G. Thomas Tanselle: Bibliographical Society Gold Medal Citation 2016
The usual way to introduce the recipient of an award on an occasion such as this is to outline their education and subsequent career, the offices they have held, and then to say something about their publications and their influence. In the case of the man we are honouring today, G. Thomas Tanselle, this is relatively straightforward. He was educated at Yale and took his PhD from Northwestern; he taught there and at the University of Wisconsin, until he moved to New York to become Vice-President of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In New York, he has taught regularly for Columbia University. He has been President of the Bibliographical Society of America, of the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, of the Grolier Club, and of the Society for Textual Studies. He is a member of the board of directors of the Library of America.
Much of his publishing activity has been closely associated with the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia. There has been an extraordinary, annual flow of substantial articles in Studies in Bibliography – these are eagerly awaited by those interested in the subject and show Tom’s great interest in and deep understanding of an unusually wide range of subjects. Many of these essays have been gathered in collections of his writings: Selected Studies in Bibliography (1979), Textual Criticism and Scholarly Editing (1990 and 2003), my personal favourite, the volume that convinced me that collecting books was not a deformation of character but a scholarly pursuit and that our houses, especially our book collections, are, in fact, art installations, Literature and Artifacts (1998), and Essays in Bibliographical History (2013). To these should be added his exemplary account of The Life and Work of Fredson Bowers (1993) and his important work Book-Jackets (2011) in which he argued strongly for their value as a source of bibliographical evidence.
Tom Tanselle’s chosen fields of studies are textual criticism, bibliography, and book collecting. He is above all else a historian and an exponent of humanistic scholarship, of the importance of finding out about the past, of understanding it, and of relating it to the present. He is a historian of books and of their production and use and a historian of people. To use a phrase that he admires, he is always interested in ‘minds at work’. What is most striking in his work is to see his own mind at work on the work of other minds. Above all he is unusual in his ability to achieve, to realise, what is perhaps the most difficult part of bibliographical studies: not just clear thinking about the subject in hand, but something that is much harder, the clear and economical expression of that thinking. All these elements in his work are brilliantly brought together in one of his most recent publications, A Bibliographer’s Creed (2014). This is the hundredth George Parker Winship Lecture and its twenty-one points summarise Tom’s essential thought on the subject in just forty-one pages. It is a remarkable achievement and well worth reading and studying.
The Bibliographical Society’s Gold Medal has been awarded to many distinguished men and women – some of them present in this room tonight. In 1929, it was given to R.B. McKerrow; in 1935 to W.W. Greg; in 1969 for F.T. Bowers. These are the gods of Tom Tanselle’s idolatry; how entirely fitting it is that the Society has chosen to award him its 2015 medal 80 years after it was given to Greg. In presenting it to him, we honour his life and work; in accepting it, he honours us.