McGann spins a Web to look at books.
Photo by Stephanie Gross.
First there was the Rockefeller Foundation’s $25,000 award for innovative use of technology in the humanities. Then the Modern Language Association honored his “Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web” as the most distinguished work by one of its members. Finally, the Mellon Foundation chose him for a distinguished achievement award with a prize of up to $1.5 million for programs he’s associated with.
After the last one, which carries a “genius award” label, his daughter started calling him “Mr. Smarty-Pants.”
McGann is modest about this acclaim but enthusiastic about the results. The Mellon award, he said, “is this gigantic credit line to do work that I want to do.” The money will be used to support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and to hire faculty to continue McGann’s inventive uses of the Web to enrich our understanding of literature.
His online work includes an archive of the work of Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Ivanhoe Game, an exercise developed with media studies colleague Johanna Drucker for collaborative interpretation of texts.
How did a literary scholar like McGann, now John Stewart Bryan University Professor of English, get so immersed in Web sites, databases and computer searches?
He left Johns Hopkins in 1981 to develop an undergraduate social sciences and humanities program at the California Institute of Technology. “When I was there I was introduced to computers — not word processors but Unix and mainframe and so forth. I was stunned,” he said. “I decided that if I ever had the resources to pursue something like the Rossetti Archive I was going to do it.”
He arrived at the University of Virginia in 1987, and in 1992, “out of the blue,” IBM offered $1 million worth of equipment to the computer science department. “They told them that they had all the computers they needed, thank you, but they knew some people in the benighted field of the humanities who had some interest,” McGann recalled. With the help of Alan Batson, Bill Wulf and Kendon Stubbs, McGann and Ed Ayers, who is now dean of Arts & Sciences, started the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH).
McGann believes it has become one of the most distinguished humanities computing centers in the world. “I can’t think of any other place that produces more interesting work.”
Creating the Rossetti Archive was “a tremendously enlightening and intellectually life-changing experience,” he said. Now housing some 12,000 files, the archive will eventually organize more than twice that number in a vast network of hyperlinks.
Rossetti puts McGann’s project to a serious test. Rossetti’s work was remarkably varied and interconnected. He was a painter, a writer and a major figure in the Arts and Crafts movement who designed jewelry, clothing, furniture, wallpaper and stained glass. He made pictures to illustrate his poems and wrote poems to accompany his pictures. And he was an obsessive reviser of his writing, from words to phrases and passages to finished poems.
“My work has always been in the field of the history of the book and the history and theory of texts.,” McGann said. “I’ve spent 30 or almost 40 years studying texts and books and actually believing — in my folly — that I knew something about those subjects.”
The power of computers overturned many of his beliefs. “They magnify our ability to see ourselves in the context of this amazingly human environment we all live in,” said McGann.
“It seems to me that the dead are not dead, as perhaps most people would agree. Books are one useful way for keeping the past, the dead, present to us.”