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The Heresies of Bibliography


Why is bibliography important? If it is to be more than a list of titles, what use is it? The question has acquired new pertinence now that texts have become both more available and less trustworthy, thanks to the Internet. Students usually download texts from computers without asking where they came from, and they frequently get garbage. But the problem is not new.

Here is a passage from the first printed version of King Lear (the quarto edition of 1608, Act III, scene 4): “swithald footed thrice the old a nellthu night more and her nine fold bid her, O light and her troth plight and arint thee, with arint thee.”1 It is seventeenth-century garbage, which probably was almost as incomprehensible to seventeenth-century readers as it is to us. To make sense of it, textual editors have drawn on folklore, philology, paleography, the history of religion, and their own intuition. They have concluded that Shakespeare meant to evoke the notion of Saint Withold driving away a female demon and her brood during a tempestuous night. This kind of textual criticism, accompanied by commentary and variants in footnotes and appendices, is familiar to any reader of Shakespeare. What can bibliography contribute to it?

Consider another example of trash in Shakespeare, the quarto edition of The Merchant of Venice published in 1619. In Act I, scene 3, Antonio asks Bassanio whether Shylock knows how much Antonio wants to borrow: “are you resolu’d, How much he would haue?” In the original edition of The Merchant of Venice, a quarto of 1600, the lines read: “is hee yet possest How much ye would?” Which to prefer? We cannot know what Shakespeare intended, because no manuscripts of his plays survive—except perhaps three pages, written in his hand, from the unperformed tragedy Sir Thomas More. But we can identify the most corrupt passages in the early printed versions.

By analysis of the physical copies, bibliographers have determined that the type of the 1619 quarto was set by the same compositor, a particularly slipshod workman whom they call Compositor B, who set nine other quartos of Shakespearean or pseudo-Shakespearean plays in the same year, using earlier editions as his copy. When he came upon a phrase that he considered deficient, he “improved” it. So the 1619 version of those lines is pure Compositor B, and the text of the play as a whole (it has an average of one significant error in every twenty-three lines) is very impure Shakespeare. Moreover, B also composed about half the text of the First Folio, our main source for reconstructing Shakespeare’s oeuvre. To make sense of Shakespeare, therefore, it is not enough to be a literary critic. One must also be a bibliographer—or at least understand enough of bibliography to know how books came into being in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.2

This kind of bibliography—usually called “descriptive” or “analytical” bibliography to distinguish it from the book-listing or “enumerative” variety—became a powerful force in the humanities during the first half of the twentieth century. But what exactly was it, and did it have implications for anything besides the editing of texts? Sir Walter Greg, the ultimate authority in these matters, defined bibliography as “the science of the material transmission of literary documents.”3 His formulation was contested by some who found “science” too positivistic and “literary” too narrow, since bibliographical analysis could be applied in principle to any kind of text and any form of communication. But the emphasis on materiality appealed to all bibliographers, because all of them studied books as physical objects. By learning how texts became imbedded in paper as typographical signs and transmitted to readers as pages bound in books, they hoped to understand a fundamental aspect of literature itself.

Greg and R.B. McKerrow began to work out the basic concepts and techniques of this “new bibliography,” as it came to be called, when they were students at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the 1890s. With the publication of An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students by McKerrow in 1928 and Principles of Bibliographical Description by Fredson Bowers in 1949, bibliography emerged as a coherent discipline with standards that had coalesced into an orthodoxy. By 1950, bibliography became a requirement for the Ph.D. in many English departments. Along with philology and other professional skills, graduate students learned how to recognize formats, collate signatures, detect cancels (leaves inserted to replace leaves with errors or potentially offensive passages), distinguish typefaces, trace watermarks, analyze art work, and identify bindings.

Shakespearean studies especially flourished in this environment, because the early editions of the plays, published at a low point in the history of printing, are full of errors and cannot be corrected against an original manuscript. As far as we know, Shakespeare took no part in their publication. For him, it seems, the performance was what counted, and he probably modified the scripts as the action evolved on the stage or rewrote them for reruns. We can imagine his “foul papers” (early drafts) and prompt books, but to come up with texts we have to find a way through the faulty editions thrown together in the printing shops of his day. Hamlet appeared first in a primitive quarto of 1603, next in a quarto of 1604–1605, which is twice as long, and then in the folio of 1623, which has eighty-five new lines and differs greatly from both of the earlier editions. King Lear presents so many puzzles that its most recent editors printed two versions of it.4 They are radically different, yet each conforms to the most exacting bibliographical standards and each may represent a version that Shakespeare considered at one point to be final. So we now have two King Lears, as well as older, conflated editions, and we are richer for it, thanks to bibliography.

Textual conundrums of this sort inspired generations of scholars to feats of ever-greater virtuosity. By poring over early editions, they have traced typographical clues of every variety—inconsistent spelling, irregularities in spacing, chipped type, anything that could help them reconstruct the production processes of Elizabethan printing shops and therefore get closer to Shakespeare’s missing copy. Many learned to set type themselves and turned into amateur letterpress printers. In their imaginations, Ph.D.s became companions of the workers who first turned Shakespeare’s words into books. It was an intoxicating idea, and it did not last.

Bibliography has not disappeared, but it has been pushed aside and ignored by more recent trends in literary scholarship. From the New Criticism of the 1940s to the deconstructionism of the 1960s and the new historicism of the 1980s, the study of texts became increasingly detached from their embodiment in books. Bibliography began to look like an arcane discipline that might have uses for editing Shakespeare but little relevance for understanding modern literature. Some modern works, from Pamela to Ulysses, posed important bibliographical problems, but most could be edited with minimal notes about textual variants. In 1968 Edmund Wilson raised a storm by denouncing editions sponsored by the Modern Language Association for bibliographical overkill—he mentioned a project in which eighteen editorial workers were preparing an edition of Tom Sawyer by reading the text backward. When the polemics died down, bibliography had lost much of its appeal. It disappeared from graduate programs and even from most library schools. To a generation that had witnessed the collapse of the canon and the rise of the Internet, fine-grained analysis of old books no longer was attractive.

In the midst of this self-questioning, the inevitable occurred: heresy. All orthodoxies generate heretics, but the Martin Luther of bibliography, Donald F. McKenzie, was especially threatening to the old guard, because he could beat the best of them at their own game. Having assimilated the Bowers principles and developed into an expert printer himself, McKenzie left his native New Zealand for Cambridge, England, where he wrote a Ph.D. under Philip Gaskell, a master bibliographer. The book that resulted, The Cambridge University Press, 1696– 1712 (1966), was hailed as one of the most rigorous works ever written in the tradition of Greg and McKerrow. It had a disquieting aspect, however, because not only did McKenzie provide a bibliographical analysis of every book produced by the CUP during those sixteen years, but he also related the physical evidence to manuscripts from the archives of the press, and the manuscripts revealed that things had not taken place as they should have, according to the conventional wisdom.

Compositors did not supply pressmen with “formes” (pages of type arranged inside an iron frame and locked in place so as to be ready for printing) in a consistent pattern. On the contrary, a compositor would send a completed forme to whatever press was free. So at one point or other, all the pressmen of the shop often ran off copies of a particular book. Moreover, compositors also switched frequently from one job to another. They might set the type for one forme of a treatise like Newton’s Principia, published by the CUP in 1713, then compose a bill of lading or a receipt, and later take up a book of sermons. Some tasks took longer than others and some were more urgent, so the foreman distributed them in the most efficient way, and several books were always moving through production at the same time, each following its own, erratic rhythm. The regularity of output at the shop level compensated for the irregularities in the labor of each man, a way of organizing work that McKenzie called “concurrent production.” It sounded innocent enough as an idea; but when he developed all its implications, he seemed to sap the foundations of orthodox bibliography.

Previous bibliographers had assumed that each book would move through the chain of production according to a consistent, linear pattern: a certain compositor would feed formes to the printers at a certain press, who would run off the edition, frequently leaving traces of their activity in the pattern of headlines at the top of the page, direction lines at the bottom, or press figures (usually numbers added at the bottom to identify the work of individual pressmen). It therefore would be possible to construct a se-ries of inferences, moving backward through the production process from the physical copy, to a press, a compositor, and, at least to some extent, the original manuscript, even if it were missing, as in the case of Shakespeare. Above all, Shakespeare. The search for reliable texts of his plays drove the whole discipline.

The greatest Shakespearean bibliographers, notably Greg and Charlton Hinman, allowed for irregularities. The supreme study of a book from the era of Shakespeare, Hinman’s The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare (1963), showed how the First Folio came into being, forme by forme, while other books were being printed at the same shop. At one point Hinman even used the term “concurrent production.” But most bibliographers took the individual book rather than the output of the entire shop as the unit of analysis, and this line of reasoning, valid enough within its own limits, led them to string together questionable hypotheses about the men who produced the first printed copies of Shakespeare. In place of workers made of flesh and blood—pre-industrial artisans who worked in erratic spurts and knocked off for bouts with the likes of Falstaff and Mistress Quickly—they substituted ghostly abstractions like compositor B surrounded by A, C, and others, who were deemed to have turned out quartos and folios at regular rhythms in accordance with the principles of bibliographical science.

  1. 1

    As quoted in F.P. Wilson, Shakespeare and the New Bibliography, edited by Helen Gardner (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 121. In the First Folio, the passage reads: “Swithold footed thrice the old,/He met the Night-Mare, and her nine-fold;/Bid her a-light/And her troth-plight,/And aroynt thee Witch, aroynt thee.” For commentary on the passage in which Edgar sings about a female demon, see William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller (Penguin, 2002), p. 1533.

  2. 2

    For a discussion of this problem and of bibliography in general, see Philip Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography (Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 336–360.

  3. 3

    Greg’s definition, which probably was not meant to be an ex cathedra pronouncement about science, appeared in his article of 1914, “What Is Bibliography?” Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, Vol. 12. For a discussion of it, see G. Thomas Tanselle, “Bibliography and Science,” in Studies in Bibliography, Vol. 27 (1974), p. 62.

  4. 4

    The Complete Oxford Shakespeare, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford University Press, 1986); and William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Orgel and Braunmuller.

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