What is it that we hope to experience when we read a literary text from an earlier era? Are we looking for unimpeded access to a culture far removed from our own, for contact with the mind of a writer far distant in time? Are we looking for amusement or instruction or moral elevation or escape? For an encounter with transcendence, for visceral engagement with past conflicts, for a glimpse of something alien, or for some or all of the above, mutually exclusive though they may appear to be? What we want out of our reading will depend greatly on the genre, type, and specific subject matter of the work we happen to choose: most of us would not go to the poetry of the Earl of Rochester for moral elevation, nor to the Enneads of Plotinus for light entertainment. But what we want from a given text will also depend on the social and intellectual baggage we ourselves bring to it, on the specific coordinates of our individual lives, on the shared assumptions that characterize our particular cultural affiliations and our broader historical situation.
As readers most of us have become quite comfortable with at least some of these forms of relativism. Yet unless we are trained textual scholars or bibliographers, we probably do not occupy ourselves unduly with another form of relativism at least as significant as those listed above—the variability over time and space of any given work itself. The work’s material history since its inception, the vast and largely uncharted alterations imposed by that history and by the mediation of generation upon generation of printers, editors, publishers—this is a relativism we are prone to ignore, but ignore at our peril. The approach and critical interests we wish to bring to a given piece of writing may be facilitated, discouraged, or even blocked altogether by the specific version in which we receive it.
The present study is designed with at least two audiences in mind. It is aimed first at readers who already have an active interest in textual studies, in the myriad subtle ways in which literary works are altered by their histories, and by the shaping hands of scholars who transform them in the very act of editing them to make them accessible to a broader community of readers. From at least the 1950s until the mid- to late 1970s, scholarly