Book Excerpt

THE LIFE AND WORK OF FREDSON BOWERS. G. Thomas Tanselle.
(Bowers, Fredson).

THE LIFE AND WORK OF FREDSON BOWERS.

Checklist and Chronology by Martin C. Battestin. Foreword by David L. Vander Meulen.
Charlottesville, VA: Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 2003. 6.25 x 9.5 inches. cloth. viii, 210 pages. Checklist and Chronology by Martin C. Battestin. Foreword by David L. Vander Meulen. First edition, second printing. Widely acclaimed account of the remarkable career of Fredson Bowers, whose life (1905-1991) spanned the twentieth century and who came to symbolize the fields of analytical and descriptive bibliography, textual criticism, and scholarly editing. READ MORE

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The Life and Work of Fredson Bowers


In every field of endeavor there are a few figures whose accomplishment and influence cause them to be the symbols of their age; their careers and oeuvres become the touchstones by which the field is measured and its history told. In the related pursuits of analytical and descriptive bibliography, textual criticism, and scholarly editing, Fredson Bowers was such a figure, dominating the four decades after 1949, when his Principles of Bibliographical Description was published. By 1973 the period was already being called "the age of Bowers": in that year Norman Sanders, writing the chapter on textual scholarship for Stanley Wells's Shakespeare: Select Bibliographies, gave this title to a section of his essay. For most people, it would be achievement enough to rise to such a position in a field as complex as Shakespearean textual studies; but Bowers played an equally important role in other areas. Editors of nineteenth-century American authors, for example, would also have to call the recent past "the age of Bowers," as would the writers of descriptive bibliographies of authors and presses. His ubiquity in the broad field of bibliographical and textual study, his seemingly complete possession of it, distinguished him from his illustrious predecessors and made him the personification of bibliographical scholarship in his time.

When in 1969 Bowers was awarded the Gold Medal of the Bibliographical Society in London, john Carter's citation referred to the Principles as "majestic," called Bowers's current projects "formidable," said that he had "imposed critical discipline" on the texts of several authors, described Studies in Bibliography as a "great and continuing achievement," and included among his characteristics "uncompromising seriousness of purpose" and "professional intensity." Bowers was not unaccustomed to such encomia, but he had also experienced his share of attacks: his scholarly positions were not universally popular, and he expressed them with an aggressiveness that almost seemed calculated to encourage resistance. Anyone who is innovative and rigorous can expect that opposition will come as readily as praise; and Bowers's career fascinatingly illustrates the interplay between ideas and personality in intellectual history. Furthermore, the "professional intensity" that Carter alluded to did not circumscribe Bowers's life; his extraordinary energy allowed him to engage in, and enjoy, a wide variety of activities besides the ones with which (as he knew) his name would permanently be linked. Scholars, like other artists, create in their work a version of the world, and their creative activities can never be divorced from their experience of life. Bowers's life was one of controversies, and one of satisfactions. The details of that life are of interest not only as the story of a great scholar but also as an account of a life lived to the full.

Fredson Thayer Bowers was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on 25 April 1905, the son of Fredson Eugene Bowers and Hattie May Quigley. He was the only child of this couple, but he had two half-sisters, Ruth and Rita Brownell, from his mother's previous marriage. The Bowers name belonged to one of the oldest Connecticut families. A John Bower (or Bowers) moved to New Haven in the 1650S from Massachusetts (where the family went back to the 1630S) and became in 1672 the first minister in Derby, Connecticut; "Bowers" was therefore regarded as one of New Haven's "ancient" names (as in the first volume of Donald Lines Jacobus's Families of Ancient New Haven, 1923). In later life Bowers took some interest in his family's history but never investigated it, and he lamented the fact that the results of his uncle Thomas's genealogical researches had apparently not been preserved. He was un- able to connect his family to the early one with certainty; but because his father was born in Derby, he liked to believe that the connection existed. His middle name, Thayer, figured in his paternal grandmother's family, and he was proud of its being "a good New England name, among the best in fact" (as he put it in a letter of 1 April 1988 to his eldest son, Fredson Thayer Bowers, Jr.-whose son, Fredson Thayer Bowers III, he hoped would in turn carry on the tradition).

At the time of Bowers's birth, the family lived in the shadow of Yale at 161 Whalley Avenue, and his father was president (and his uncle Thomas secretary-treasurer) of the Gilbert Manufacturing Company, one of a half-dozen corset-manufacturing companies in New Haven. It was a family business, Gilbert being his paternal grandmother's maiden name; but his father and uncle were early enthusiasts for automobiles and seemed to care more about cars than corsets. In 1904 or 1905 they added to the company's products such fabric items for automobile passengers as aprons, covers, and leggins, and about 19o6-Q7 his father established the F. E. Bowers Company, Inc., as a manufacturer of carburetors and motor parts. Bowers was only one year old when the auto- motive activities of his father and uncle were publicized in a local magazine under the heading "Big Autos of the Town" (Saturday Chronicle, 28 July 1906)-a brief article illustrated with photographs of the brothers in their cars. Thomas G. Bowers was shown in the 3o-horse- power machine that had been constructed to his specifications from parts he had purchased on a trip; and Fredson E. Bowers was pictured in his 25-horsepower Rambler, which had a "French grey" body of his own design and was "One of the handsomest and speediest high powered runabouts seen about the city." F. E. Bowers and his mechanic could be observed "nearly every night burning up the roads in New Haven county," and one is tempted to think that he sometimes took his son for rides and that this early acquaintance with automobiles was the origin of Bowers's lifelong devotion to sports cars. (He owned a succession of them, including a Jaguar, an Alfa-Romeo, and a Mercedes; and his many nonstop drives to distant places were-whether intentionally or not-in the tradition of his father's fondness for long automobile trips.) Bowers was not quite six when his father died (on 9 February 1911, at the age of thirty-nine, while attending the Chicago Automobile Show), bringing the brief existence of the F. E. Bowers Company to an end; but the aura of automobile enthusiasm continued as a presence in his life through his uncle and the fact that the ongoing Gilbert Manufacturing Company had by 1909 switched exclusively to automobile-related fabrics (the corset business being set up separately as the Gilbert Corset Company).