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Page 213

G. Thomas Tanselle

The official publication date of Fredson Bowers's Principles of Bibliographical Description was 30 December 1949; the present volume of Studies in Bibliography, dated 1999, therefore appears close to the fiftieth anniversary of that classic work. The occasion cannot be allowed to pass unnoticed in these pages, given the fact that Bowers founded Studies and edited its first forty-five volumes. The book that Bowers wrote quickly, early in his career, in order to settle for himself the procedures that he would follow in his own descriptive work on Restoration drama, was recognized as a landmark when it first came out and has been a highly visible presence ever since. It has been constantly referred to, sometimes quarreled with, and occasionally supplemented—and, through it all, has been profoundly influential.

It is not necessary here to survey the origins of the Principles, its initial reception, and its subsequent fortunes, because these topics have already been treated. In 1985, for example, at the time of Bowers's eightieth birthday, David Vander Meulen wrote an illuminating account, which included analysis of the reviews, entitled “The History and Future of Bowers's Principles” (Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 79: 197-219; reprinted in the pamphlet Fredson Bowers at Eighty). Vander Meulen's Engelhard Lecture of 1988, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and mine of 1992, A Description of Descriptive Bibliography (also in SB, 45: 1-30, and now included in Literature and Artifacts, 1998), provide assessments of descriptive bibliography in the wake of the Principles. And in The Life and Work of Fredson Bowers (1993; also published in SB, 46: 1-154), I tried to explain the context out of which the Principles emerged and to assess its legacy (see, in particular, pp. 40-48, 134-137).

Since then, the Principles has become more readily available and broadly circulated than ever before by virtue of its 1994 publication as a relatively inexpensive paperback (bearing the joint British-American imprint of St. Paul's Bibliographies and Oak Knoll Press). The Oak Knoll catalogue for Spring 1999 lists it on the same page as McKerrow's Introduction and Gaskell's New Introduction, under the heading “A Trilogy of Standard Bibliographical References”: for the first time it shares a publisher with these two other essential books. And now that the monographic publications of the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia are distributed by Oak Knoll, the Principles is also being advertised for the first time alongside the products of the society that Bowers helped to found fifty-two years ago.


Page 214

Over the years there have been a number of articles modifying or refining various aspects of the Principles (the major ones are listed in SB, 40 [1987], 3-5), and the process continues today. The ongoing dialogue centering on the book is perhaps symbolized by B. J. McMullin's three suggestions for its revision (in the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand's Bulletin, 15 [1991], 53-59) and my recent response to his points (23 [1999], 107-109). As befits a classic, there has now also been some investigation of its textual history. Rolf Du Rietz in 1998 reported his discovery of two corrections made in the 1962 Russell & Russell reprinting—corrections not present in the recent paperback, which was reproduced from the original Princeton 1949 printing. (See “Textual Variation in Bowers's Principles: A Short Note,” Text [Uppsala], 5.2: 118-119.) David Vander Meulen, in the present volume, investigates further the text of the Principles, along with that of other bibliographical classics. And my main contribution to this volume, on the treatment of typesetting and presswork in bibliographical description, can be seen, along with Vander Meulen's, as homage to Bowers in this anniversary year. More articles will appear in the future, as well as volumes that supplement or extend or condense or popularize the Principles—and all will be testimony to its enduring vitality.