Maud Burnett McInerney
Penn Humanities Forum Regional Fellow
2002—2003 Forum on The Book
Maud Burnett McInerney
Assistant Professor of English, Haverford College
Caxton and the Ethics of Editorial Choice
An Englishman living in Germany, where a technological revolution in the production of books was taking place, William Caxton learned printing and established his first press at Bruges. In 1574, Caxton produced the first book printed in English, The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye. In 1476, his translation from the French of The Game and Playe of the Chesse was the first book printed in England, and from that point on, he never looked back. By the time of his death in 1491, Caxton had published over one hundred works, including over a dozen that he translated himself. Caxton’s impact upon the development of English literature has long been recognized; his choices concerning what to print (and perhaps more significantly, what not to print) established for the first time a canon in English. Historians have, however, been somewhat too ready to take Caxton’s version of his own story literally. Rather, the prologues and epilogues in his texts suggest that he was far from being without ideology, and that his protestations of being nothing more than a conduit for the words of others was disingenuous. The most obvious aspect of this ideology reflects class consciousness: a highly successful member of the mercantile class, Caxton made aristocratic literature available, at least potentially, to the nascent bourgeoisie, but his reference to patrons both actual and hoped for suggests that his desired audience was always itself aristocratic. The choices that Caxton made, not only editorially but as a translator, reveal a network of social and political pressures and influences, and a complex attitude towards the value of narrative as a cultural force. At this crucial point in history, when the question of what it means to read is once again being challenged by new technology, it seems more worthwhile than ever to explore Caxton’s work. Dr. McInerney will explore both an ethics of publication and a theory of translation from Caxton’s prologues and epilogues. In doing so, she will situate these in the broader context of the social and political world inhabited the first printer in English.