New definitions and directions

There can be little doubt that the main torch bearer of analytical bibliography in the last quarter of the Twentieth century and onwards into the Twenty-first has been George Thomas Tanselle (b. 1932), actually president of the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia. In terms of quantity, his critical output has been extraordinary, with at least one substantial essay every year in Studies in Bibliography, together with numerous contributions to other journals and collective volumes; in terms of quality, his writing constantly displays remarkable feats of critical synthesis, achieved without ever blundering into the banal and the redundant. Tanselle is often portrayed, especially in the McKenzie supporters camp, as a defender and even apologist for Bowers. But this view is certainly inaccurate and probably unfair. If on the one hand his strictures on the looseness of concept and language in McKenzie’s writings often appear justifiable, on the other he perhaps is the most serious innovator actually working in bibliographical studies. There is some irony in the fact that his eventual message, i.e. that bibliography is a universal, historical discipline, is very close to what McKenzie termed a “sociology of texts”; the difference is that it is propounded in an unassuming manner.

Some significant differences should, however, be underlined that distinguish him with respect to the tradition. Tanselle is not, so to speak, a front-line bibliographer to be found in library trenches; his preferred position is rather back at HQ, seeking an overview of the situation. What is seldom remarked on is his extraordinary skill as a secondary bibliographer, or his ability to marshall and organise with great clarity a huge quantity of writing on a given subject to telling effect, as is shown by two bibliographies produced under the title of Seminar Syllabus (see Brief Introduction). He is also differ with respect to traditional bibliographers in being a specialist in Nineteenth-Century American literature, especially Melville, and this fact has kept him out of the hurly-burly of the debate occasioned by the text of Shakespeare.

A purview of his writings can be obtained by thumbing through Studies in Bibliography (the first fifty volumes can be accessed electronically [link to ]), or by exploring the various collections of his articles issued for the most part by the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia:

  • Selected Studies in Bibliography (Charlottesville, published for the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia by the University Press of Virginia, 1979). Brings together eleven essays, all originally published in the society’s journal between 1969 and 1979. Contents: ‘Bibliography and Science’ [1974], pp. 1-35; ‘Descriptive Bibliography and Library Cataloguing’ [1977], pp. 37-92; ‘Copyright Records and the Bibliographer’ [1969], pp. 93-138; ‘A System of Color Identification for Bibliographical Description’ [1967], pp. 139-170; ‘The Bibliographical Description of Patterns’ [1970], pp. 171-202; ‘The Bibliographical Description of Paper’ [1971], pp. 203-243; ‘Greg’s Theory of Copy-Text and the Editing of American Literature” [1975], 245-307; ‘The Editorial Problem of Final Authorial Intention’ [1976], pp. 309-353; ‘External Fact as an Editorial Problem’ [1979], pp. 355-401; ‘Some Principles for Editorial Apparatus’ [1972], pp. 403-450; ‘The Editing of Historical Documents’ [1978], pp. 451-506.
  • Textual criticism since Greg: A chronicle 1950-1985 (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1987). Contains: ‘Greg’s theory of copy-text and the editing of American literature, 1950-74’ [1975], pp. 1-63; ‘Recent editorial discussion and the central questions of editing, 1974-79’ [1981], pp. 65-107; ‘Historicism and critical editing, 1979-85’ [1986], pp. 109-154.
  • A rationale of textual criticism (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989). The text publishes the Rosenbach Lectures given in 1987 at the University of Pennsylvania and is divided into three chapters (‘The nature of texts’, pp. 11-38; ‘Reproducing the texts of documents’, pp. 39-66; ‘Reconstructing the texts of works’, pp. 67-93), followed by a ‘Postscript’ (pp. 95-97)).
  • Textual Criticism and Scholarly Editing (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1990). Contains: ‘Texts of documents and texts of works’ [1981], pp. 3-23; ‘The editorial problem of final authorial intention’ [1976], pp. 27-71; ‘External fact as an editorial problem’ [1979], pp. 72-118; ‘Some principles for editorial apparatus’ [1972], pp. 119-176; ‘Problems and accomplishments in the editing of the novel’ [1975], pp. 179-217; ‘The editing of historical documents’ [1978], pp. 218-273; ‘Classical, biblical, and medieval textual criticism and modern editing’ [1983], 274-321; ‘Textual study and literary judgment’ [1971], pp. 325-337.
  • Literature and Artifacts (Charlottesville, 1998). Brings together fifteen essays, originally published between 1977 and 1996. Contains: ‘Libraries, Museums and Reading’ [1991], pp. 3-23; ‘Bibliographers and the Library’ [1977], pp. 24-40; ‘The History of Books as a Field of Study’ [1981], pp. 41-55; ‘Reproductions and Scholarship’ [1989], pp. 59-88; ‘The Latest Forms of Book-Burning’ [1993], pp. 89-95; ‘The Future of Primary Records’ [1996], pp. 96-123; ‘A Description of Descriptive Bibliography’ [1992], pp. 127-157; ‘The Recording of American Books and the British Bibliographical Tradition’ [1985], pp. 157-185; ‘Enumerative Bibliography and the Physical Book’ [1993], pp. 186-199; ‘Textual Criticism and Deconstruction’ [1990], pp. 203-235; ‘Editing without a Copy Text’ [1994], pp. 236-257; ‘Critical Editions, Hypertexts, and Genetic Criticism’ [1995], pp. 258-271; ‘Books, Canons and the Nature of Dispute’ [1992], pp. 275-290; ‘Analytical Bibliography and Printing History’ [1981], pp. 291-306; ‘Printing History and Other History’ [1995], pp. 307-327. It is followed by two statements on the ‘role of books and manuscripts in the electronic age’ (1992) and ‘on the Significance of Primary Records’ (1995). A translation of this volume, with an extensive introduction by Neil Harris (‘La bibliografia e il palinsesto della storia’) has recently been published in Italy (Firenze, Le Lettere, 2004).

Much of Tanselle’s effort has been expended in redefining the more militant forms of Bowers’ concept of bibliography and in shifting the emphasis of bibliographical research from purely literary and textual concerns to a broader historical base. Since there have already been numerous references to essays by Tanselle in this web-page and others will shortly follow, there is little point in providing an extended bibliography of his contributions, also because, given their general excellence, it is not always easy to suggest a particular item as representative. Nevertheless, as a personal whim, I suggest that the following three items students might do well to choose as starters:

  • ‘Descriptive Bibliography and Library Cataloguing’, Studies in Bibliography, vol. 30 (1977), pp. 1-56, repr. in Selected Studies in Bibliography (1979, pp. 37-92). Takes a good hard look at and has some unkind things to say about the treatment of early printed material prescribed by the provvisory version of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR), together with an excellent definition of the fundamental difference between a ‘Bibliography’ and a ‘Catalogue’. (It is disappointing, therefore, that in the closed and sometimes closet community of library studies no account of these penetrating strictures has been taken in the successive AACR2 nor in the more widely employed ISBD(A)). One significant outcome of the failure to consider how books are made in the current norms is that catalogue descriptions involving printed material of any era remain without guide lines about how to describe significant variants of state, issue and impression. The problem seems especially acute nowadays in very large data-bases involving early material, which in terms of their critical mass (i.e. the large number of copies to which a description necessarily refers) are in danger of becoming ‘bibliographical’, but have no idea where the problem even begins. See also Lotte Hellinga, ‘The European Printed Heritage c. 1450-1830: a new approach’, La Bibliofilìa, vol. 100 (1998), pp. 597-603 (also issued for the centennial of the journal as Anatomie bibliologiche: saggi di storia del libro per il centenario de “La Bibliofilìa”, edited by Luigi Balsamo and Pierangelo Bellettini, Firenze, Olschki, 1999).
  • ‘Printing History and Other History’, Studies in Bibliography, vol. 48 (1995), pp. 269-289, repr. in Literature and Artifacts (1998, pp. 307-327), also translated into Italian with the title ‘La storia della stampa e gli studi storici’, La Bibliofilìa, vol. 98 (1996), pp. 209-231. Takes issue with the failure of historical scholarship, and especially the modish History of the Book, to come seriously to grips with the techniques of analytical bibliography, regarded perhaps as a branch of literary studies.
  • ‘The Treatment of Typesetting and Presswork in Bibliographical Description’, Studies in Bibliography, vol. 52 (1999), pp. 1-57. Important discussion of a series of basic issues about the description of significant minutiae, to which the indications given here in § 11 are heavily indebted and with which they could be read in parallel.

The other influential, and often controversial, text of recent years has been D. F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (London, The British Library, 1986), available in French as La bibliographie e la sociologie des textes (Luson, Éditions du cercle de la librairie, 1991, including an essay ‘Textes, formes, interpretations’ by Roger Chartier) and in Italian as Bibliografia e sociologia dei testi (Milano, edizioni Sylvestre Bonnard, 1999, including the Chartier essay and another piece ‘Ciò che è passato è il prologo’ by Renato Pasta). Though in many ways a logical continuation of the concerns expressed in 1969 in ‘Printers of the mind’ (§ 8), this trio of essays, delivered originally as the Panizzi lectures in 1985, argues for the extension of bibliography as “the discipline that studies texts as recorded forms” (p. 4) far beyond the traditional domain of the printed book: “In these quite specific ways, it accounts for non-book texts, their physical forms, textual versions, technical transmission, institutional control, their perceived meanings, and social effects. It accounts for a history of the book and, indeed, of all printed forms including all textual ephemera as a record of cultural change, whether in mass civilization or minority culture” (pp. 4-5). Again McKenzie’s reasoning, for all its brilliance, is highly subjective, since, though many would agree that burgeoning areas of research such as film studies would benefit from the application of ‘bibliographical’ theory, we have to take account of the fact that they have often developed their own techniques for listing and describing the physical manufacts. The real danger is that a discipline so universal, so omnipresent, so all-embracing ends up becoming no discipline at all, and therefore to insist that everything is ‘bibliographical’ is to risk discovering, like Monsieur Jourdain, that one has been speaking prose all one’s life without knowing it.