Devil in the Details

by Dan Gregory

Wednesday, Sep 03, 2008

By the time Henry Clay Folger died in 1930, he had amassed a collection of early English printing that is most famous for housing more than a third of all the copies known today of the First Folio of Shakespeare. Most major collectors are content with a single, fine example of each book that fits into the scope of their collection, and most book collectors, major or minor, would be thrilled to own one of the most important books in the history of printing. Folger, on the other hand, didn't stop at one copy of the First Folio, or two, or three. When Folger acquired his fortieth copy, the Shakespearean scholar and editor Horace Howard Furness called him "Forty Folio Folger." By his death Folger owned approximately 80 of the approximately 230 copies of the First Folio known to exist. The second largest collection of Folios under one roof is the comparatively paltry five copies owned by the British Library. (Figures for the "number of copies" for folios are often approximate because so many copies were broken-up in centuries past. This was done in many cases to take two partial copies and from them make a whole, with the unused portions sold off separately as "Noble Fragments" of the great work.)

At first glance the acquisition of so many copies of a single book may seem like the selfish eccentricity of an oil executive with too much money on his hands (by 1930 individual copies were selling for as much as $70,000 ). As a young man in 1879 Folger paid 25 cents to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson speak "On the Tercentenary of Shakespeare's Birth." Enthused, but poor, Folger waited ten years to begin collecting in earnest. After attending Amherst College, Folger took a job as a clerk with the Pratt Company, where he rose through the ranks during and after its merger with Standard Oil, becoming in time President and then Chairman of the Board. As the company grew, so did his collection. In 1903 he bought his first two copies of the First Folio. This was followed not only by many more copies of the Folio, but also by numerous other treasures that were the envy of all other serious Shakespeare collectors, including a number of unique items. But there was very much a method to his madness, or more properly their madness, for Folger's wife, Emily, was an equal partner in their pursuit of Folios and other Shakespeariana. In 1896 Emily (whose appreciation of tragedy may have been set during her childhood, when she met Abraham Lincoln) had noted in her Master's Thesis on Shakespeare that "the copies of the First Folio vary" because "the press was stopped from time to time to make changes."

Since at least the 1840s Shakespeare scholars had observed that no two copies of the Folio were alike  (this itself is somewhat remarkable when one considers the difficulty of seeing even two or three copies of a highly prized book together over two centuries after it was printed). But the only way to know how the copies varied and, more ambitiously, why they varied in the manner that they did, was to gather as many copies together as possible and then start comparing them. Beyond this, there was at that time no efficient process for collating them, that is for carefully comparing two, ten, or fifty copies, line by line, letter by letter, and type element by type element. The first printed comprehensive collection of Shakespeare's plays, the First Folio, was in a way a cipher -- the Folgers knew that the first step toward cracking the code was to get as many copies in one place as possible. Furness and others knew this too. In 1911 Furness wrote to Folger, with tongue-in-cheek exaggeration, "I am going to give you some work that will put to some use all of your fourteen thousand First Folios." He then asked Folger to compare the Folios for alterations in certain passages in Cymbeline.

Even when the aim of this lofty goal of assembling a collection of copies for the purpose of study was understood, Henry Clay Folger was nevertheless criticized for not making the copies in his collection accessible. Georgianna Ziegler, the Louis B. Thalheimer Head of Reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library explains: "The problem, of course, was that Mr. Folger needed to engage in business to raise the money to continue his collecting and his and Emily's idea of building a major research library, rather than a private collection such as Furness's. When other scholars applied to Mr. Folger for information on some of his books, he had to tell them that the books were mostly stored in packing crates around the country and would not really be accessible until the library was built."  The cornerstone of the Folger Shakespeare Library was laid in June 1930. Two weeks later Henry Folger was dead of a heart attack at age 74. Emily passed away, childless, six years later. The Library opened in 1932 and over 300,000 visitors filed through the Exhibition hall during its first year alone. At that time it contained over 93,000 rare books; 50,000 prints, watercolors, and engravings; 200 oil paintings; and 250,000 Shakespearan playbills.  The Folgers provided not only for their collection and the physical building, but also for subsequent staffing and acquisitions. Because of the depth and breadth of the collection, and not merely the assemblage of First Folios, the Folger Library has been since its inception one of the world's primary resource centers for Elizabethan studies.

But even with access to a third of the world's copies of the folio in one building, there remained a second step in decoding the folio: collation. At that time there were two standard methods of comparing multiple copies of a text. The first manner employs two readers, one who reads one copy aloud (including punctuation) while the other follows in the second copy. In the second method, sometimes referred to as the "Wimbledon" method, a single reader would have two copies open before him, and he would compare the texts line by line using his fingers as guides to keep his place. For obvious reasons both methods were fraught with error and both were exceedingly time consuming. It took about an hour for a single person, using the Wimbledon method, to collate two copies of a single page of the First Folio. Collating the Folger's copies of the entire First Folio (a 954 page book with over 110,000 lines of text ) with either method would have taken more than a single generation, and still would have likely missed several important typographical changes (as when a piece of type broke down during the printing and went from being a complete letter to being one with gaps). By assembling so large a gathering of copies under one roof, the Folger became a Rosetta Stone for the printing mysteries of the First Folio. Charlton Hinman was to be its Champollion.

Born in 1911, Charlton Joseph Kadio Hinman was well-suited to solving the collation problem. He was practical and analytical, a "tinkerer," but also a Shakespeare scholar whose 1941 doctoral dissertation was entitled "The Printing of the First Quarto of Othello." Hinman continued his studies as a Research Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library, painstakingly collating by hand the First Folio version of Othello. When America entered World War II, Hinman was trained as a Naval cryptanalyst and assigned to a code-breaking unit in Washington DC. His commanding officer was Fredson Bowers, an eminent Shakespearian scholar from the University of Virginia under whom Hinman had studied. Although his war service interrupted Hinman's examination of the First Folio, it proved to be a vital to the way he approached collation.

During the war Hinman was exposed to an idea for aerial reconnaissance photography that was to change the world of comparative bibliography. The concept was to take aerial photographs of an area of land at different times, such as before and after a bombing raid. Then the two photographs were to be overlaid on a screen and viewed alternately for fractions of a second, like a repeated loop of a two-frame motion picture. In theory, areas of the photograph that were the same in both would appear as a single, motionless image, while areas that differed, such as troop movements or bombing raid damage, would appear to wobble or flicker if the lighting and timing of the projection were right. Although the military did take and make use of many "pre" and "post-strike" photographs during the war, aerial photography at the time was not sufficiently precise to put the photography collation method into practice. But the theory was sound, and a variation had in fact already been used more successfully in another field -- astronomy.

A working antecedent to Hinman's approach to collation can be found in an optical device known as the blink comparator, invented in 1904 by a German instrument-maker named Carl Pulfrich. The principle is very similar to that described above: an astronomer would take photographs of portions of the night sky on different nights, superimpose them, and view them alternately at a fast speed. Stars that had not moved during that time would appear static, while anything in the night sky that did move would jump out at the viewer as it appeared to shimmer before their eyes. By eliminating known objects from the observations, previously unidentified celestial bodies might be found. Such was the case in 1930, when astronomer Clyde Tombaugh used the blink comparator to discover the planet Pluto.

Having given the problem of mechanized collation much thought during World War II, Hinman built his first prototype in 1946. His machine cradled two copies of a given book, each opened at the same page. A binocular eyepiece allowed the viewer to focus an eye on each book, and then oscillating lights would alternately illuminate the two copies. Any differences between the two copies were easily seen as flickering. For the rest of the decade and into the 1950s reports of his progress, both in developing a working collator, and in actually collating the First Folio, began to trickle from the Folger, intriguing scholars with what it promised for both Shakespeare studies, and for bibliography in general.

Interest in his device grew, and in the early 1950s he formed a partnership with Arthur M. Johnson, a retired naval engineer. Hinman held the patent for the collator and drummed up its initial customers, while Johnson built, modified, and sold them. Over the next three decades over forty collators were built and installed by Johnson at various locations around the country and around the world, and used to collate a wide variety of books, texts, and documents. As Matthew Bruccoli, the Emily Brown Jefferies Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of South Carolina, explains, "By the 1960s it wasn't respectable for a major library not to have a Hinman Collator." It is widely believed that even the CIA purchased a Hinman collator for examining forgeries and other purposes although, not surprisingly, the agency refuses to comment on the matter.

Bruccoli, who used the Hinman Collator extensively in the 1960s to locate textual differences between printings of 19th and 20th century literature, recalls the machine fondly. "Those of us who used it were very enthusiastic and loyal to it because it allowed us to do things that otherwise would have been undoable. Without it I could not have found the differences between the first and second printings of The Great Gatsby. Using the Hinman Collator the changes jump out at you. I'm grateful to it. In a sense the Hinman gave me a career." According to Bruccoli, Hinman's work with the Folger collection also changed the way libraries looked at their acquisitions. "The Hinman Collator encouraged good curators to acquire lots of suspected reprints. John Cook Wyllie [the bibliographer and long-time librarian at the University of Virginia's Alderman Library] always insisted there was no such thing as a duplicate. He would have multiple copies for future collation." For modern books, Bruccoli found, the collator was particularly helpful, in fact essential, for finding "concealed printings," that is reprintings that are not so identified.

While Johnson was busy building and installing Hinman Collators for clients far and wide, Charlton Hinman himself continued working his way through the Folger's many copies of the First Folio, noting any and all variants as he found them. The problem was, he simply didn't find that many of textual significance. He found so few of any substance in fact that, according to Steven Escar Smith, an expert on mechanical collation, "at one point he feared all his time and labor would be for naught. But instead he snatched, in the words of Fredson Bowers, victory from the jaws of defeat by using what evidence he did find to answer other questions."

As Peter W.M. Blayney, the leading expert on Hinman's use of the collator on Shakespeare, notes, by comparing and analyzing each element of each page of 55 of the Folger copies, including hundreds of distinctively damaged types (letters, punctuation marks, and spaces) used in the text itself, Hinman was "able to reconstruct the order in which the pages were set and printed, to identify which of several workmen set each page, and to relate many of the irregularities in the work to specific parts of other books that were being printed at the same time."

In Shakespeare's time, and until the 19th century in fact, everything printed in the Western world was created by taking individual pieces of type and hand-setting them into lines and forms by professional or apprentice typesetters, called compositors. Hinman's primary discovery was that the pages of each play in the folio were not hand-set from beginning to end, as everyone had previously assumed, but rather from the middle of a gathered signature, or quire, outward. Most of the Folio is composed of quires of twelve page "booklets" of text, made from three sheets of paper, each printed on both sides, stacked, and folded in the middle. If you take three blank sheets of ordinary office paper, stack them together, fold them in the middle into a booklet, and number the pages, you will see that pages 1 and 12 are on the same side of the same sheet, as are the pairs 2 & 11, 3 & 10, 4 & 9, 5 & 8, and 6 & 7. What this means is that if the compositors had started setting the text for each quire from the beginning of page one, they would not have been able to actually start printing any pages until they had gotten to the sheet containing pages 6 and 7. Blayney explains, "Like most printers in Jacobean London, Jaggard simply did not own enough type to set eight or nine folio pages."

Consequently, printers first set to type pages 6 and 7. In order to jump into the middle, they had to estimate how much text would fit into pages 1 through 5, a process called "casting off." Once the side of a sheet that would become pages 6 & 7 was printed, the compositors would then be obliged to fit all the text before page 6 into the first five pages, regardless of how accurate their estimates were. Compositors therefore came up with numerous tricks of the trade to truncate or expand the type they were setting in order to fill the rest of the quire around their estimate as printing progressed. This included elaborating, abbreviating, or eliminating stage directions, combining lines, omitting lines, and in some cases even repeating lines. In other words, rather than getting us closer to what Shakespeare wrote, Hinman's work showed us how far we are necessarily from it. What we read today or see performed is not what Shakespeare wrote, but rather what various compositors did with the texts they were given in order to produce an attractive book.

It has been forty-five years since Hinman published his ground-breaking The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare. But just as Pluto has lost its favored status as a planet, Charlton Hinman's work is now seen by some as a product of its time. The notion that by using objective, scientific analysis to dissect a text scholars could, as Smith puts it, "reconstruct the Word, pure and undefiled" has fallen out of favor. He explains, "This tradition is also partly rooted in romanticism and is influenced by philosophical determinism as well as all sorts of other heady schools of thought. Since Hinman's time we've come to accept a more social view of the creation of literary texts, a view in which the critic acknowledges that though the author is important, many other characters act as agents in the creation of a text -- publishing house editors, designers, typesetters, the readers themselves, and in Shakespeare's case the actors and all the textual editors from the 18th century on who have fiddled with his text." Modern assessment of Hinman's work runs the gamut from benign ("He just cleaned up the text," according to eminent and popular Shakespearan Harold Bloom) to malignant -- Philip Cohen recounts how, at a symposium on textual criticism and contemporary literary theory he attended, "One theorist even used the Hinman collator as a symbol of the dangerous scientific and technological mentality of the West that has ravaged the world."

But many scholars take a more balanced approach to Hinman's legacy. Blayney says, "If you ask me whether Hinman's work has changed our understanding of Shakespeare's writing, my answer is an unhesitating and emphatic No." But when it comes to our understanding of the printing of the First Folio, and English printing in general during that time, while others have "modified, corrected, and supplemented some of his conclusions, his work remains an irreplaceable landmark in Shakespeare studies." Agrees Smith, "All work on Shakespeare's text since then, whether it agrees with his work or overturns some of his findings, stands on his shoulders."

Although the goals of mechanical collation have changed since Hinman worked on his pioneering study (and those goals have changed primarily because of his study), the value of collation itself is still very much appreciated. And it inspired younger generations of bibliographer/tinkerers to create their own, cheaper and more portable collators, notably Carter Hailey and Randall McLeod. McLeod is both appreciative of his debt to Hinman, and eloquent about the textual issues collation lends itself to. "When I heard of what Hinman did technically, I viscerally understood it and its implications and was fired up, and wrote him a fan letter. But he was dying or had just died, and so I never met him, though I ran with his inspiration, made my own collator. I am still the beneficiary of his pioneering work. Hinman often photo-quoted the cruxes under discussion, and this scholarly language of the gestalt, the image, was a revolutionary break for me from the old philological habit of quoting, letter by letter, in an alien typeface. One starts with a machine but eventually transcends it. I look at the world cross-eyed whenever it looks as if it is trying to repeat itself."

This article first appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Fine Books & Collections magazine.