The Footnote: A Curious History
Footnotes perform many different roles. They can enlarge on a statement, modify a judgment, broaden a context; they can provide solemn reassurance (“You’ll find it in the archives”) or light relief. Some footnotes are guides to further reading; some offer a home for the inessential detail which is too good to throw away; a few (Gibbon being the most obvious master in this respect) are miniature works of art.
One category stands out. Among scholars, the primary function of a footnote is indisputably, overwhelmingly, to provide chapter and verse—the authority for a statement, the source of a quotation. But even here, there is far more variety than the uninitiated might assume.
In the opening chapter of The Footnote, Anthony Grafton offers some amusing glimpses of the many ways in which in his own field, history, supposedly neutral footnotes can have a spin put on them by individual ambitions or rivalries and divergent cultural styles. Some historians see them as an excuse to parade credentials. For others, they present an opportunity to do down colleagues—whether by the insertion of a cold little adjective (the French, Grafton tells us, are particularly fond of discutable), or by omission (a technique, we learn, which is especially favored by the Italians), or by innuendo: “cf.” (“compare”), which Grafton describes as “subtle but deadly,” may look innocent enough, but for those in the know it implies that the views expressed in the work being cited are wrong. “To the inexpert,” he concludes, “footnotes look like deep root systems, solid and fixed; to the connoisseur, however, they reveal themselves as anthills, swarming with constructive and combative activity.”
How could anyone hope to encompass all the different aspects of the footnote in a single study? Why would anyone want to? A comprehensive history of the subject is as mad a task as scholarship could devise. But “a curious history,” which is what Grafton promises in his subtitle, is another matter. It holds out the prospect of a learned ramble, as much bedside book as treatise—of a work which cuts across disciplines, glances down byways, and pursues its quarry into strange places. At least as far, to cite only one possibility, as the weird footnotes which adorn the “Night Lessons” sequence in Finnegans Wake.
Anthony Grafton is extremely erudite, but this is not the book which he has written. He has very little to say about the footnote as an aside, or as a literary device; his interest is largely confined to the chapter-and-verse footnote, and then almost exclusively to the use that has been made of it by fellow historians. Other forms of scholarship and speculation lie outside his chosen limits. He might have done better, in fact, to have called his book “The Historian and the Footnote”—though even that would have been somewhat misleading. The evolution of the footnote certainly engages him on its own account, but he also treats it as a handy symbol for modern historical method in general. It becomes a peg on which…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.