The detailed physical description of printed books to established and rigorous standards is known as descriptive bibliography. This discipline is distinct from the more familiar enumerative bibliography (for example, source listings and catalogs). It represents the book as a physical object, allows the collector or scholar to distinguish between the multiple editions, printings, issues, and states of a particular work, and may contribute to the establishment of an authoritative text by assisting editors in distinguishing between authorial and non-authorial changes, complementing textual scholarship in tracing the evolution of a work through multiple manuscript and printed versions. It also takes contextual detail into account (such as the number of copies of a particular edition printed and the date of the earliest reviews).
Descriptive bibliography both grows out of and feeds into book collecting. The accurate description of all variants within an edition or printing is impossible without access to many copies of individual titles, the assembly of which is the work and delight of serious collectors, private and institutional. At the same time, collectors often require information of the sort bibliographers compile to determine whether potential additions to their collections are worthwhile. Some collectors are interested only in “firsts” (copies of a book as it appeared when it originally came off the press), and a good descriptive bibliography will aid them in distinguishing between first and later printings, states, and issues. A descriptive bibliography will give a collector a sense of whether an offered item might be an unusual variant not yet documented in other collections, or may raise the question of whether a potential purchase is actually what the seller claims it is.
Over time, private collectors, curators, book and manuscript dealers, and textual scholars all develop bibliographical expertise and learn to speak the common language of bibliography. The capable descriptive bibliographer may come from any of these backgrounds. The collecting community is consequently varied as well as collegial. The importance of published sale and auction catalogs reflects one special role of dealers within this community. Sometimes a particular catalog (like that for the 1924 auction of the Stephen H. Wakeman Collection of nineteenth-century American writers) may come to serve as a reference point for later, more detailed and comprehensive bibliographical endeavors by curators or scholars.
The earliest bibliographies of individual Transcendental authors appeared around the turn of the twentieth century. Samuel Arthur Jones’s Bibliography of Henry David Thoreau was published in 1894, George Willis Cooke’s A Bibliography of Ralph Waldo Emerson (based in part on the Emerson collection of William Taylor Newton; see items 21-29 in the exhibition) in 1908. From the middle of the twentieth century, the published work of Alcott, Channing, Emerson, Fuller, Thoreau, and their contemporaries was described in the Bibliography of American Literature, a selective descriptive bibliography of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American authors. Edited by Jacob Blanck and funded by the Lilly Endowment, the first volume of the BAL was published in 1955. After Blanck’s death in 1974, the effort continued under Virginia Smyers and Michael Winship. The ninth and final volume appeared in 1991.
Even before it was completed, the BAL was superseded for certain authors whose publishing history warranted a deeper, more precise exploration. A descriptive bibliography of Margaret Fuller by academic scholar, collector, and editor Joel Myerson appeared in 1978 as part of the University of Pittsburgh Press’s Pittsburgh Series in Bibliography. In 1982, a Thoreau bibliography by knowledgeable collector Raymond R. Borst and an Emerson bibliography by Joel Myerson were published in the same series.
It’s in the nature of the pursuit that no descriptive bibliography is ever really the final word. Previously unknown variants surface as new materials are added to collections and institutional backlogs are cataloged and made accessible, requiring supplemental work to clarify sequence of printing, changes to text, or relationship between items. This keeps even the most explored bibliographical subject vital and further influences collecting efforts.
72. The Stephen H. Wakeman Collection of Books of Nineteenth Century American Writers, the Property of Mrs. Alice L. Wakeman. First Editions, Inscribed Presentation and Personal Copies, Original Manuscripts and Letters of Nine American Authors: Bryant, Emerson, Hawthorne, Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell, Poe, Thoreau, Whittier (New York: American Art Association, ).
73. Bibliography of American Literature. Compiled by Jacob Blanck for the Bibliographical Society of America. Volume One . . . (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955).
74. Samuel Arthur Jones. Bibliography of Henry David Thoreau, with an Outline of His Life (New York: Printed for the Rowfant Club of Cleveland by the DeVinne Press, 1894).
75. Raymond R. Borst. Henry David Thoreau: A Descriptive Bibliography (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982).
76. George Willis Cooke. A Bibliography of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1908).
77. Joel Myerson. Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Descriptive Bibliography (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982).
78. Joel Myerson. Margaret Fuller: A Descriptive Bibliography (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978).