Textual criticism

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Textual criticism

Textual criticism: The scholarly attempt to ascertain the original or authoritative version of a text, eliminating any alterations, whether accidental or intentional, made over time. Textual critics seek to find or identify the original or authoritative version; if it is unavailable, lost, or destroyed, as is commonly the case, they aim to reconstruct or restore it as precisely as possible from extant variants.

Textual critics typically examine all available printed versions of the text as well as any manuscripts or parts thereof (such as rough drafts) that have survived. They then compare these versions to examine the evolution of the work, to find and rectify copying or publishing errors, and to find and (if possible) emend intentional changes, such as corruptions to the text made by the addition of material. In examining textual variants, some textual critics produce a stemma, or family tree, of versions, identifying common ancestors and the relationships among versions. While textual critics employ different methodologies, they ultimately aim to produce an edited version of the text that accords as closely as possible to that intended by the author. Some, for instance, select a base text, such as the oldest manuscript or best surviving text, and use variants to identify and emend errors; others assemble the text using parts deemed authentic from a variety of versions.

Textual criticism dates back to ancient times and has been applied to works ranging from classical Greece to the present day. Major areas of study include classical texts, such as Plato’s Republic (c. 360 B.C.); Biblical texts, particularly from the New Testament; and the works of the Elizabethan poet and playwright William Shakespeare. Noted textual critics include Johann Albrecht Bengel, who prepared an edition of the Greek New Testament published in 1734 and established an influential canon of textual criticism — preferring harder readings to easier ones — in his essay “Forerunner of a New Testament to Be Settled Rightly and Carefully” (1725); Karl Lachmann, who took a scientific approach to textual criticism, as reflected in his edition of Lucretius’s (Titus Lucretius Carus) first-century A.D. philosophical poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) (1850); Ronald B. McKerrow, who advocated using “copy-texts” as base texts and produced an edition of the Works of Thomas Nashe (5 vol., 1904—10); W. W. Greg, who denied the copy-text authority over “substantive readings” in “The Rationale of Copy-Text” (1950—51); and Fredson Bowers, who argued in his book Textual and Literary Criticism (1959) that the two types of criticism are interdependent.

Since Bowers, a new generation of textual editors and critics has explored aspects of the literary text other than the author’s words. These scholars point out that even though a poem’s physical properties, including quotation and other punctuation marks (traditionally called “accidentals” or, more recently, “bibliographic codes”), greatly influence the way a work is interpreted, they are seldom the result of choices made by the poet. Instead, the interpretive options arising from the fact that the text is a material object have typically been created, constrained, or closed off by editors, publishers, or even friends who have made copies of manuscripts. This argument is grounded in the social-text editing movement that began in the 1980s with American scholar Jerome J. McGann’s A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (1983), was further developed in McGann’s The Textual Condition (1991), and was also promoted by D. F. McKenzie in his book Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (1986). Those associated with the movement argue that, especially in the case of poetry, whether a given interpretive move can or cannot be made often depends upon punctuation that was chosen by someone other than the poet when source materials turned out to be at odds.

Perhaps the greatest practitioner of textual editing in the field of poetry in the twentieth century was the American scholar Cecil Y. Lang, editor of the following multivolume collections: The Swinburne Letters (1959—62); The Letters of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1982—90), with Edgar F. Shannon Jr.; and The Letters of Matthew Arnold (1996—2002).