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U.Va.’s McGann Joins Ranks of Some Very Esteemed Americans, Past and Present

Jun 04, 2014

Anne E. Bromley

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and several other Founding Fathers were members. So were Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Robert Frost.

Add to the membership list of the American Philosophical Society this year University of Virginia professor Jerome J. McGann, a pioneer in digital humanities scholarship.

McGann, a University Professor and John Stewart Bryan Professor of English, is the eighth U.Va. scholar to be elected into the country’s first learned society. Before Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence, he co-founded the American Philosophical Society in 1743.

Election to the society honors extraordinary accomplishments in all fields. Its membership comprises top scholars in a wide variety of academic disciplines, from the arts to physical sciences and extending to “leaders in public and private affairs.”

In addition to Jefferson, U.Va.’s founder, the University’s first president, Edwin Alderman, was the first from U.Va. to be elected into the society. Other members include: Cora Diamond (philosophy), Rita Dove (poetry), Anita Jones (math and physical sciences, engineering), Edward McShane (math), Patricia Meyer Spacks (English) and William Wulf (engineering). [

McGann joins this year’s group of 33 new members, which also includes Chez Panisse Restaurant owner and chef Alice Waters, Harvard University historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore and Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter. They bring the total number of members to 1,052.

McGann, a scholar of Romanticism in 19th-century American and British literature, created the hypermedia online archive of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s writings and pictures in 1993 through U.Va.’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.

“The purpose of the American Philosophical Society is to ‘promote useful knowledge’ – I think Franklin himself would have nominated Jerry to the society,” said Cynthia Wall, who chairs the U.Va. English department, calling McGann “a pioneer, a lion, a leader in digital humanities.”

McGann has developed several other online projects with colleagues over the past 20 years, including the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship, or NINES, described as “a scholarly organization devoted to forging links between the material archive of the 19th century and the digital research environment of the 21st.” The website brings together peer-reviewed scholarly work on 19th-century British and American literature and culture – with almost 900,000 digitized texts and graphics from 124 federated websites.

In his 2001 book, “Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web,” McGann discusses how digital tools can “improve the ways we explore and explain aesthetic works ... and expand our interpretational procedures,” he writes in the preface.

Harvard University Press describes his most recent book, “A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction,” as “a manifesto for the humanities in the digital age. It argues that the history of texts, together with the methods by which they are preserved and made available for interpretation, are the overriding subjects of humanist study in the 21st century. Theory and philosophy, which have grounded the humanities for decades, no longer suffice as an intellectual framework.”

Taking up one of the top issues in higher education, his most recent work is a pamphlet from Prickly Paradigm Press, “Are the Humanities Inconsequent?” Also a poet, in 2012 he published “The Invention Tree” (Chax Press), with drawings by Susan Bee, described as “one of a set of prosodic parodies of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, ‘Poems for People of Uncertain Age.’”

McGann, also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, has received a raft of awards, including the National Humanities Center’s Richard W. Lyman Award for Distinguished Contributions to Humanities Computing. He earned his Ph.D. from Yale University.

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