What Lord Byron's Penis Tells Us About the Digital Humanities

The technophobes are missing a central point: It's about community.
By Ted Scheinman,
Byron's Cave in Portovenere, Italy, named in Lord Byron's honor. (Photo: Andrea/Wikimedia Commons)

In the academy, notions of “digital humanities” have come to mimic civilian confusion over the term “hipster.” Wittingly or no, we all take part in the trend; nobody can really define it; fatigue and distrust become reflexive responses—the word “digital” still falls with derision from tenured lips. Both digital humanities and hipsterism hint at cultural revolution even as they seem to portend the end of “culture” in any meaningful sense.

What are the digital humanities? Why do we fear them so? And why do professors utter such phrases as “data-mining” in tones they otherwise reserve for hydraulic fracturing? High time, I think, that we clarify terms here, separate the real crises from the cosmetic ones, and, above all, banish a reflexive fear of algorithms. These smaller quarrels occlude a proper sense of the benefits of digital tools; too many academics still construe the digital humanities as something chilly, inhuman, bereft of fellow-feeling. In fact, our new toys are doing work that is humanistic in the best sense: enabling, or in some cases creating, concentric communities of scholars and civilians with benefits to all involved.

“Even in ruin,” Byron reminds us, a collective tongue “bids the language live.”

“Digital humanities” became, in 2012, what “Web 2.0” was in 2007—a highly evangelized, ill-defined bit of start-up jargon that smacked of entrepreneurial boosterism (think Silicon Valley in 1997). Canadian novelist and columnist-provocateur Stephen Marche published a broadside against digital humanities; Holger Syme, professor of Elizabethan drama at the University of Toronto, appeared for the defense. (Syme has a pleasing facility at deflating blowhards of the Canadian intelligentsia—witness his response to David Gilmour's doltish policy about women novelists.) All the while, nobody seemed interested in acknowledging that we'd been wearing tightish slacks and flat-brimmed caps for some time now—that advanced, formal training in the humanities had become digital the moment we stopped using typewriters.

We can appreciate the upsides by looking in the traditional places—Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), sundry manuscript and engraving archives, etc.—but also in the digital afterlives of the authors themselves, including George Gordon, Lord Byron—a man whose mythical penis remains a sturdy argument for the capacity of computerized humanities to promote fruitful dialogue between scholars and civilians within highly networked 21st-century literary communities.

In 2008, Ghislaine McDayter published Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture, a volume that helps explain the sporadic Byro-saturation of listservs, including that of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR), while providing said listservs with some of their more exciting material. One such instance is McDayter's account of the 1938 exhumation of Byron's body in the Nottinghamshire town of Hucknall Torkard:

Rumors had been rife for nearly a century that the poet's body had been stolen, molested, or had mysteriously disappeared.... One foot was severed and lying apart from the body. The churchwarden, A.E. Houldsworth, who attended the event, however, is less interested in this mangled limb than in the monstrous appearance of another: Byron's penis. There was, we are told, a “quite abnormal development” of Byron's sexual member, even in the body's embalmed state. Apparently it was not enough to know that the poet's body was indeed still “there”; something else had to be seen to be believed.

McDayter's euphemisms end, quite tastefully, here. Elsewhere, they prompt a somewhat less reserved manner of speculation.

NASSR has run its listserv since the late-'90s, a highly trafficked email group now hosted by the capacious servers at West Virginia University. Here, professional academics can collaborate (or butt horns) with weekend warriors—lit-obsessives from around the globe whose readings are rarely so neatly circumscribed by entrenched patterns of theory, “publish-or-perish” creeds, or the academy's occasional prudishness. (The Republic of Pemberley, which caters less to the tenure-track set, has offered a related forum for devotees of Jane Austen since 1996.) Alongside reinterpretations of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage or A Vindication of the Rights of Women, there is a thoroughgoing strain of lettered enthusiasm running throughout. Questions of sodomy and incest, primarily as they relate to the extended Byron clan, are in regular circulation.

“Really it has always been a remarkably inviting place,” one Romanticist, a Michigander whose research focuses on occultists of the period and their debt to 17th-century alchemists, says of the NASSR listserv. “Mentors can tell you to 'network' at conferences until they are out of breath; NASSR not only allows you to reach multiple continents with a simple click—it also allows academics to partake in a sort of fan culture that, well, we're not always encouraged to do.”

“Granted,” the Michigander shrugs, “a first-year Ph.D. student will sometimes chime in with a ridiculous question, like 'When did Wordsworth go to France?' But usually the posts are far more provocative, and a major virtue of the list is that even the most foolish questions receive polite responses. Often someone will ask a fairly obscure question, or express genuine puzzlement about a very specific passage, and like three-point-eight minutes later some revered Romanticist, who had been waiting for such a question all her life, responds.”

One newly minted Ph.D., who studies Mary Shelley and transatlantic travel narratives and has long been an active member of the NASSR listserv, considers these online fora “important” but she is saddened “when open-access lists are monopolized, for brief periods, by people who don't employ critical thinking and don't tolerate it from others.”

The NASSR list hosts a number of colorful, recurring assertions, including the suggestion that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later M.W. Shelley) murdered Shelley's first wife, Harriet. Meanwhile, a habitual conspiracy theorist appears every few months to challenge the notion that Byron fathered his sister's daughter, Medora Lee: “My seemingly eternal question is: Where can one find the source of the information about the birth dates of Augusta Byron Leigh's children?”

When a fellow NASSR-ite named “Dr. X” responded with deprecation, the conspiracy theorist offered this mild rejoinder: “I am a member of the Byron society, belong to a (quiet) list dedicated to discussing Byron, and have publicly and often stated my disbelief of the allegation that Augusta Leigh committed incest, or was in any way unfaithful to her husband. Frances, Lady Shelley describes Augusta as a religious woman. Her half sisters on the other side describe Augusta as shy and good.”

I asked the Shelley scholar what she makes of this arrangement—what can amateur überfans and trained academics learn from one another, or share in some lasting way?

“I concede to being obsessed with 'my' writers,” the professor says, “especially Mary Shelley—and a much more obscure mid-century Scotsman—but I've been trained to suppress the obsession, and sometimes I succeed in doing so. It's wonderful that some readers can concede it. I mean, we're paid so badly, isn't getting to pursue the obsession during 9-5 hours almost the only perk?”

Another professor puts it more bluntly: “With a host of scholars at the ready, it's a way to feel less alone.”

In academe, it is very easy to feel alone, and in some ways the world of Byron is an oasis—like Austen, he is a magnetic figure, unifying and polarizing in turn, but always creating sodalities in his wake. Early Byron fan-communities were networked in their own way, and included non-Brits (especially in Greece) who had bought into the Byron myth simply by meeting the man—a testament to the poet's charisma. Today we have at least threedifferentways to follow Byron on Twitter and can access facsimiles of certain crucial manuscripts via the Morgan Library. Indeed, each day more and more manuscripts appear on library and university websites, a massive boon for both scholars without one of those blank-check fellowships and civilians curious to see a poet's hand, and to compare it with unattributed parchment passed down in a commonplace book.

Beyond Byron, whole realms of databases and scholarly communities are making dissertations better, even as they make grad school less lonely. Peter Beal's Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700 is appearing in fits and starts, while the Orlando Project at the University of Alberta brings to light hitherto un(der)-read work by women writers whose importance the pre-digital humanities have overlooked. The British Library seems to unveil a new flight of high-resolution images each day, while stateside enterprises, including the William Blake Archive and the Beinecke's Boswell project, add significant collections annually.

That's a lot of data—Byron's more prurient fans might call it “big data.” “Literature is not data,” Marche declared in 2012. It’s a comfy sentiment, but also wrong. If this idea had taken hold in the 17th century, we would not have a clue when Rameses II died, or when Brutus murdered Tarquin. “Digital humanities,” in the end, is not unlike Marxist theory, or a spatula. Used properly, the tool is invaluable. Hit your audience over the head with it, and you'll get what's coming to you.