. Hyperlinking! I didn’t know how to hyperlink in Manifold and that really bugged me.

Our assignment was submitted yesterday, and instead of feeling that I never want to think of Benito Cereno, Melville or Manifold again, I’m back in Manifold playing with the text. That’s how good Manifold is. And Melville too.

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