restricted access An Inventory of the Estate of William Strahan in 1759
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40 An Inventory of the Estate of William Strahan in 1759 MICHAEL PICKARD What do books as physical objects teach us about the cultures that produced them? How do they inform us about those who wrote them, those whose business it was to make them, the individuals and firms that distributed them? What do they tell us about the people who bought, borrowed, gave, or stole them and their aims and motivations? What can we learn from individual books about the conditions of book production at large and how those conditions mediate the transmission of texts from author to audience? Most bibliographers agree that we should be asking these kinds of questions . G. Thomas Tanselle writes, for example, that “the artifacts carrying verbal texts constitute an enormous reservoir of information about the past, quite apart from the meanings of the words themselves.”1 D. F. McKenzie observes that “the book as a physical object . . . is in fact alive with the judgments of its makers.”2 McKenzie and Tanselle see bibliography as a humanistic discipline whose aim is to access that reservoir, the recovery of those judgments. Within the field, however, they have come to represent differing and at times opposed bibliographical methods. The debate between them turns on questions of knowledge. Are books alone sufficient for the purposes of reconstructing historical processes (the composition, or typesetting , of text, for example, or the movement of various parts of a text through the press)? Should we instead privilege information that comes to us from the few archives of printing and publishing records that remain? The difference will seem less abstract if we focus on a single example: that of the compositor, whose job it was in the early modern printing houses to set in type each page of text, letter by letter. Among other reasons, compositors are worth studying because they exercised a degree of control over the final text of a printed book. In the absence of standardized spelling and punctuation, they were mostly free to put words and sentences together as they wished. In many cases, they also possessed the liberty to alter both spelling and punctuation where necessary to stretch or condense a line of An Inventory of the Estate of William Strahan in 1759 41 type. They served, in other words, as intermediaries between author and audience in measurable ways. The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia includes in its holdings a Hinman collator, designed for just this kind of measurement. Developed by Charlton K. Hinman, this instrument enables minute collations between pages from two different copies of the same book. Hinman used this instrument to submit fifty-five copies of the Shakespeare First Folio to exceedingly close study. In addition to studying variations in the running titles, Hinman traced spelling patterns and even the progress of pieces of individual type throughout the book as it was composed, printed, and published in 1623. His analysis enabled him to overturn the prevalent theory of how the First Folio had been composed. Traditionally, scholars argued that two compositors, A and B, set the entirety of Shakespeare’s text. Although establishing how many compositors worked on the First Folio may seem mundane, it has significant implications . Editors who want to produce a scholarly edition based on the First Folio need to know what kinds of mistakes each compositor was likely to make—if the goal is to render Shakespeare’s text as accurately as possible. Using the collator, Hinman was able to show that no fewer than nine compositors set at least a page of type and that some were far more error prone than others. For Tanselle, Hinman’s book, The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of William Shakespeare, is a “monument of the flourishing post-war period of bibliographical analysis.”3 McKenzie’s approach to bibliography aims, by contrast, “to give some philosophical dignity to disbelief.”4 This is not the same thing as waiting with Thomas Hardy in “unhope,”5 but it does mean playing a “doubting game”6 —not with Hinman directly but with the school of analysis that he and Bowers pioneered. In “Stretching a Point: Or, the Case of the SpacedOut Comps,” first published in Studies in Bibliography in 1984, McKenzie examines 13,777 commas—more or less—in Joseph Beaumont’s Psyche, printed by the Cambridge University Press from 1700 to 1701. Sometimes the compositors of this text put a space before commas, and sometimes...