Doubters and debunkers

The ups and downs of analytical bibliography as a discipline over the course of the last century have been many and various, while doubts and attacks have substantially come from two different quarters. In the first place from textual scholars, mainly in the field of English Literature, unhappy about some of the more violent incursions of militant bibliography into what they regarded as their back yard. Of course the manifest unwillingness of some to master or even accept bibliographical method made them into a easy quintain for Bowers the jouster. Here, for example, is a passage of his sarcasm at its stinging best: “It really is the hardest job in the world for a bibliographer to convince a critic who is beginning to be conscious of old-spelling problems that an author did not set his own type, seldom proof-read his book and if he did cannot be taken as approving every minute detail of its accidentals, and that a printed book is a fallible second-hand report of the author’s manuscript, not a facsimile of it set in type”; see ‘Some Relations of Bibliography to Editorial Problems’, Studies in Bibliography, vol. 3, 1950-51, pp. 37-62, repr. in Essays cit. (1975), pp. 15-36, quote from p. 35. It often difficult to decide whether some attacks derive from the substance or the tone, or perhaps both, of Bowers’ utterances, and, for much the same reason, read nowadays, some disputes do not seem edifying or useful. Whether Hamlet (I ii 129) said ‘this too too sallied flesh’ [i.e. sullied, stained] or ‘this too too solid flesh’ (i.e. the reading of the quartos against the folio) does not really seem to be a problem that can be resolved by ‘bibliographical’ means, as Bowers claimed, receiving authoritative contradiction from F.W. Bateson and Alice Walker; see the useful summary of the discussion in Stokes, The Function of Bibliography cit., pp. 116-119. To be more precise, while evidence about how the editions were printed is invaluable in helping the textual scholar come to a decision, the final decision has to be taken by a specialist in another field. Nowadays therefore bibliographical scholars seem more cautious in textual matters, except of course when they put on another hat in order to produce the critical edition of a work; but it is also true that in many fields, especially in that of Shakespeare studies, the contribution of analytical bibliography is largely accepted, even where it does not directly concern the text.

Other criticisms have been more significant and more cogent, because they have been voiced within the bibliographical community by researchers who, among other talents, have proved to be considerable scholars in the field itself. Four items deserve careful reading:

  • Geoffrey Keynes, ‘Religio Bibliographici’, The Library, s. 5, vol. 8 (1953), pp. 63-76. Famous as the expression of consternation by an amateur faced with the professional requisites of Bowers’ Principles (1949), described as “an event of shattering importance to the little world of bibliography, because it brought home to our consciousness the fact that what we had thought in our innocence was a pleasant, if sometimes exacting, pastime, was in fact a prime example of ‘pure scholarship’, to be pursued with the mind of a detective, the spiritual temperature of an iceberg, and the precision of a machine” (p. 64). Unfortunately for Keynes and his predicament, history teaches us that when amateurs meet professionals in any sphere of sport or life, the latter usually win. An amusing circumstance is that at the original lecture delivered to the Bibliographical Society, Bowers, by pure chance, was in the audience, but, with gracious tact, he limited his reaction to a compliment to Keynes for his choice of title; see Tanselle, The Life and Work of Fredson Bowers cit., pp. 46-47.
  • D.F. McKenzie, ‘Printers of the Mind: Some Notes on Bibliographical Theories and Printing-House Practices’, Studies in Bibliography, vol. 22 (1969), pp. 1-75, reprinted in Idem, Making Meaning: “Printers of the Mind” and Other Essays, edited by Peter D. McDonald and Michael F. Suarez, S.J. (Amherst, University of Massacchusetts Press, 2002). This is the best known, most quoted and least understood attack on the school of Bowers and his followers, which in the twenty years following the publication of the Principles had defeated its opponents in the field and become orthodoxy. Nevertheless it should be noted that it appeared in Studies in Bibliography, the journal founded and directed by Bowers, who thus invited the dissenter to speak from the principal pulpit of analytical bibliography, with a much greater audience and effect than otherwise would have happened. Part of the critique, directed against the excessive confidence of the inductive reconstruction of the normal working conditions in Renaissance printing shops, was extremely timely. Working from the records of the Cambridge University Press in the late Seventeenth century which he had described a few years previously (see The Cambridge University Press, 1696-1712 A Bibliographical Study, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1966), documents to hand, McKenzie points out that normality “doesn’t exist” (p. 4), and therefore that any reconstruction from the physical evidence of the printed book which supposes a fixed working practice is likely to be misleading. As he states, “it must suffice for the moment simply to observe that the patterns which emerge seem to me to be of such an unpredictable complexity, even for such a small printing shop, that no amount of inference from what we think of as bibliographical evidence could ever have led to their reconstruction” (p. 7). His conclusion is notoriously pessimistic: “Bright lights will cast deep shadows, and I must confess to a feeling of mild despondency about the prospects for analytical bibliography: limited demonstrations there may certainly be, although they may require a life-time’s devotion to make them; wherever full primary evidence has become available it has revealed a geometry of such complexity that even an expert in cybernetics, primed with all the facts, would have little chance of discerning it” (p. 60). There is no doubt that ‘Printers of the Mind’ marked as significant a watershed as the publication of the Principles exactly twenty years earlier, that it has had a huge influence on successive bibliographical thought and practice, and that it has provoked important replies; see G. Thomas Tanselle, ‘Bibliography and Science’, Studies in Bibliography, vol. 27 (1979), pp. 55-89, repr. in Idem, Selected Studies in Bibliography (Charlottesville, published for the Bibliographical Society of Virginia by the University Press of Virginia, 1979, pp. 1-35); Idem, ‘Issues in Bibliographical Studies since 1942’, in The Book Encompassed Studies in Twentieth-Century Bibliography, edited by Peter Davison (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 24-36: “That some people would form the idea that analytical bibliography was thereby discredited [by excessive reliance in inductive evidence], however, is a depressing indication of how misunderstood the nature of bibliographical research can be. If books as physical objects are the subject of bibliographers’ investigations, there is no way in which the examination of those objects for clues to their own manufacture can be discredited. The examination may not always be conducted responsibly, but the search must go on, for the books themselves constitute the primary body of evidence about their own production. Printers’ records and other documents external to the books should not be neglected, but they can offer only secondary evidence for this purpose”).

What McKenzie certainly achieved was to put ‘doubt’ back into bibliography, where it properly belongs and from which it had been temporarily ousted by the certainties of the Bowers’ school. On the other hand, the common view of ‘Printers of the mind’ as an act of rebellion, or even as heresy, is profoundly mistaken; if anything, McKenzie’s essay stands for a reassertion of orthodoxy (or even a re-establishment of order), while the true heretic was Bowers, impenitent to the end in his insistence that the evidence derived from the book as a physical artefact must take priority with respect to that acquired from collateral sources. My personal judgement in the matter is that, despite the brilliance of the argumentation, McKenzie’s reasoning does not always hold water, and that it is sufficient to make two points in reply. First, archive documents relating to printing are extremely rare, often difficult to interpret, and, even when they contain considerable detail, cannot be taken as possessing a higher level of authority than the physical books printed in those shops. Obviously written records of this sort are a valuable integration (what Bowers termed “metaphysical evidence”, i.e. external to the physical objects themselves) to the material evidence of the books, and often contain information, for instance the print run, not available in the primary source. To take a recent example, if McKenzie, instead of the scrupulously accurate records of the Cambridge University Press had had to struggle with the sometimes baffling scribbles of Domenico da Pistoia in the so-called ‘Diario di Ripoli’, which records the work of a printing press in Florence from 1476 to 1484, he would have had to rethink the authority and the worth of written records. The output of the press contained numerous editions ofpopular texts that have not survived, so the Diary provides a precious record of printing activity about which we should otherwise know nothing, but it also fails to mention twelve editions that incunabulists attribute to the press or are signed by it in the colophons. Therefore we have to accept that the press must have printed further editions which have not survived and which are not mentioned in the day book of father Domenico. A correct evaluation of the relationship between historical and analytical bibliography has to recognise that the two sources are not in conflict, that neither is complete or superior to the other, and that even the sum of their evidence is nevertheless fragmentary and incomplete (see § 1 above, while, for a critical discussion, including an extended review essay by myself, on the recent edition of the Diario di Ripoli edited by Melissa Conway (Florence, Olschki, 1999), see The Book Collector, vol. 50 (2001), pp. 9-50). Second, in any historical reconstruction the quantity and the quality of the final outcome is inevitably governed by the amount of surviving evidence that we have been able to examine. The difficulty of bibliography is that the material information, the books themselves, is widely dispersed and that the correct assessment of what it presents requires skill and experience. But the fact that a task is difficult is not a reason for not undertaking it. If we offer a historical reconstruction on the basis of a certain quantity and quality of evidence, when other information, possibly from a source not originally contemplated, becomes available, we necessarily have to rewrite our original hypothesis. As with the map on1 to 1 scale imagined by Borges, it is possible to arrive at levels of detail that defy interpretation or understanding, or which can only acquire meaning through the creative imagination of a novelist or film-maker. What McKenzie calls in doubt, perhaps without realising it, is not whether bibliography can offer an accurate reconstruction of the past, but whether history itself exists. And of course it is possible to reply that, outside recorded documents, history does not exist.

  • David F. Foxon, Thoughts on the History and Future of Bibliographical Description (Los Angeles, School of Library Science; Berkeley, School of Librarianship: University of California, 1970). Questions the effectiveness of the method of quasi-facsimile transcription espoused by Bowers in descriptive bibliography. The essential and reasonable point is that the complexity of this system of transcription non only increases the probability of error, but also significantly augments the amount of time required to write and check a description. He therefore proposes, instead of the descriptive canon represented by the Principles, simpler forms of identification, closer to the enumerative model of the STC, which ought to be equally effective in terms of allowing the recognition of an edition. The weakness of Foxon’s argument lies in paying no attention to Bowers’ five-fold distinction of sorts of bibliography and therefore in not realising that enumerative listings of the kind he proposes are not in conflict with the system advanced in the Principles; they are simply another kind of bibliography. What Foxon essentially proposes is that his own particular bibliographical system, employed to considerable effect in English Verse 1701-1750. A Catalogue of Separately Printed Poems with Notes on Contemporary Collected Editions (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1975), be employed as a universal one. But bibliography cannot live in thrall to theoretical precepts, it has to adapt itself to the problem it is required to analyse and describe. The real objective of Bowers’ magnum opus is not to lay down an absolute, invariant system for bibliographical description, but, in Eliot’s phrase, to “purify the dialect of the tribe”, so that bibliographers at least use a common language and the same set of conventions, independently of the level of the description. On the figure of David Foxon (1923-2001), see the obituaries by Nicolas Barker in The Book Collector, vol. 50 (2001), pp. 416-419, and Julian Roberts in The Library, s. 7, vol. 2 (2001), pp. 395-397.
  • Paul S. Dunkin, Bibliography: Tiger or Fat Cat? (London, Bingley; Hamden, Archon Books, 1975). Apart from conducting an inquest, at times with Perry Mason overtones, on bibliographical terminology, this monograph does little more than express the peevish disenchantment of a highly qualified rare-book librarian for the whole race of bibliographers. The author fails to notice that his chosen method, consisting in carefully selected quotation from the writings of different scholars, who inevitably disagree among themselves on both theoretical and practical issues, in order to highlight internal contradictions, could be applied to any field of science with similar results. The most memorable part of the book, the title, derives from a ironic remark by Bowers that fired the imagination of several among his opponents (“I take it, also, that some of the distress exhibited here – to discount the frankly admitted nostalgia for the good old days before the tabby cat of bibliography grew into a tiger – may rest upon some slight misapprehension of the internal divisions within bibliographical research”, in ‘Bibliography, Pure Bibliography, and Literary Studies’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 46 (1952), pp. 186-208, repr. in Essays (1975), pp. 37-53: 3