The following is extracted from the pages of Shakespeariana, Vol. VI, Sept. 1889, pp. 406-409. It is part of a series run by that venerable organ on the American Editors of Shakespeare, but is more like an undisguised fan letter to the first truly original American editor Richard Grant White. As you read I think you will agree it is more than over the top, and, by the way, completely wrong about White's influence, but its charm is attractive. For those unfamiliar with the Collier forgeries see my entries on Collier. Unfortunately this panegyric discusses just about everything about White EXCEPT his edition of Shakespeare, but never mind that. We will cover it in detail soon. For now, enjoy
When the world, hardly more than fifty years ago, began with Cooper and Irving to read "an American book,'' we can imagine the curl of the British lip at a suggestion that an American opinion might be worth taking. Indeed, the question as to when there began to be any American opinion at all upon matters Shakespearian, might well be made a very perplexing one. Criticism is hardly to be expected unless the thing criticised is at least potentially present. Where there is no sea there are not apt to be sailors. The question as to when American criticism of Shakespeare began, would naturally depend upon the answer to a prior question, as to when Shakespeare and Shakespearian history began to be printed and read in America.
Shakespeare himself was alive, and at the very summit of production, when Captain John Smith settled in Virginia. But the Immigrant seems not to have brought a chance Quarto among his personal baggage, and the fad for collecting antiques, which a few years ago turned the old colonies into markets for city dealers, while ransacking the venerable houses and yielding richly in claw-footed furniture and blue china, seems never to have turned up to the light one of these priceless pamphlets or a broadside of the date. The first settlors of these shores brought no books except the Bible and devotional works. There were plenty of copies of Fox's Martyrs, and Baxter's Saints' Rest, and Hervey's Meditations among the Tombs, but no Shakespeares. Such being the case, it was natural enough that the utterances of Shakespeare's first critics, Rowe, Pope, and Theobald—and the so-called criticism of Rymer, Warburton, and others, who were supposed to be critics—found no echo, a century later, over here. Passing over another century, no outermost circle of the Ireland episode reached these shores, nor did the great work of Ireland's great contemporary, Malone—the first lawyer who took poor Shakespeare out of the clutches of the Poets and Poets Laureate—find in the United States any readers or sympathizers, much less disciples. The silence that follows discovery was noisy compared to the silence of America as to the greatest name in their inherited literature.
But, just about fifty years after the Ireland forgeries, came the Collier frauds, and to the surprise of scholars, up from this side sprang, all at once, without preparation, the Malone for Mr. Collier's Ireland, the critic who was to smash their pretensions as Bentley had smashed the Letters of Philaris— basing, on pure internal evidence, conclusions of fact which every other character of evidence, circumstantial, physical, and material, was to confirm and establish beyond gainsay.
When Mr. Collier produced his "Perkins Folio," and its "new reading's" agitated all Letters, a l'instant a lithe, clean limbed American warrior, stepped firmly into the field, and took that whole field for his province. And out of that war of pamphlets and pamphleteers, it was to Richard Grant White, the American, that the honor belonged of demonstrating, finally, that William Shakespeare and the Perkins "readings" were not contemporary. Armed cap-a-pie, with a perfect equipment at every point, nerved to a great effort, with a presumption against him as a combatant at all, from an unexpected quarter of the universe, Mr. White knew whereof he wrote. First of all, a grammarian and a comparative philologist, an attempt to deceive him by a piece of Victorian, palmed off as a piece of Elizabethan, English appeared to be about as hopeless an effort as would be an effort to satisfy a comparative anatomist like Huxley with a Barnum mermaid or a New Haven sea-serpent of lath and canvas. The records, easily extant, bear witness to the reception accorded to "Shakespeare's Scholar" (under which title Mr. White collected his magazine contributions upon "Perkins Folio" matters), and how speedily the name of the book transferred itself to its author. Its great merit, its absolute exhaustiveness, its minute accuracy, and its shrewd postulates of fact and of logic were immediately conceded. As a rule, mere windfall approbation of a book is of as little value as an estimate drawn from its preface, or its binding, or from personal acquaintance with its author, in divers and sundry suburban newspapers. But, in this case, the first approval of "Shakespeare's Scholar" became its deliberate valuation. And even when, finally, Sir Francis Madden, an expert in chirography, and Mr. N. E. S. A. Hamilton, a chemist, went to work with the Perkins Folio itself before them—the one with his microscope and the other with his acids—they found the marginalia of that notorious copy of the second Folio as of the exact dates to which Mr. White, without an inspection but from philological testimony alone, had referred them.
The controversy is dead. If Mr. White's book is dead, too, it is because it closed the work it was written to perform. Time, the fulness of learning, discovery, and the constantly bettering consensus of scholars, (which new elements in solution and induction are constantly accruing), have verified every single one of Mr. White's prophesies, and established the worthlessness of every single one of the "readings" he rejected. This is the highest praise at any time. But at the threshold of the Shakespearian criticism of a continent, it is an achievement in the empire of literature. Since then American scholarship has made great strides. But, just as three centuries of English letters since Shakespeare has not brought English speech back to where he left it in himself, so American Shakespearian criticism has not, to date, done more—and it is difficult to see how it could do more—than Mr. White, at its very threshold accomplished.
About Mr. White's only infirmity was a certain difficulty of temper, which is not altogether an unknown quantity in this Preserve. But, however often this infirmity was allowed to find its way into his first drafts and occasional contributions to his subject matter, it was rarely suffered to appear in their collected and revised forms.
Mr. White's place as a Shakespearian commentator is secure. The value of his work is held to be of the highest. And it is exceedingly doubtful if an annotated edition of the great dramas has appeared since the first Grant White edition, or will hereafter appear, in which Mr. White's contributions, notes, or memoranda have not or will not have a representation.