The Bibliographical Way

The Bibliographical Way

[This essay originated as an address given by Lawrence Wroth at a joint meeting of the Bibliographical Society of America and the American Historical Association held in the John Carter Brown Library on December 30, 1936. It was later published in The Colophon (Spring, 1938) and reprinted in About Books: A Gathering of Essays (1941). Another address with the same title was given at the University of Kansas by Fredson Bowers twenty years after this essay appeared. Bowers’ “Bibliographical Way” was published by the University of Kansas in 1959, and reprinted in Essays in Bibliography, Text, and Editing (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1977). Bowers explained the concept of a bibliographical way as “a method, a state of mind if you will; it is also one road to truth.” It is curious that he never mentioned Wroth’s work, even though he must have been aware of it.]

A friend who had grown weary of listening to my invective and hyperbole on the subject of historians who consistently ignore the printed book in favor of manuscript source materials finally suggested that I come down from the soap-box and put my ideas into a paper. This is the paper. I hope no one will read into it anything so extravagant as a claim of superiority for the printed book in comparison with the manuscript source. It is not, indeed, a question of comparison. My purpose is simply to emphasize the importance of printed materials even in this day of open and openly arrived at archives, and to suggest that in his approach to the book as a source the student of history take the high-road which I call The Bibliographical Way.

Faith in the prime importance of the printed source arises from the conviction that the content of the printed document is, humanly and normally, the studied and reasoned belief of its writer, presented carefully, in the hope of its withstanding criticism and rebuttal. It is a conscious exaggeration, untenable but heartening, to assert that everything worth recording of a period finds its way into contemporary print, that its manuscript remains are a residuum which may or may not supplement the knowledge gained from the printed record. If one holds this conviction and recognizes the value of this exaggeration as a stimulus, he will strongly maintain the need of a method in the study of the printed source, the need, in brief, of pursuing this Bibliographical Way, which is not a goal but a road that leads far when persistently travelled.
In the sense in which I have learned to regard it, bibliography is a process in the study of texts, particularly in the study of their history and transmission. Its examination of formats, papers, bindings, and printing practices; the apparatus of symbols by which it records its findings; all its mysteries, which, in truth, are not in the least mysterious, are means to the end of identifying or describing a printed text, of making clear its differences from other texts of the same work, of determining the circumstances under which it was produced, and of postulating the relationship of those circumstances to the problem with which the book is concerned. The practice of bibliography as an end in itself is an activity that frequently brings gratification to the practitioner, but just now we are concerned only with the practice of it as a process in the study of texts, differing from textual criticism in that its indices are primarily, though not exclusively, external and material factors.
Because of the enlightening influence of bibliography as applied to literary studies, a knowledge of its method and the practice of it have become part of the normal equipment of the student of English literature. Graduate students from isolated small colleges as well as from the great universities nowadays know their McKerrow and move easily about in the Stationer’s Register and the Short Title Catalogue. This knowledge and the practical application of it have pleasantly diversified their studies and have given them a supplementary approach to the solution of their difficulties. But this solace has not been brought into the life of the graduate student of American history; no new approach, no diversification of interest has stimulated him or freshened his practice for a century. He does not know his McKerrow, and what is worse, and now I am speaking in dead earnest, he does not know his way about in Evans’s American Bibliography and Sabin’s Dictionary of Books Relating to America. More than once, indeed, I have had advanced students at work in the John Carter Brown Library who literally had not heard of either of our great national bibliographies.
With its chronological arrangement projecting upon the consciousness a record of the life and national interests of a year, a decade, or a century, Evans’s American Bibliography is the most important single textbook for a student of the colonial history of English North America. If the student is investigating a constitutional question in a given colony, his knowledge of it is enriched by learning from Evans of the publications on that and related questions in other colonies. Furthermore, the background of his particular subject is made intelligible to him by his knowledge, gained from Evans, of the intellectual constitution of his period; of what other subjects—religious, political, social, or literary—were giving concern to the people in the years of his interest; of what was the geographical or sectional distribution of those questions; who were the persons agitating them; how extensive was the literature on his special subject; and to what extent certain books upon it were republished. Or, if he learns from Evans that no printed writings exist on the subject of his concern, he is thereby incited to essay the explanation of that fact as a ponderable element in his study.
But especially if this student is investigating a period, rather than a man or an event, is Evans’s bibliographical record his textbook—its important entries and its unimportant, its philosophical essays and its broadside ballads, its religious pamphlets and its commercial advertisements. In this printed expression of trained thinkers and common men is embodied the intellectual concern of the day; in it are recorded its hopes and fears and aspirations, its daily affairs and its concept of the eternal values. How else than by living with this material day by day is the student to enter into the consciousness of his period, how else is he to discriminate between what was important to it and what was trivial, how else to know that his period was alive with a quick and passionate life, that in the old time ginger was as hot upon the tongues of men as it is today upon his own?
Historians find difficulty in crediting the bibliographer with a rational plan. They understand the list of references placed at the end of a book with the heading “Bibliography,” a list which contains only the best editions of the best books on the subject. They are irritated when the bibliographer proceeds to form a list comprising all editions of all books, good and bad, related to the investigation. There was protest in high quarters not many months ago when the final appropriation was made for the continuation of Sabin. The editors of Sabin, said some of those whose consent was important to the continuance of the project, should content themselves with entering the first edition only of each book. It is wasteful, they said, to give a page or five pages to the entry of all discoverable subsequent editions. It was not easy to convince these men that the number of editions, the geographical origin of the editions, and the very fact that subsequent editions existed are in themselves significant circumstances in the history of that book and its author, and consequently in the history of the movement, the period, or the place with which it was concerned. The discovery that there was published more than one edition of the book causes the astute investigator to study its matter with interest and to cogitate upon the relationship of its particular contents to the cause in which it appeared. If, for example, we did not know all about the Stamp Act it would open wide a door into the subject to learn that Daniel Dulany’s Considerations had been published in eight editions, that these had proceeded: two from Annapolis, one from New York, one probably from Philadelphia, one from Boston, one from a source not yet identified, and two from London. And if in pursuing the investigation of that treatise it developed that Pitt had held a copy of the book in his hand and read from it in the course of his speech in the House of Commons urging the repeal of the Stamp Act, a whole set of ideas about that episode would come at once into being.
And if one were interested in the Stamp Act Congress, his study of Evans would lead him to inquire why it was that only one contemporary report of that conference had been published in the colonies, and that by the press of Annapolis. The answer to this question must be regarded as having potentialities for the student of the incident with which it is concerned. Examining that Annapolis edition of the Stamp Act Congress Proceedings with care, he would find appended to it a statement of expenses of the Maryland delegate s to the Congress and a letter from the delegates to the Maryland agent in London. A further investigation along bibliographical lines would inform him that the pamphlet had been printed in September, 1766, and he would conclude that it had been published as a report, or perhaps an apologia, to the Assembly which was to convene in November. At that point, bibliographically speaking, the investigations might end, but just here the historian would ask himself why such an elaborate and expensive report to the Assembly had been considered necessary by the delegates, and, pursuing this reflection, he might soon find himself involved in that Maryland struggle between the Upper and Lower Houses which, continuing throughout the colonial period, was a factor of national interest in the French and Indian War, and which, indeed, must be regarded as one of those perennial local conflicts in which the seed of the Revolution was germinated. An interesting line of inquiry might thus be opened because this historian had asked himself a question as to the relation between the publication of a text and the events with which it was concerned.
It is a fact that the Albany Congress of 1754, also, was reported in only one American publication, a political tract of Newport origin. In a discussion of this circumstance, a young historian of the period who is as much at home with his pamphlets as with his manuscript sources has told me that the North Carolina Assembly ordered copies of the Albany Congress minutes to be printed, and, further, that William Smith of New York wrote in his diary that, lest the French be forewarned, the proceedings of the Congress and its proposed Plan of Union were guarded with such secrecy that his father, the elder William Smith, delegate to the Congress, would not tell even him what had transpired at the sessions. But two things seem clear enough: that no issue of the Proceedings came from the North Carolina press despite the Assembly’s order to print; and that, however strictly it may have been held in New York, the idea of secrecy did not prevail in Rhode Island. The historian facing these bibliographical problems asks himself questions in both cases. I do not know whether it was influence, indifference, or belated caution that caused the stifling of North Carolina publication. That problem is still to be followed up. It is obvious, however, that the account of the Congress, with the most important of its minutes, came out in print in Rhode Island because the political enemies of Stephen Hopkins accused him of various crimes and indiscretions as a delegate, and he, forgetting or ignoring the need of secrecy, or being convinced that the need for it had passed, spread the record of the Congress upon the printed page. We have in the John Carter Brown Library a contemporary manuscript journal of the sessions of the Albany Congress and a copy of that printed compression of the minutes which Stephen Hopkins brought out in defence of himself and of the proposed Plan of Union. Though the manuscript is much more complete than the printed version, there exists a difference in the implications of the two documents so great as to make the manuscript a pallid thing alongside the printed pamphlet.
The historian who writes about the settlement of Maryland is tempted always to base his study upon the singularly fine Relatio of the Jesuit missionary, Father Andrew White, a manuscript source which is found in English in two forms: first, in a nineteenth-century translation of the original Latin document; and, second, in a complete contemporary translation of the same narrative known as the Lechford version, discovered, still in manuscript, in 1894. Both these manuscript versions have a freshness and charm hardly to be found elsewhere in accounts of American settlement; they contain a full relation of the long voyage out from England preceding the actual settlement, and they carry the story of the colony along to the moment when one of the ships was about to return with news of the happy outcome of the venture. They represent, therefore, the basic account of the Maryland settlement before the necessities of successful colony promoting had dictated a certain amount of revision of their statements. But immediately upon the arrival of these accounts in England, Lord Baltimore made a recension of them which he published under the title, A Relation of the successfull beginnings of Mary-land. This printed version gives in many instances fuller information of events than is found in the manuscript versions, or, in a few cases, information on matters not found in them in any form. It corrects at least one essential date; it contains the names of several actual participants in the adventure as witnesses to the truth of the account; and it contains three pages embodying the “Conditions of Plantation.” Here is a more important document for the modern historian than either of the manuscript versions of Father White’s narrative. There are in it, to begin with, the amended date and the expansions and contractions of matter and incident already mentioned. But more important than these is the inclusion in the printed book of the “Conditions of Plantation” here referred to. The conditions of settlement and land tenure of the Maryland colony underwent progressive change in the first two years of the venture. Knowledge of the form in which they are found in this second of the Maryland colonization tracts is essential to a full and orderly reconstruction of the social and economic history of the colony.
The historian of the past century who has neglected this printed Relation of Maryland of 1634 is not to be blamed except for having assumed that it was simply a duplication of the matter of Father White’s Relatio, and for believing that at any cost he must go, when possible, to the original manuscript sources for his facts. The circumstance that the printed Relation of 1634 exists only in the British Museum and John Carter Brown copies made it unlikely that any except the most enterprising student would have an actual sight of it. And, furthermore, everyone was misled by the nineteenth-century editor who reprinted it from the British Museum copy and, being devoid of bibliographical sensibility, omitted from his reprint, without comment, the attestation of the narrative and the very important “Conditions of Plantation.” Later the question arose as to whether this editor could knowingly have taken so great a liberty as this with his text. Is it not possible, it used to be asked, that the British Museum copy lacks the pages 11-14 in which these features are found? But that, as I have made certain with my own eyes, is not the case. Because those who have written of it have lacked bibliographical curiosity, the prime account of the Maryland settlement has been almost entirely neglected by historians in favor of a manuscript version of the same document which, in the particulars mentioned, is a notably inferior source.
There is a copy of Park’s Laws of Maryland in the John Carter Brown Library which has two title-pages. One of them was found in the copy concerned serving as a lining paper of the leather cover. But that salvaged leaf is more than a piece of paper, for its printed face varies in an important detail from the title-page with which the book was published. It proclaims that with this complete collection of the Laws was to be printed the Charter of the Province. But the Charter was not published with the book and no mention of it occurs upon the title-page actually used. I do not pretend to explain this last-minute change of mind, but I wish I could. The explanation would be worth a paragraph in a history of Maryland, and a sentence or two in any general history of the colonial period. All I know is that in this year of 1727 the Upper and Lower Houses of the Maryland Assembly—Court and Country, Privilege and the People—were already well advanced upon the contest which affected the life of that province throughout the colonial period, and which, as suggested earlier, became a factor in national politics in the period of the French and Indian War. And I know that in Maryland at this time, Daniel Dulaney, the Elder, was learnedly fighting, to use the title of his tract, for The Right of the Inhabitants of Maryland to the Benefit of the English Laws. Somebody, on one side or the other of one of these, or of some other question, did not want the Maryland charter published for all to read at this juncture. Or was its omission simply the result of a decision taken in committee for the sake of economy? Let the anti-climax be ignored. What we are affirming is that interest in cancelled leaves, or in the reprinting of preliminaries, is something that concerns historians as well as bibliographers.
The bibliographer is sometimes reproached for his too great concern with plates and maps, with their states and editions, or with the question whether “they belong with the book.” But there is reason for his concern. It is elementary to observe that an early state of a map bound in with a revised text, or a late state bound with an early text, or any other of the numerous incorrect permutations and combinations which can innocently be brought about by bookseller or collector in making up what he believes to be a perfect copy of a book, can cause endless trouble to an investigator. In cases of this sort the interposition between him and his source of some such minute bibliographical study as that which Wilberforce Eames carried out in connection with the Captain John Smith maps and books in Sabin’s Dictionary is accepted with gratitude. But not every book can be so thoroughly studied as were the Smith works by Mr. Eames, so that the historian must learn to apply for himself the bibliographical tests which determine the relationship of the map to the book in which it is found.
Recently I have had an experience in which days of effort turned out to have been wasted when it was shown that a certain map and a certain book, both of great rarity, had been issued together for the purpose of mutual illustration. I speak of this incident with some hesitancy because it reflects upon my own ability as a research assistant, but confession will be good for me. My aid was requested by a visitor to the John Carter Brown Library who found himself interested in a map of the Gulf Stream by William Gerard De Brahm, his Majesty’s Surveyor General for the Southern District of North America. The map in question had every appearance of importance, but to say that it was truly important it was necessary to know upon what data it had been constructed: whether upon original observations by De Brahm, or by the selection of data from earlier maps and sailors’ traditions. Knowing that De Brahm was an eccentric, who later wrote a mathematico-mystical treatise called Apocalyptic Gnomon points out Eternity’s Divisibility rated with Time, pointed at by Gnomon’s Sidereals, my investigator was proceeding cautiously in his evaluation of the Gulf Stream map. Throughout the several days of his visit, we came back again and again to the question of the credibility of De Brahm in connection with the map. But it was not until after he had left that it occurred to me to question a premise we had both taken for true, that is, that the Gulf Stream map was a unit in itself, a detached, separately published statement without supporting documents. Almost at once, by examination of the Library’s copy of De Brahm’s Atlantic Pilot of London, 1772, I found that the Gulf Stream map was not a point in space unrelated to anything else but an integral part of a book on the navigation of the North Atlantic; that it was, indeed, the graphic representation of a long and arduous experiment, the result in graphic projection of innumerable observations of position, courses, drift, and other nautical factors entering into the comprehension of that great ocean current. And furthermore the circumstances of the voyage and the figures upon which the chart was based were set down at large in the pages of the book to which it belonged. Here was the authentication of the De Brahm map, long sought by our investigator because in none of the references to it previously seen by him was the map related to the book. It is an unusual book with an unusual map, neither previously the subject of a bibliographical study.
I like these concrete examples of the Bibliographical Way. I hope you do, because there are more of them to come. There is the case of John Huske’s Present State of North America. That book is an illustrious example of the effectiveness of giving a dog a bad name. Its earliest reviewer was one of those lazy lads who review books without reading them. Writing in the Gentleman’s Magazine, he said that this book was chiefly drawn from Butel-Dumont’s Histoire et Commerce des Colonies Angloises of the same year. The small amount of truth in his statement was that the two books were on the same subject. The appalling untruth in it lies in the fact that one of these treatises sets forth the French side of the controversy, the other, most emphatically, the English. But the Huske book has been virtually without influence among historians because one commentator after another has repeated that calumny and few have troubled to look into the text for verification of it. You can still buy it, indeed, for less than it is worth because booksellers continue to catalogue it as an English rehash of Butel-Dumont. Then, too, for long years the book was said to be by Ellis Huske, postmaster of Boston, who, in fact, died in Boston while the book was being written in London. In reality it was composed by John Huske, the son of Ellis, who was a friend of Franklin’s, a publicist, and a Member of Parliament. Its record was further complicated by the old John Carter Brown Catalogue which, Heaven help us all, entered it from a binder’s title as by John Hushe. Still more, it is referred to generally as of London, 1755, with occasionally, but only occasionally, a reference to a second edition. But following the bibliographical way we find that in the year 1755 there was a second edition of London, an edition of Dublin, two of Boston, and a translation into German, published in three issues in Frankfurt in 1755 and 1756, one of them joined to a translation of Butel-Dumont’s book. The second Boston edition proclaims it a most important work, and other contemporary American evidence testifies to its value. Now here is rich food for the reflective historian. It does not matter what we think of the causes of the French and Indian War. The important thing is what the people who were to suffer from that war thought of those causes. In trying to learn what they thought it is surely a mistake to overlook a book which, from its widespread distribution, its evident appeal, seems to have had in it something that satisfied the people most concerned, some delicate balance in its statement of the causes at issue, some recognition of what was truly the point of the barb which excited these people to action against their neighbors. This book is a most important document to students of the French and Indian War. And yet, I do not believe it has been thoroughly studied by those students.
I have in mind another example. Dr. Thomas Bray’s Proposals for the Encouragement of Religion in Foreign Plantations is piece of two leaves in folio which, with notable exceptions, has usually been dated as of 1700 or 1702, making it an interesting but not an important document in the history of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, the first of which was founded in 1697, the second, an outgrowth of the first, in 1701. But it now appears as the result of a bibliographical investigation which I need not detail that the piece was published in 1696; that the second part of it was not by Bray but by Sir Thomas Lawrence, Secretary of Maryland; and that there were in 1696 at least three editions published instead of the one edition formerly recognized and improperly dated by a succession of historians and bibliographers. We have before us as the result of this investigation the earliest printed document, the foundation document, in fact, in the history of these great societies which are so closely associated with the story of British imperial expansion throughout the world, a document, by the way, ignored by the official historians of both Societies; we have an edition of a Maryland production not hitherto known, by an individual not formerly recognized as its author; we have knowledge that the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge did not spring into being but that it was reared by Dr. Bray with labor and pain. These are important facts because of their suggestions. They have been brought out because one investigator felt that it would be a good idea to compare three copies of the Proposals that came to his attention at different times, and to compare the texts of each of them with other writings of Dr. Bray and with Maryland archival material.
Historians have written about and philosophers have discussed for many generations the Salem Witchcraft trials, but the outstanding contribution to this subject of recent years was made by Thomas J. Holmes in his Bibliography of Increase Mather. His intensive study of the circumstances attending the composition and publication of his author’s Cases of Conscience enabled him to rewrite a chapter in the early history of the country. There have been many a more fruitful employment of a scholarly method than was made in this instance, but it has not come within the range of my knowledge.
Then there is that impressive incident in which Vernor W. Crane, following the Bibliographical Way, set out to identify certain anonymous contributions to the American propaganda of the Revolutionary period, and, as the result of investigations carried through after the subject had been considered closed for a generation, laid down the framework of a new canon of the writings of Benjamin Franklin. Not only did this investigation concern itself with articles in the newspaper and periodical presses, but it piled up proof in the debated question of Franklin’s authorship of the Interest of Great Britain considered, and finally it corrected the absurd heedlessness by which for generations all of us, bibliographers and historians alike, had attributed to Governor Francis Bernard a tract almost certainly by Franklin entitled The Causes of the present Distractions in America explained. In this case bibliography did not show itself to be, in the words of the old tag, the handmaid of history, but history itself.
It would be easy to multiply instances, but I have done. In the very moment of feeling that I may have successfully made my point, it occurs to me that perhaps the point did not need to be made, that I have been stating an undisputed thing with grim solemnity. But I recall, to offset this feeling of depression, that I speak and write from long experience as the custodian of a great collection of printed documents of earlier centuries. The books that surround me in the John Carter Brown Library are used less by historians than by bibliographers, students of literature, book collectors, booksellers, and geographers. I believe that the keepers of similar collections elsewhere would report the same experience, and I believe that in consequence of this neglect writings on American history are less vital, less rich, less exciting to the spirit than they should be in view of the material at hand and the method provided by bibliographical science for its utilization.
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2 thoughts on “The Bibliographical Way

  1. A rather long post! I agree though with its conclusions. For any historian who wishes to understand the assumptions, beliefs and prejudices of bygone eras there is no real substitute for immersing oneself in printed sources.

  2. “With its chronological arrangement projecting upon the consciousness a record of the life and national interests of a year, a decade, or a century, Evans’s American Bibliography is the most important single textbook for a student of the colonial history of English North America.” I still think this is true. Evans is as much a contribution to historical studies as it is to bibliographic ones.

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