Study Guide

Textual Criticism Basics

  • Beginnings

    Textual Criticism is as old as the ancient Greeks. For as long as there have been books, there have been people interested in preserving them, studying them, and understanding their relationship to other books.

    Modern-day Textual Criticism, though, took shape in that rainy little island called Britain in the early 20th century. That's when three chaps—A. W. Pollard, R. B. McKerrow, and W. W. Greg—revolutionized the field by bringing to it a greater degree of rigor and coherence. They also rocked those double initials.

  • Big Players

    So, we've already mentioned them—A. W. Pollard, R. B. McKerrow, and W. W. Greg were the big bad Brits who started it all. Pollard was one of the first guys to systematically study and classify Shakespeare's works in their various versions. His 1909 book Shakespeare Folios and Quartos: a Study in the Bibliography of Shakespeare's Plays, 1594–1685 is a milestone in the field.

    McKerrow and Greg are known for different reasons, though they were both also big Shakespeare fans. McKerrow is the dude who gave us the first definition of the "copy-text." In 1914, he also wrote an important book called An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students, one of the first books to explain and clarify the core principles of Textual Criticism.

    Greg followed in McKerrow's footsteps. He wrote a famous essay called "The Rationale of Copy-Text," in which he took up McKerrow's definition of the copy-text… and then basically disagreed with McKerrow's whole approach.

    Greg's ideas on the copy-text became important for the generation of Textual Critics who came after him. Two names to keep in mind are Fredson Bowers and G. Thomas Tanselle. Bowers, in particular, developed and elaborated Greg's ideas, applying them to the editing and criticism of literary works.

    Finally, Jerome McGann and John Bryant are a couple of rebels in the field: they took up positions that put them at odds with the big guns of Textual Criticism, people like Bowers, Tanselle and Greg. They started focusing more on the social aspects of textual production and less on the author's intentions alone.

  • Key Debates

    You'd be surprised how many fights a bunch of bibliophiles can get into. Is there a comma in this line in this play by Shakespeare, or isn't there? Is that word capitalized in Paradise Lost, or isn't it? Is that name spelled this way or that way?

    And these are just the small fights.

    The big fights revolve around a couple of hot issues. The first of these concerns the authority of the copy-text. McKerrow was the first Textual Critic to define the copy-text, and in his view, this is the text that a Textual Critic uses as the basis of his or her own edited edition of a literary work.

    So, let's say you're a Textual Critic who has to present an edited version of a famous old literary work. You've got a bunch of different versions to work from, and you have to decide which of these versions is the most authoritative—that is, the closest to the author's true intentions—and you have to use that version as the copy-text for your own edited edition.

    One school in Textual Criticism believes that the copy-text is the bedrock of Textual Criticism. For them, your job as Textual Critics is to figure out which is the most authoritative, most uncorrupted version of a given literary work and then use that as the basis of your own criticism and editing. This was McKerrow's view.

    But another school of Textual Critics disagrees with that approach. Dudes like Greg, Bowers, and Tanselle developed what came to be known as the "eclectic" method. What they said was that yeah, a copy-text is important, but it's important only as far as little things like spelling and punctuation are concerned.

    These guys say that if you want to get at the most uncorrupted, the most authoritative version of a text, the version that's closest to an author's original intentions, then you can't just rely on one copy-text. Instead, you have to look at different textual versions of a literary work and then cut and paste as necessary in order to create an authoritative work.

    But there are other Textual Critics, like John Bryant and Jerome McGann, who disagree with this approach, too, because they take issue with the whole idea of an "authoritative" text in the first place. They ask: Who says that only one version of a literary work expresses an author's intentions? And who says that it's only an author who has authority over his or her work? Editors and publishers also have a say over the "final" version of a work.

    According to Bryant and McGann, we shouldn't be talking about "authoritative" texts at all. Instead, we should be talking about fluid texts (John Bryant's term), or socialized authorship (Jerome McGann's term).

    So there's a lot of debate in the field about where textual authority lies. Does it lie with authors? With author and their publishers? With authors and their publishers and editors? With authors and their buddies who gave them feedback?

  • State of the Theory

    As long as we have books, and different versions of books, we'll have Textual Criticism. And yeah, that even applies to e-books. The field is now moving in a direction that's taking more and more account of digital technology: not only are we reading contemporary literature on our Kindles or iPads, but we're also reading Shakespeare and Chaucer and Marlowe on our Kindles or iPads.

    But whether we're talking about print texts, or digital texts, or manuscripts, there are often many variants of a literary work. And it's the job of Textual Critics to sort through all those to figure out which of them we should be reading, or whether we should be reading all of them.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    Literature is made up of a mess of manuscripts, a number of textual documents competing for authoritative status.

    What is an author?

    An author is someone who writes a literary work. Determining the author's intentions is a huge part of the work of Textual Criticism.

    What is a reader?

    Textual critics sort through this mess of manuscripts to arrive at the most authoritative version of a literary work for readers, who often read these authoritative versions without quite realizing that someone had to do some hard work to figure out just what that text should look like.