The Footnote

Laura Green reviews 'The Footnote: A Curious History' by Anthony Grafton

Published December 15, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

"9. Ibid., sigs. *4 verso -- [*6] recto." So runs a complete footnote on page 193 of historian Anthony Grafton's "The Footnote: A Curious History." Grafton's title misleads: "The Footnote" is not an account of footnotes in general, but of their development in one particular scholarly discipline -- history. Grafton is interested in the intellectual, rather than the formal, qualities of footnotes: He does not, for example, explain the lexical and typographical conventions that both give historical footnotes their cryptic form and render them meaningful to other historians.

As non-specialist readers, of course, we may not care whether we can decipher such notes, since we are unlikely to use them to check Grafton's information. Most of us will happily take his word for the fact that "in the eighteenth century, literary footnotes burgeoned and propagated like branches and leaves in a William Morris wallpaper," and quietly decline his invitation to "see in general H. Stang, 'Einleitung -- Fussnote -- Kommentar' (Beilefeld 1992)." Rather, the volume's 423 footnotes provide the appearance of erudition, inducing the comforting sense that Grafton has done his homework and that readers, therefore, don't have to.

It is precisely this unreflective relationship to footnotes, however, that Grafton challenges. As he explains, the footnote's crucial role as "the only guarantee we have that statements about the past derive from identifiable sources" has not always been obvious to historians themselves. Notes, after all, interfere with the flow of narrative -- Grafton quotes Noel Coward's observation that "having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love." The classical chroniclers, such as Thucydides, did not annotate their histories of wars and politics. Even the 19th-century German scholar Leopold von Ranke, the father of "scientific history" (historical narrative based on primary sources), "hoped to find a way to avoid disfiguring his text with footnote cues and his pages with swelling feet of claylike annotation."

How, then, did "the culturally contingent and eminently fallible footnote" become the key structural element in the edifice of modern history? Grafton's account unfolds in onionlike layers, leading the reader back from the 19th to the 16th century, as footnotes themselves lead us back through a palimpsest of sources and disputations. This recursive organization is perhaps intended to supply narrative suspense, but for the reader unfamiliar with the historical periods and figures referred to, it can be hard to follow.

The yeast of metaphor with which Grafton leavens his historical loaf also often gives it a texture rather more lumpy than light. And his grand concluding claims -- "Only the use of footnotes and the research techniques associated with them makes it possible to resist the efforts of modern governments, tyrannical and democratic alike, to conceal the compromises they have made, the deaths they have caused, the tortures they or their allies have inflicted" -- do not fully persuade. The vitally necessary task of holding governments accountable exceeds the problems of citation or even documentation. Finally, the reader's interest in the historical footnote may simply not be capacious enough to contain Grafton's exhaustive account.

By Laura Green

Laura Green is an assistant professor of English at Yale University.

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