May 16, 2022

“Wilson Walker Cowen’s Pioneering Harvard Dissertation on Herman Melville’s Marginalia Has Now Been Digitized and Made Available to All Through HOLLIS”

From the Modern Books and Manuscripts Blog/Houghton Library, Harvard University:

Herman Melville (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Houghton Library’s incomparable Melville collection holds priceless literary manuscripts, important original letters, his and his father’s travel journals, Melville family documents and correspondence, nineteenth-century family photographs, and the sublime Eaton oil portrait (1870) of the author. Harvard also owns the largest number of books from HM’s library in public or private hands. Melville’s library is estimated to have contained 1,000 volumes at the time of his death.


As a graduate student in the university’s English Department in the early 1960s, Wilson Walker Cowen took advantage of Houghton’s rich holdings at the time, as well as those of other research libraries and private collections, to compile his massive eleven-volume PhD dissertation Melville’s Marginalia, submitted in 1965. His thesis covered all Melville’s then-known marginalia. Cowen presented, in typescript, passages from volumes that Melville had marked or annotated, and then he reproduced in quasi-facsimile Melville’s signatures/dates of acquisition, scores, underlinings, distinctive marks of emphasis, and comments accompanying those marked passages. Though dozens of annotated volumes from Melville’s library have been recovered since 1965, quite a few with extensive and important marginalia, Cowen’s work remains valuable to scholarship today because many volumes covered by his dissertation, at Houghton and elsewhere, have not yet been digitized and mounted online.


The website Melville’s Marginalia Online (which you really should visit) offers contextual information on Melville’s reading and marginalia, fully digitized copies of dozens of annotated titles from Melville’s library, along with a definitive catalog of books known to have been owned or borrowed by Melville and his family. The listings are faithfully kept current, incorporating recent booksellers’ or auction offerings or surprise discoveries/recoveries. Integration of the Cowen files into MMO’s search and analysis protocols will take some time.  For now—though not ideal—searching the PDFs through HOLLIS will provide scholars and enthusiasts access from anywhere and on any platform to Cowen’s presentation of Melville’s interactions, pencil(usually)-in-hand, with other writers’ works.

Learn More, Read the Complete Blog Post

Direct to Digitized Dissertation (Click “Online Access”)

About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.