Book Excerpt



With a new introduction by G. Thomas Tanselle.
Winchester and New Castle, Delaware: St Paul's Bibliographies and Oak Knoll Press, (2012). thick 8vo. stiff paper wrappers. xvi, 505 pages. With a new introduction by G. Thomas Tanselle. Reprint of the first edition. One of the indisputable classics of 20th-century scholarship, Bowers's work is one of the standard guides on the subject, providing a comprehensive manual for the description of printed books as physical objects. Although there has been much activity in descriptive bibliography... READ MORE

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Fredson Bowers’s Principles of Bibliographical Description is one of the indisputable classics of twentieth-century scholarship. When it was first published in December 1949, it immediately became the standard guide to its subject, providing for the first time a comprehensive manual for the description of printed books as physical objects. In it, Bowers consolidated and expanded upon the achievements of an English tradition that was nearly a century old. His book was an act of creative synthesis, which established a new point of departure. Although there has been much activity in descriptive bibliography since then, the Principles still holds its place as the central book to which those engaged in bibliographical work must continually return. Bowers ended a 1948 article by referring to the satisfaction of producing a descriptive bibliography that ``will stand up under the test of time and will never need to be done again’’; it begins to appear that in his book about descriptive bibliography he may have achieved such a work. It is a landmark in the history of scholarship, to be sure, but it is also a work of vital contemporary relevance. Holding such a position for half a century in a fundamental branch of scholarship is indeed a remarkable feat.

In a 1985 letter Bowers wrote that “the Principles was, or now seems, almost an accident” – because it originated in his effort to sort out the procedures of bibliographical description in preparation for writing a bibliography of the English printed drama from 1660 to 1700. Although Bowers had shown an interest in bibliographical scholarship before World War II, his principal work in the pre-war years was the historical study of Elizabethan revenge tragedy (the subject of his 1934 dissertation at Harvard and of much of his early published work – including his first scholarly book – as a young professor of English at Princeton and the University of Virginia). But immediately after his return to Virginia from military service, he embarked on a descriptive bibliography of Restoration drama, undoubtedly inspired by the appearance in 1939 of the first volume of W.W. Greg’s A Bibliography of the English Printed Drama to the Restoration. This work of Greg’s was the chief monument of a tradition that went back to Henry Bradshaw’s attention in the 1860s to the formulaic recording of the structure of early printed books, a tradition that had been largely developed during the first forty years of the twentieth century by A.W. Pollard, R.B. McKerrow, and Greg himself.

As early as 1906, Pollard and Greg published a substantial article on bibliographical collation in the Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, and Pollard alone published another one the next year in The Library, as well as covering the subject in his 1908 introduction to the first volume of the British Museum incunable catalogues; then in 1923 Falconer Madan, E. Gordon Duff, and Strickland Gibson offered some sketchy advice on describing books of all periods in the Oxford Bibliographical Society Proceedings and Papers. The most influential treatment before Bowers’s came in 1927, when McKerrow included a chapter on description in his pioneering book An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students, which was reprinted three times before 1950. (Almost as influential among librarians were the discussions in Arundell Esdaile’s A Student’s Manual of Bibliography [1931] and J.D. Cowley’s Bibliographical Description and Cataloguing [1939].) And the 1930s saw the publication of Greg’s developing thoughts about the collational formula in The Library for March 1934 and in the "Provisional Memoranda" that prefaced the first volume of his Bibliography. These were the principal methodological writings available to Bowers as he started planning his Restoration bibliography, and he found them inadequate as a basis for thinking through the various problems that occurred to him. At some point he realized that the process of clarifying the issues in his own mind could produce, as a by-product, a fuller guide that would be of help to others as well.

Bowers was not the only person giving systematic thought to these matters in the 1940s. By 1942 Greg had completed a draft of a detailed statement of his procedures, significantly expanding what he had previously written; although it was not published until 1959 (when it occupied some sixty large pages of the fourth volume of the Bibliography), it clearly formed the background for his reading of a draft of Bowers’s book. The Principles thus had the benefit of Greg’s mature thinking; Bowers did not always agree with Greg (as he pointed out in his foreword), but he was enormously grateful for Greg’s advice and dedicated the book to him, adding in the foreword that he was fortunate in being able "to draw on the experience of the greatest bibliographer for our times." Another instance in the 1940s of interest in the fundamentals of descriptive bibliography was the designation of this topic as the subject of the 1947 Rosenbach Lectures at the University of Pennsylvania. Three distinguished American bibliographers, Curt F. Bühler, James G. McManaway, and Lawrence C. Wroth, were invited to speak on the description of incunabula, early English literature, and Americana respectively. Their lectures were published under the title Standards of Bibliographical Description almost simultaneously with Bowers’s Principles; but he had been able to see the lectures before publication and to discuss a number of points with the authors. (His disagreement with Bühler is recorded in the convincingly argued appendix he supplied on the description of incunabula.) Through his correspondence with Greg and the Rosenbach lecturers, therefore, Bowers was able to make the Principles fully up-to-date in its incorporation of the best that had been thought on the subject.

Although Bowers complained about pressure from Princeton University Press (the original publisher of the Principles) and his consequent haste in writing certain sections of the book, most readers have regarded it as an unhurried exposition of its subject. Unquestionably one of its chief features is its thoroughness in exploring the variety of specific problems that one might encounter in the course of writing a description. Another characteristic is its rigorous logic, an aspect of which is its depiction of descriptive bibliography as a branch of historical scholarship, full of intellectual excitement when held to the highest standards of that discipline. One of the main accomplishments of the book is its provision of a framework for writing up the results of the various descriptive tasks required to give a well-rounded account of a book: the previously much-discussed activity of constructing a collational formula is given its place in a larger context. The book is a tour de force in its marvellous assemblage of details, drawn from a wide range of sources and deployed with skill. Readers are usually impressed with the extent to which their needs have been anticipated, and in the process they are fascinated with the mind that reveals itself in the book’s structure of argument and example. Many of the reviewers responded with awe and recognized the historic position of the book: Lewis Leary, for example, writing in South Atlantic Quarterly in 1951, noted that it was "an inspired revelation for a crusading band of young converts" (referring not only to Bowers’s students at the University of Virginia but also to the contributors he published in his recently established annual, Studies in Bibliography, and to the growing group of scholars influenced by his ideas), and Leary judged the book to be "one of the most important and, implicitly, one of the most provocative volumes produced by literary scholarship within our generation."

It was unpleasantly provocative to many who had not previously given thought to the significance of physical evidence in books, and it was disconcerting even to some bibliographers, those who had considered author bibliographies simply as collectors’ guides to the identification of first printings. Bowers acknowledged, "I am conscious of attempting to set a standard for descriptive bibliography which is not customarily thought to be necessary and hence has been seldom observed" (p. 5). Several reviewers considered Bowers’s claims for descriptive bibliography to be inflated and were bothered by the idea that bibliographical descriptions (like any other pieces of historical exposition) can exist for their own sake. And some regarded the degree of precision recommended by Bowers as unnecessary and overly "scientific," even suggesting that it was somehow foreign to the humanities. Any five-hundred-page guidebook – particularly when it is far longer than previous commentaries – runs the risk of provoking complaints about over-elaboration from cursory readers; and there are still people who are repelled by what they see as the book’s excessive intricacy. In fact, however, the system codified by Bowers is not complex; but his detailed demonstration of its application to diverse situations – regarded by most people as one of the great merits of the Principles – has undoubtedly reinforced in others the notion that descriptive bibliography is an arcane technical speciality.

The book was greeted with outright resentment by a few bibliographers and collectors who resisted the entry of professional standards into what they regarded as a pleasant activity for amateurs. Bibliographers of books from the first two centuries of printing were not inclined to think this way, for the tradition Bowers was building on had emerged from the study of early books; rather, it was the assumption that the same rigorous approach (resulting in an equally detailed report) was appropriate for post-Renaissance books that had the capacity to send shock waves through part of the bibliographical community. Bowers uncompromisingly addressed the laxity of many "bibliographies" of nineteenth- and twentieth-century authors, declaring that for this period “little has been done of a quality which can bear comparison with work devoted to books printed on the hand press" (p. 356). Like many classics, the Principles began life as a controversial book; and although it continues to have the power to astonish, it has reached a position of acceptance as a venerated authority. Bibliographies that ignore its recommendations do still appear, but one has only to look at the truly scholarly descriptive bibliographies of many modern authors produced in the last third of the twentieth century to see how widely approved and influential it has become.

Bowers’s treatments of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century books, however, amounting to only a third of the length of his discussion of earlier books, are the parts of the Principles that most need supplementing – which is not to say that even these parts do not make great contributions, such as the introduction of the immensely useful concept of "subsidiary edition." One should not be surprised that a book nearly fifty years old requires some revision; what is remarkable is how little adjustment is called for. In 1949, Bowers’s own experience was almost entirely limited to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books, for he had not yet embarked on his series of editions of later writers; and there was relatively little published bibliographical work on which he could draw for his discussion of books of the last three centuries. As a consequence, what he said about the concept of issue, for example, did not fully take into account the complications introduced by publishers’ bindings. This matter has since been dealt with, and there have also been modifications suggested for his definitions of ideal copy and state, alterations proposed in his formulaic recording of inserted leaves, and refinements added to his handling of paper, typography, illustrations, and bindings. But these revisions do not call into question his basic rationale or recommendations and do not necessitate a rewriting of what still seems a fundamentally sound introductory treatise. The foundation he constructed remains secure, even if adjustments in several details seem necessary.

If Bowers were writing the Principles today, there is another way in which the book might be different, besides having an expanded treatment of the later centuries: it would probably include an extensive discussion of what has come to be called "analytical bibliography," or the attempt to infer from physical evidence in books some of the procedures followed in the printing shops that produced them. Descriptive bibliography obviously involves the analysis of physical details, and analytical bibliography is indeed a tool of descriptive bibliography: after all, much of what Bowers covers in the Principles could be called "analysis." (On page 34, he states that "the basic function of a descriptive bibliography" is "to present all the evidence about a book which can be determined by analytical bibliography applied to a material object"; and on page 228 he says, "A description which is not founded on a prior bibliographical analysis may be most inaccurate and directly misleading.") But what he does not give attention to is the kind of analysis – more often associated with scholarly editing than with descriptive bibliography – that aims to reconstruct the detailed history of the typesetting and the presswork for a given book. Often, in the case of Renaissance books, variant spellings and the recurrence of broken, and thus identifiable, types form the basis for conclusions about the number of compositors who set the type, which pages each one set, and in what order; and the pattern of reappearances of the same settings of running titles can support such inferences about presswork as the number of skeleton-formes in use and the order in which the formes were printed.

Although some investigations of this kind had been undertaken by editors of Elizabethan drama before World War II, the great expansion of this field of study occurred after the publication of the Principles, encouraged by Bowers himself in the pages of Studies in Bibliography. (The brief discussion of running-title evidence on pages 125–26 of the Principles reflects Bowers’s main contribution to bibliographical analysis before 1949.) Analytical bibliography generally results in articles addressing specific problems, whereas descriptive bibliography takes the form of comprehensive accounts of individual books; but the findings of analytical bibliography are clearly related to the descriptive bibliographer’s task. Bowers would surely have explored this relationship if he had written the Principles after the techniques of bibliographical analysis had become more fully articulated.

Readers who wish to follow the developments in descriptive and analytical bibliography since 1949 can be pointed to a few basic publications, which in turn will lead them to others. The first that should be mentioned are four by Bowers himself. His bibliography of George Sandys (published jointly with Richard Beale Davis, though the descriptions are by Bowers), which appeared only a few months after the Principles in the Bulletin of the New York Public Library for April, May, and June 1950 (and was then reprinted as a pamphlet), offers an extended illustration of his approach. Two essays, "Purposes of Descriptive Bibliography, with Some Remarks on Methods" and "Bibliography Revisited" – originally published in The Library for March 1953 and June 1969 and reprinted in his Essays in Bibliography, Text, and Editing in 1975 – are his primary later considerations of descriptive bibliography. The first treats (among other topics) the relation of descriptive bibliography to textual criticism (as independent but overlapping pursuits), and the second is largely devoted to the bases for varying the amount of detail in different classes of entry in a bibliography. In 1964 Bowers provided a rationale for analytical bibliography in Bibliography and Textual Criticism, which considers the issue of validity in inductive research – the issue that has sometimes made analytical bibliography the subject of controversy, and one that descriptive bibliographers must also be concerned with when generalizing about whole editions from a limited number of copies (as Bowers recognized when in a 1948 article he spoke about "the elusive variant always to be found, of course, just in the next copy").

The major studies supplementary to Bowers’s work, offered by Gavin D.R. Bridson, Philip Gaskell, Willem Daniel Margadant, Allan Stevenson, David L. Vander Meulen, and me, are recorded in an article of mine, "A Sample Bibliographical Description with Commentary" (in Studies in Bibliography for 1987). For accounts of the place of the Principles in bibliographical history and in Bowers’s career, one should turn to Vander Meulen’s "The History and Future of Bowers’s Principles" (Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Second Quarter 1985), which includes a thorough analysis of the reviews of the book, and to my "The Life and Work of Fredson Bowers" (Studies in Bibliography for 1993, and also published separately, with a checklist of Bowers’s writings by Martin C. Battestin and with an index). (Paul Needham’s lecture The Bradshaw Method [1988] offers further historical background on the collational formula.) A number of the Engelhard Lectures, sponsored by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, dealt with descriptive bibliography, and two of them may be cited as general introductions that reflect the state of the field four decades after the Principles: Vander Meulen’s Where Angles Fear to Tread (1998) and my A Description of Descriptive Bibliography (1992; also printed in Studies in Bibliography for 1992) – the latter containing references to most of the important literature of descriptive bibliography, including many examples of bibliographies themselves. (My forthcoming book entitled Descriptive Bibliography, which collects my articles on the subject and surveys the latest contributions to the discipline, is intended to supplement the Principles, not to supplant it.) The closest thing to a textbook on analytical bibliography is the great work by Bowers’s student Charlton Hinman, The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare (1963), which explains the major techniques appropriate for Renaissance books. A comprehensive classified listing of examples of bibliographical analysis as applied to books of all periods is included in my Introduction to Bibliography: Seminar Syllabus (which is periodically revised).

The importance of descriptive bibliography as an intellectual activity and an historical pursuit can be suggested by Bowers’s evaluation of its role in his own professional life. After the publication of the Principles, his work on the Restoration bibliography took second place to his formulation of a theory of scholarly editing and his production of a remarkable series of editions. In the four decades from the early 1950s to his death in 1991 (two weeks short of his eighty-sixth birthday), he published sixty-three volumes of scholarly editions, comprising writings by Dekker, Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher, Shakespeare, Dryden, Fielding, Hawthorne, Whitman, Stephen Crane, William James, and Nabokov. One might imagine that Bowers would have been content for his reputation to rest on (in addition to the Principles) this astounding record as an editor. But during his last years he strove to complete his Restoration drama bibliography and said in a 1985 letter, "It is now … clear to me that this is a cap that must be put in place if I am to feel any real and lasting satisfaction.’’

This remark will come as a surprise to the people who think of descriptive bibliography as less intellectually rewarding than textual criticism and scholarly editing. But some sense of why Bowers felt so strongly about it can be gleaned from his comments on Greg’s Bibliography. In an obituary tribute to Greg, he concentrated on the Bibliography as "perhaps the greatest" of Greg’s works (many of which were important contributions to textual scholarship) and found it "something of a miracle," reflecting "originality of mind" and "depth of comprehension" and illustrating the "adaptability and simplicity" of Greg’s "comprehensive system." That system – essentially the collational formulary – he later called (when he reviewed Greg’s collected essays) "an example of creative scholarship of near-perfect proportions." Bowers, by seeing the multiplicity of implications inherent in Greg’s spare directives and by fleshing them out in spectacular detail, produced in the Principles another monument of creative scholarship. But because it was a work setting forth principles and procedures, he felt the need to complement it (in the pattern of Greg) with a massive demonstration of those guidelines in operation.

He did not live to complete his Restoration bibliography, but his emphasis on it in his final years symbolizes the value he placed on bibliographical description as an act of investigating the past. That activity had in fact been a continuous presence in his life, for he examined copies of Restoration plays whenever time allowed, and his editions constitute an extensive demonstration of the role of physical evidence in literary study (with formal descriptions appearing in some volumes of the Hawthorne, Crane, Fielding, and James editions). But the absence from his publications of a large work consisting entirely bibliographical descriptions was to him a severe gap, for it meant that he had not fully exemplified the way in which descriptive bibliography is a genre of historical writing, with its own story to tell. As he said in a 1953 essay, "bibliography is properly an advanced form of independent scholarship," and every page of the Principles rests on that premise. The Principles is a manual for the writing of one kind of historical account: the history of the published forms of books as physical objects. When the books taken up are the successive printings and editions of writings by a single author, the result is a bibliography that concentrates on the public presentation of a life’s work; when the books chosen for description contain the writings brought out by a single firm, or writings of a particular genre, what emerges is a work of cultural or literary history as told through the concrete testimony to the existence of past mental activity. A history of this kind is not simply the servant of textual scholars or of librarians and book-collectors, though it does of course provide them with essential evidence for their purposes. It has a broader usefulness to those interested in the past; like other forms of historical writing, it aims to reconstruct past events and thoughts, and its special approach is to follow what may be regarded as the most direct path of all – focusing on objects that have survived to give us a tangible link with a previous time.

In recent years there has been a growing interest in the physical characteristics of books, and one can anticipate that the study of the physical book will attract even more attention in the future. Such a forecast may seem paradoxical at a moment when people are talking about the end of the printed-book era and the coming dominance of electronic texts. But whatever happens, those who wish to study the writings that were published in printed form will always have reasons for examining the physical characteristics of the objects containing those printed texts. And it is perhaps not altogether surprising that a watershed point in the history of textual transmission should provoke unaccustomed scrutiny of previous forms. Analytical bibliographers, of course, have long understood the connections between printed form and textual content, but these bibliographers have remained a relatively small band of specialists (though their work has had considerable influence, through its effect on editorial decisions embodied in scholarly texts). Now a larger contingent of scholars has made "book history" a widely recognized area of historical scholarship.

Whereas analytical bibliographers generally focus on details that readers were not meant to notice (but that serve to reveal some phases of the manufacturing process), these newer book historians tend to analyze features that were meant to proclaim their own presence, such as formats, paper qualities, typographic layouts, and bindings. The effects that these features have had both on authors’ conceptions of their works and on readers’ responses to them are increasingly being explored. The association, for instance, of particular book-shapes and printing styles with particular genres of writing is being studied for its role in the spread of ideas. Descriptive bibliographies are storehouses of information about printing practices and typographic trends of the past (drawing on the internal evidence of the books and the external evidence of related documents), and the relevance of such information to the history of reading is bringing to descriptive bibliographies a new audience. As a result, the links between the production history and the post-publication history of books are becoming clearer; and more people are seeing that intellectual history cannot entirely rely on texts extracted from their historic settings (as when they are reproduced in xerographic, microfilm, or electronic forms) but must incorporate insights gained from considering the physical features of the books that disseminated the texts. The life of Bowers’s Principles is thus only in its infancy: the book can be expected to play a role in scholarship as long as there is interest in what the human mind produced during the past five and a half centuries.


New York, December 1993                                                                                                        G. THOMAS TANSELLE