Digitizing the works of a 16th-century poet

Spenser Project receives NEH Scholarly Editions Grant

It has been almost 100 years since Oxford University Press published the collected works of Edmund Spenser.

An English professor and a team of Arts & Sciences undergraduate and graduate students at Washington University in St. Louis are involved in a major project to publish a new edition for Oxford University Press — which will be complemented by an even more substantial digital archive.

An 1853 engraving of Edmund Spenser (1552-1599).

And they are getting some help from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The NEH has awarded a Scholarly Editions Grant to Joseph Loewenstein, Ph.D., professor of English in Arts & Sciences, who is one of five Spenser Project general editors from five universities worldwide.

The grant provides outright and matching funds of $150,000 over three years to support the editing, annotation and digitization of the works of the 16th-century English poet.

“This is a tremendously competitive grant, and it wouldn’t have happened without the support of Washington University and the University of South Carolina,” said Loewenstein, who is also director of the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities in Arts & Sciences.

“Specifically, Arts & Sciences really stepped up and brought the resources of Olin Library and the Humanities Digital Workshop (HDW) into this project. This commitment we had certainly helped the NEH to understand how strongly we wanted to see this research project succeed.”

The project’s goal is to produce an authoritative scholarly edition of Spenser’s collected works, which include his most famous, “The Faerie Queene.” The long allegorical poem is the first national epic in English.

The grant will cover production of the “Collected Works of Edmund Spenser,” a three-volume print edition of Spenser’s writings, as well as a digital archive. The Spenser Archive will make the information available as a fully searchable research and teaching tool for scholars, students and general readers alike.

The first volume of the print edition and a substantial portion of the digital archive are expected to be available by 2010.

Teams of graduate and undergraduate students have been assisting Loewenstein and his fellow editors in examining early print versions and manuscripts of Spenser writings and in assembling the materials necessary for authoritative commentary on Spenser, who Loewenstein refers to as one of the most erudite and imaginative poets in English.

The WUSTL students currently working on the project are Jonathan Shelley, a post-baccalaureate fellow in the HDW; Olin Fellow Braden Phillips-Welborn; sophomores Melanie Mohn, Deva Estin and Brendan Blasé; and seniors Megan McFadden and Kate Ehrlich.

“The students here working on this project are fantastic,” said Loewenstein. “They are quite meticulous, imaginative, hardworking and efficient. One of the sophomores has been especially skilled at managing and coordinating the work with the graduate students and staff at the other institutions.”

He proudly points out that WUSTL is the only Spenser Project institution that has undergraduates involved in a “serious and sustained way.” He has been working with different groups of students on this project since 2002.

Computer science students in the School of Engineering worked with Loewenstein in 2003 to develop prototype database engines and again in 2004-06 to develop digital collator software to support the Spenser Archive.

The engineering school students received degree credits for their work on the project. This collaboration between the humanities in Arts & Sciences and the School of Engineering was the first of its kind, Loewenstein said.

In addition to Loewenstein, the four other scholars at the center of the Spenser Project are: Patrick Cheney, professor of English, Pennsylvania State University; Elizabeth Fowler, professor of English, University of Virginia; David Lee Miller, professor of English, University of South Carolina; and Andrew Zucher, Fellow in English, Cambridge University.