“Bestowing a Veil on Truth”: Melville’s Reading of Homer

Document Type

Student Presentation

Presentation Date

April 2017

Faculty Sponsor

Steven Olsen-Smith


Melville acquired his set of George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey in the late 1850s, a few years after he had published his masterwork Moby-Dick. The set is heavily marked and annotated by Melville, and this marginalia provides insight on the development of his thought. But besides a single critical essay by R. W. B Lewis published in 1950, Melville’s marginalia to Homer has never received extensive analysis and criticism in the form of a focused study. According to Lewis, Melville essentially channeled the tragic world view of Moby-Dick into his reading of Homer. Our research is scrutinizing Lewis’s claims, acknowledging a darker component in what Melville chose to mark, but also addressing marked and annotated passages that do not necessarily reflect a tragic viewpoint. There are many of these in the set, and Lewis’s analysis generally disregards them. The result of our research will be a multi-faceted and nuanced understanding of how Melville responded to these two foundational epic poems. Along with identifying parallel elements between Melville’s marginalia to Homer and Moby-Dick, we also explore the ways Melville’s thought appears to have developed following the completion of his masterwork. In order to analyze the text and Melville’s marginalia, we are using quantitative analytical software that illustrates word frequencies and co-occurrences in text marked by Melville, as well as traditional close reading skills. Our exhibit will feature word clouds and frequency charts, in addition to high resolution images and commentary.

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