Textual Criticism

Textual criticism provides the principles for the scholarly editing of the texts of the cultural heritage. In the Western world, the tradition and practice of collecting, tending, and preserving records was first instituted in the Hellenistic period. The great library at Alexandria, before it was destroyed by fire, was the foremost treasury of manuscripts in classical antiquity. At the library, a school of textual scholarship established itself, with a strict fidelity to the letter in editing, but its systematic principles in the works of the librarian Aristarchus of Samothrace have for the most part not survived. The subsequent Christian ages were long oblivious of the Hellenistic textual discipline. Instead, the scriptoria of the proliferating centers of medieval learning were ruled by the pragmatics of the copyist. Scribes interpreted texts as they copied them, and as they did so they often compared variant source document exemplars and, in the process, altered texts in transmission.

Such interpretive criticism of variant readings remained the mode of procedure for the humanist philologists who laid the early foundations of modern textual scholarship. Their first care was the classical and medieval texts in Latin and Greek, but by the eighteenth century scholarly editing was equally practiced on vernacular texts. In England during this period, it was typically men of letters and of the church—from Nicholas Rowe via Alexander Pope, Lewis Theobald, Bishop Warburton, and Samuel Johnson , among others, to Edward Capell—who turned to the editing of Shakespeare’s plays and those of his fellow dramatists. Capell collected Shakespeare first editions to evaluate them in historical terms, thus paving the way for twentieth-century Shakespearean bibliography.

The epitome of this age of amateur learning was a type of edition designed to collocate the commentary on every variant reading from the accumulated editorial tradition—the edition cum notibus variorum, or “variorum edition” for short. As a mode of the scholarly edition, the variorum edition was revived in the era of positivism, the era of fact-finding in all sciences, and has, albeit with significant extensions and shifts of emphasis from the textual to the interpretive, survived to this day. Its revival in the late nineteenth century in the United States was the consequence of the professionalization of textual criticism that, beginning in Germany, set in under the auspices of historicity in the earlier nineteenth century. The seminal innovations in method were an evaluation of the documents as sources and their arrangement in a family tree, or stemma, of textual descent.

The heredity model of the stemma generated procedures of combinatory logic to ascertain and evaluate textual authority and from authority to establish critical texts. Stemmatology marked the beginnings of textual criticism as an articulation of principles and rules for editing. It was at first manuscript-oriented and again, initially, the domain of textual criticism in the classics. Deemed valid equally for medieval vernacular texts by Karl Lachmann and his followers, it was adopted, similarly, in biblical studies once rationalism had questioned the belief in Scripture as literally God-given and had opened ways to understanding the historicity of the words of the Bible through textual scholarship. For medieval textual studies, Paul Bedier in France early in the twentieth century challenged the validity of textual decisions arrived at by way of logically schematized document relationships. He proposed instead a hermeneutics of editing pivoting on the critical evaluation of a “best text” to serve as the basis for a scholarly edition.

Neither stemmatology nor “best-text” editing appeared fully applicable, however, to texts of the eras since the invention of the printing press. The earliest orientation here was toward the text of the author’s final redaction. The text as last overseen by the author was to provide the edition base text of a scholarly edition. Hence, over and above the text and its transmission, the author and authorial intention became important determinants for editorial rationale. A textual scholarship specific to the modern philologies began to emerge. Distinct in theory and methodology, it was, however, as gradual in forming as modern literary criticism was in gaining independence from the inherited modes of studying the ancients. The principle of the author’s final redaction did not as such and by itself carry sufficient strength to oust eclectic editing by subjective choices grounded in taste and sensibility.

In the twentieth century, it was in England that modern textual criticism was first put on methodological foundations to counteract such subjectivity in editing. The material study of the book—bibliography—was reshaped into a virtual science of editing. As traditionally understood, bibliography was an auxiliary branch of historical study for book collectors, archivists, and librarians. Listing books by authentic date and place required systematic conventions of description. These in turn demanded precise analytical investigations of the physical characteristics of books. Springing from the recognition that the findings of such analytical bibliography not only spoke of books as material objects but held information also about the texts the books contained, the New Bibliography inaugurated by A. W. Pollard, R. B. McKerrow, and W. W. Greg in England was textual bibliography. It became the supreme methodology of textual criticism in England and America for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. The claims for its status as a science grew from a conviction that bibliographical analysis was capable of revealing the patterns of textual transmission entirely through the black marks on paper, in total disregard of the sense and meanings that these marks carried. The goal of determining the history of a text according to the formal patterns of its transmission was to assess textual authority without the intervention of critically interpretive judgment, let alone of subjective taste, and to establish in editing the text of highest authority. Establishing this text meant retrieving it in a pristine state from extant documents in which it had become corrupted in transmission.

Despite the objectifying innovations of its analytical procedures, thinking in bibliography-based textual criticism remained structured as in the inherited approaches. Transmission was a priori defined as corruptive. Texts commonly survived in documents of transmission alone. To assess their relative authority, a distinction was made between authorized and nonauthorized documents. The texts that were substantive for editing resided in the authorized documents, referred to as witnesses, that is, those documents over which the author had exerted direct or indirect control. Where no authorized document survived, the extant derivative witness nearest the lost source was declared to be a substantive document carrying the relevant substantive text. (Substantive texts of this description are all that survive, for example, for the plays of Shakespeare, and it is from the textual problems of Shakespeare’s plays that Anglo-American textual criticism in the twentieth century has derived its paradigms.) Authorization conferred presumptive authority, a quality assumed by analogy for substantive texts in nonauthorized documents. Yet, since at the same time transmissional corruption was always assumed, it was the obligation of textual criticism and editing to isolate and undo it. The pure text of unalloyed authority to be retrieved had its imagined existence before and behind the textual reality in the extant transmission. It was an ideal text.

The inherited perspective of textual criticism on the ideal text was thus rearward-directed, upstream against the lines of descent in textual transmission. The logical crunch came when revision carried texts forward and authoritative changes of text in derivative documents of transmission had to be dealt with. At this juncture, historically and systematically, the question of copy-text became a main focus of editorial theory in Anglo-American textual criticism. A copy-text is a material base and heuristic foundation for certain types of scholarly critical editions. It may be understood as a base text provided in an extant document that editorial labor by controlled alterations transforms into an edited text. A copy-text is not an absolute requirement for scholarly editing. In editorial modes that strictly equate document and text, such as the editing of draft manuscripts or the editing, severally, of different versions of a work, the base text is not treated, and especially not altered, in the manner of a copy-text. It is specifically when the editing aims to produce an ideal text that a copy-text is chosen, as the text from which to depart, from among the extant document texts.

The choice of copy-text is basically a practical matter. It did not loom large as a problem where no revision in transmission complicated the picture. The copy-text was simply the primary authorized text, or else the substantive text nearest the lost source. But with authorization being thought of as conferred upon the document, document and text were tied up together. R. B. McKerrow, in the course of his preparations in the 1930s for an old-spelling critical Shakespeare edition, encountered revisions in printings after the first editions. Because they were reprints, these were by definition nonsubstantive witnesses. Yet McKerrow saw no choice but, on the strength of the revisions, to nominate such derivative document texts as the copy-texts for his proposed edition. This entailed accepting all readings not manifestly corrupt from the copy-text, and it meant taking certain unidentifiable accretions of corruption into the bargain. It was only W. W. Greg, after McKerrow’s death, who saw a way out of such a “tyranny of the copy-text” (Greg 382).

Greg’s 1949 lecture “The Rationale of Copy-Text” became the focal text for Anglo-American textual criticism at mid-century. Empirically, based on his bibliographical and editorial experience with medieval and Renaissance texts, Greg pleaded for the earliest substantive text as copy-text even when revisions were found in an otherwise nonsubstantive witness. With respect to what he termed the accidentals of the text, that is, its orthography and punctuation, an edition would thereby remain as close to the primary authority as the transmissional situation allowed. Only in the extant witness closest to the lost original—deemed to be least overlaid by the preferential spellings and punctuation of scribes and compositors—would there be an appreciable chance that the accidentals were the author’s own.

The same held true for the substantives, the words of the text themselves. Greg suggested that the copy-text closest to original authority should rule, too, in all instances of indifferent variation in substantives, that is, wherever it was critically undecidable whether a later variant was due to corruption or revision. Revision was conceded only where it was critically recognizable. Admitting that critical recognition was required implied abandoning the erstwhile claim that bibliographygrounded textual criticism could operate on the basis of the black marks on paper alone. Owing to the pragmatic situation with books of the period of hand printing, moreover, when authors could not or did not read proof or otherwise influence the compositors’ choice of orthography and punctuation, only verbal variants were considered authorial revisions. A derivative witness thus was considered authoritative only where it contained substantive changes likely to be revisions and therefore superseding their respective antecedents in the copytext. These revisions were emended into the copy-text as replacements for the corresponding original readings. The procedure amounted to a mode of critical eclecticism governed no longer by taste but by bibliographically controlled method. The text of composite authority that resulted was again an ideal text.

Greg’s proposals advanced the practice of editing Renaissance texts. They proved seminal, moreover, beyond their original scope and purpose. In giving new respectability to eclecticism, they acknowledged the pragmatic nature of editing. (Embracing eclecticism, it is true, entails conceiving of a text as a heterogeneity of readings. That this is a theoretically doubtful proposition is a fact slow to be recognized even after 40 years of consideration.) Furthermore, Greg’s “Rationale” made an implicit logical distinction between text and document, from which conceptions of virtual copy-texts have been derived for later non-Renaissance editions, such as editions of Henry Fielding, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, or James Joyce. What is most important, the “Rationale” provided a theoretical place for taking authorial intention systematically into account in scholarly editing. As advanced argumentatively by Fredson T. Bowers, G. Thomas Tanselle, and others to provide, first, the foundations for the editorial projects of the Center for Editions of American Authors (CEAA) and, subsequently, the advisory principles of the Center for Scholarly Editions (CSE) of the Modern Language Association of America, Greg’s pragmatics were developed into a full-scale theory of copy-text editing to yield critically edited texts of the author’s final intention. Anglo-American scholarly editing became, as Peter Schillingsburg has maintained, essentially author-oriented.

The reformulation of Greg’s pragmatics for Renaissance texts as general principles for editing modern literature was a triumph of the movement for grounding Anglo-American textual criticism in bibliography. At the same time, the application of the principles to nineteenth- century texts, as in the CEAA editions of Hawthorne (1963-) or Crane (1969-75), sparked controversies that have led to an intense theoretical debate over models, methods, concepts, and aims of textual criticism and editing that has not abated. Copy-text editing as codified following Greg’s “Rationale,” conceived as it was for texts surviving mainly in print, sought to integrate the aspect of revision—of authentic, and generally authorial, textual changes—within a methodology designed to undo errors that normally occur in copying or reprinting texts. The omnipresence of evidence for authorial composition and revision in manuscripts and prints of recent times necessitates broadening the focus. To organize textual criticism and editing, however, around compositional and revisional processes would require significant reconsiderations of what texts are or may be considered to be. Late-twentieth-century literary theory, to be sure, entertains notions of text variously emphasizing textual stability, instability, or indeterminacy, yet none of these notions has had a marked impact on Anglo- American textual criticism and its editorial models. The editorial model of the ideal text, in particular—be it that of the text of archetypal purity or, as its mirror image, that of the text of authorial final intentions—has, it is true, a notional stability. Yet it is conceived of as stable in pre-theoretical terms, realized as it is under the pragmatics of copy-text eclecticism.

For theoretical foundations of an editorial model of textual stability, by contrast, the orientation for textual criticism may be suggested to lie in the tenets of Structuralism. (This is exemplified, for instance, in presentday German text-critical thought.) Also, correlative to the notion in modern literary theory of textual instability, one may envisage text-critical and editorial models answering to the processes of text composition and revision. Privileging textual fluidity over final stability, such models may be expected, in particular, to reconsider whether it is valid to grant overriding status to intention among the determinants by which texts (in writing as in editing) take shape. From one position, questionings of these determinants, as in the writings of Jerome McGann, focus on the social factors accompanying the publication and dissemination of the written word. From another angle, considerations of the implications for textual criticism of a psychology of the creative act have entered the debate, as in the writings of Hershel Parker. Such an approach may lead, thirdly, to a correlation of theories of textual indeterminacy with, specifically, the textuality of unresolved alternatives in draft manuscript texts.

Textual criticism and editing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries owed much of the impetus for its development in thought and method to German scholarship. The exhaustive historisch-kritische Edition of an author’s complete works is essentially a German concept. As such, it was realized, for example, for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller in the late nineteenth century, that is, within decades of their deaths. This type of edition has continued to command allegiance as a scholarly ideal. German textual scholarship did not experience the urge for scientific objectivity by which bibliography became the focus of the discipline’s orientation in England. In editing, the inherited modes of text constitution persisted almost to mid-century in Germany. Yet subjective eclecticism, or Intuitionsphilologie, as it came derogatorily to be called, was always tempered, in full-scale scholarly editions at least, by the element historisch in the double-barreled adjective. The specific sense of historicity fostered in German textual criticism has provided distinct orientations for the German direction of the discipline.

Innovation of stance and method came with Friedrich Beissner’s edition of the works of Friedrich Hölderlin, which began publication in 1943. Endeavoring to present Hölderlin’s poems through all their stages of development, from notes to drafts to publication (or abandonment), Beissner devised an apparatus to display what he saw as the organic growth of the poetic texts toward unity and superior aesthetic integrity. His teleological and intention-oriented assumptions were traditional, yet the edition’s focus on composition and revision was unprecedented. In its wake, the German-speaking countries have seen an indigenous debate regarding principles of textual criticism and critical editing. In theoretical terms, its movement has been from Beissner’s focus on the author, recognizably akin to the authororientation of Anglo-American textual criticism, toward a focus on the text. Its points of perspective have been the historic integrity of the text version, on the one hand, and the dynamic progression in time of composition and revision, on the other. Under the structuralist tenet of the contextual referentiality of all elements of a text, and hence of the essential context relationship of textual variants, this double perspective has emphasized the distinct nature of the variance resulting from writing and rewriting, as opposed to that accumulating as errors in the transmission.

Following Beissner’s lead, the demand for editorial representation of the textual developments of composition and revision has inspired in-depth reflections on the status and functions of the textual apparatus in critical editions and elicited new forms of design of the apparatus. The traditional editorial obligation to eliminate textual corruption, by contrast, has become a distinct side issue. Yet in the traditional field, concepts such as that of the textual error (Textfehler) have been seen to require special attention. “Textual error” has been restrictively defined in terms of both quality (as confined, e.g., to the “obvious misprint”) and duration, the latter aspect admitting of the possibility that a textual error became incorporated in acts of revision (i.e., a reading may originate in the transmission as a corruption but end up as authenticated in the authorized text). Such definitional reasoning with regard to the textual error may be seen as a special instance of an overall assessment of the extent to which the textual critic’s and editor’s interaction with the text requires, and depends on, critical interpretation. Critical interpretation, moreover, is recognized to interact with the text rather than with the author. Present-day German textual criticism, therefore, unlike author-oriented Anglo-American textual criticism, focuses on the integrity of the textual history, on the structural contextuality of texts and their variants, and on the role of critical interpretation to balance and neutralize, if not to eliminate outright, authorial intention as a principle guiding editorial procedures.

German text-critical thought today is characterized throughout by complementarles of opposites. Thus, the version is both extrinsically and intrinsically defined. Its extrinsic determinants guide editorial pragmatics, while its intrinsic determinants govern text-critical theory. The extrinsic determinants are mainly historical. Versions of a work are historical states of the text, such as the finished draft or any given published text, with all the social ramifications of its collaborative production or contemporary reception. In the extrinsic realm an editor decides which version to edit. The choice is as pragmatic in its way as is that of a copy-text. Yet with a version as base text, editing is strictly confined to emending manifest textual error. The edited text establishes not an ideality but the essential historicity of the version text. The editorial labor invested in the establishment of the edited text under the premises of copy-text editing is in the German mode of version editing expended on correlating text and apparatus. The correlation arises from the intrinsic definition of the version in terms of textual variance. As authorial variants of composition and revision, superseded and superseding readings stand in a relational context, and every antecedent text, like every succeeding text of a work, must be regarded as a structural system of language for that work: a version. These versions are successive synchronic structures, and the work as a whole appears structured as a diachronic succession of synchronic versions. The invariance of the versions provides the structural base, while their variance indicates the relational complexity in time of the work’s texts. From a structuralist understanding of text, Hans Zeller has declared a single variant to be sufficient to differentiate versions, since by a single variant a text attains a new interrelationship of its elements. For all its editorial impracticability, this is a sound enough theoretical proposition. Anglo-American respondents have voiced empirical objections. In German editorial theory, one may say that it has been balanced from within the system through a reconception of the complementarity of text and apparatus reached by way of a critique of the role of interpretation in textual criticism and editing.

Critical interpretation has, in the German debate, been recognized as relevant again in two senses. First, text-critical and editorial activity begins from the given— documents, the black marks of ink on paper—but the moment it engages with that given, it enters upon interpretation. By accepting the implications of subjectivity, critical editions may attain a controlled objectivity. The interpretive demands of the very data that a textual critic and editor encounters make editorial judgment integral to a critical edition. Signaling through the apparatus the conditions of its controlled objectivity, a critical edition in turn calls upon the critical judgment of the reader. In the second sense, then, the reader’s and user’s interpretation engages with the critical edition to unlock the text. Critical editions in their specific formatting—established texts correlated to a multilevel system of apparatus— are seen to have a key function for interpretive discourse. Especially the transformation into apparatus of textual genesis and textual history has established the integral apparatus, displaying variance in context, as categorically opposed to the conventional apparatus, which isolates the edition’s individual reading (or lemma) from its variants in footnotes or appendixes keyed to the edited text by page and line reference.

An integral apparatus lays out works to be read in the diachronic depth of their texts. In a sense, the acts of reading made possible for the user of a critical edition reenact the author’s acts of reading in the writing process that shaped the text under his or her pen. While the author in writing is seen to be the originator of the text, it is the text itself that, for the author as reader, becomes the originator of its own continued revision. By such dynamic interplay of forces, authorial intention is effectively neutralized. The text is not so much what the author intends to achieve as it is what he or she does, or fails to, achieve. To the dynamism of the text, the integral apparatus is the logical answer. Consequently, the dynamic text in the shape of an integral apparatus, incorporating every act and stage of composition and revision in one continuous presentation, has in German textual criticism been theoretically proposed as the ultimate object of editing.

The proposition entails the notion that an edited clear, or reading, text might be dispensed with as being but a concession to the genera) reader. For unachieved texts, such as unfinished and unpublished drafts, the presentation of the integral apparatus presentation in itself would indeed seem to constitute the adequate editorial response. Clear texts abstracted from the given textual materials may in this case be considered not merely concessions but properly falsifications of their textual state. For works that have attained achieved, and mostly published, versions, on the other hand, the pragmatic choice of a version as the text-to-be-edited prevents the relentless realization of apparatus-only editions. Nevertheless, it follows from the thorough reconception of the functionalities of the apparatus that it is not the clear text but the integral apparatus of critical editions that provides the foundations for critical interpretive reading.

Essentially, the theories and practices reflected and developed in German textual scholarship over the past decades have persisted in conceiving of textual criticism as a hermeneutic discipline. At this point, German textual criticism encounters French critique génétique, as does Anglo-American textual criticism in pursuit of its incipient concern for the creative acts of writing. Critique génétique is, properly speaking, not a mode of textual criticism setting out principles for scholarly editing. It defines itself as a tributary to literary criticism, developing the critical discourse directly from the materials of authorial writing. It engages with notes, sketches, drafts, proofs—the avant-texte—not as raw materials for editing. Its perspective is trained on the critical implications of the writing processes to which the immediacy of the avant-texte alone holds the key. Concerned with the différence of all writing as it materializes in variants and in the advancing and receding of textual states, critique génétique lays claim to opening up a “third dimension of literature.” As a scholarly approach to texts in their states of writing, it acknowledges its origins in the fundamental propositions of structural linguistics and modern literary theory and recognizes its existence and operation in reciprocity with historical, social, aesthetic, narratological, or psychoanalytic literary criticism. Defining its domain as one of exploring manuscripts systematically in their capacity to document the genesis of writing, it offers in the interchange an unlocking of the heuristic potential of the avant-texte for linguistics, literary theory, and literary criticism. Where it does so quite specifically by technically making the avant-texte readable, it overlaps with the domains of traditional textual scholarship. The end of even its technical methodology, however, is not the formal presentation but the critical reading of text in the entirety of its writing. (See also de Biasi.)

From an overview, then, of the directions of thought and the tendencies of practice in textual scholarship in England, the United States, Germany, and France, it maybe said in conclusion that textual criticism at the end of the twentieth century is bringing its conservational traditions to bear on innovative redefinitions of its role among the modes of scholarship and criticism by which the written heritage of the culture lives and is continually reappropriated from its foundations.

Further Reading
George Bornstein, ed., Representing Modernist Texts: Editing as Interpretation (1991); George Bornstein and Ralph Williams, eds., Palimpsest: Editorial Theory in the Humanities (1993); Fredson Bowers, Bibliography and Textual Criticism (1964), Essays in Bibliography Text, and Editing (1975), Textual and Literary Criticism (1966); O. M. Brack, Jr., and Warner Barnes, eds., Bibliography and Textual Criticism: English and American Literature, 1700 to the Present (1969); Philip Cohen, ed., Devils and Angels: Literary Theory and Textual Scholarship (1991); P. M. de Biasi, “Vers une science de la littérature: L’Analyse des manuscrits et la genèse de l’oeuvre,” Encyclopedia Universalis (1988); Philip Gaskell, From Writer to Reader: Studies in Editorial Method (1978), New Introduction to Bibliography (1972); Ronald Gottesman and Scott Bennett, eds., Art and Error: Modern Textual Editing (1970); D. C. Greetham, Textual Scholarship: An Introduction (1992), Theories of the Text (1993); D. C. Greetham, ed., Scholarly Editing: A Guide to Research (1993); W. W. Greg, “The Rationale of Copy- Text” (1950-51, Collected Papers, ed. J. C. Maxwell, 1966); Jerome J. McGann, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (1983), The Textual Condition (1991); Jerome J. McGann, ed., Textual Criticism and Literary Interpretation (1985); D. F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (1986); R. B. McKerrow, Prolegomena for the Oxford Shakespeare (1939); Hershel Parker, Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons: Literary Authority in American Fiction (1984); Peter L. Shillingsburg, Scholarly Editing in the Computer Age: Theory and Practice (1986); G. Thomas Tanselle, A Rationale of Textual Criticism (1989), Selected Studies in Bibliography (1979); James Thorpe, Principles of Textual Criticism (1972); William Proctor Williams and Craig S. Abbott, An Introduction to Bibliographical and Textual Studies (1985, 2d ed., 1989); Hans Zeller, “A New Approach to the Critical Constitution of Literary Texts,” Studies in Bibliography 28 (1975); Hans Zeller and Gunter Martens, eds., Texte und Varianten: Problème ihrer Edition und Interpretation (1971).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Categories: Philosophy, Textual Criticism

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