At some point during an international flight to the United States, the flight attendants issue all passengers with printed customs declaration forms. This is followed by the usual scramble to find a working pen, to recall what the flight number is, to retrieve your passport so as to fill in its number and the place where issued, to recall whether or not you’ve been on or near a farm, to remember that you’ve forgotten to buy all those gifts for your friends that you now won’t need to declare, and finally, anxious and exhausted, to put your seat in the upright position, make sure that your seat belt is securely fastened, and prepare for landing. Among the many things that a flight to the US may be, it is certainly an exercise in compulsory literacy. The nation-state demands that you read and write or (today humiliatingly, unless you are very young or don’t read or write English) find someone who will fill in your form for you. The work of the nation-state is done through a printed form that elicits writing by hand.
For many of us, filling in printed forms by hand, despite it imminent demise, has been so naturalized that it simply appears as the universal condition of things. If a flight to the United States entails it, so does writing out a check or adding a tip and a signature to a restaurant bill to pay for lunch by Visa. But when we move from our daily activities in which printing and writing constantly interact to teaching courses about “printing” and “manuscript,” something very strange occurs. We’re suddenly confronted by what look like two radically different and even incompatible technologies. Indeed, in English, the opposition between the two is conceptualized through the very concept of “manuscript”—which postdates printing by well over a century. Most of the early uses of the word self-consciously define it in opposition to printing:
A. “Written by hand, not printed” (from 1597)
B. 1. A book, document, or the like, written by hand; a writing of any kind, as distinguished from printed matter
1a. A book, document etc. written before the general adoption of printing in a country (from 1600)
1b: A written document that has not been printed. Often, an author’s written (or typed) copy as distinguished from the print of the same (from 1607)
The concept of “manuscript” is a back formation, dependent upon the prior concept of printing. But if the separation of print from manuscript is embedded in the history of the concept, it is later paralleled by a separation on library shelves.
This course will use the Beinecke’s collections to explore how, from Gutenberg to the signatures on credit cards, printing has revolutionized writing by hand. We will explore this both by looking at the significance of printed forms from indulgences to passports and by analyzing how printing stimulated “life writing” through interleaved almanacs and printed diaries. We will then turn to the problem of the belated fetishizing of literary manuscripts. For it was only in the eighteenth century that significant numbers of these manuscripts began to be collected. To what extent did the literary archives that began to preserve these manuscripts transform authorship and the very concept of “literature”? And how does printing stimulate our desire for the manuscript traces of the hands of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson?
Finally, we will look at how an obsession with literary manuscripts has effaced the reality of how the great majority of printed texts are actually edited—namely, by taking a printed copy of an earlier edition and marking it up by hand (again, the printed text preceding the manuscript one). For this last topic, we will first take Benjamin Franklin’s “autobiography” as a test case, since his holograph manuscript has had quite remarkably little to do with hundreds of editions from 1791, when it was first printed in French, until 1981, when Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall published their brilliant but unreadable “genetic text.” We will then explore how a fantasy of the “lost” manuscripts of Shakespeare has structured how he is now edited and read, despite the fact that no one seems to have been in the least bit interested in his manuscripts in the seventeenth century.