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About The Book

Footnotes have not had it easy. Their dominance of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century literature and scholarship was both hard-won -- following many years of struggle -- and doomed, as it led to belittlement in the twentieth century. In The Devil's Details, Chuck Zerby playfully explores footnotes' long and illustrious history and makes a clarion call to save them from the new world of the Internet and hypertext.
In a story that boasts a marvelous plot and a rogues' gallery of players, Zerby examines traditional footnotes and their less-buttoned-down incarnations, as when used by pornographers. Yes, The Devil's Details is full of surprises: Zerby hunts down the first bona fide fully functioning footnote; unearths a multivolume history of Northumberland County, England, that uses one volume for a single footnote; and uncovers a murder plot. He even explains why footnotes are like blind dates.
Carefully researched and highly opinionated, The Devil's Details affirms that delight in reading can come from unexpected places.


Chapter 1: The Endangered Footnote

The need for an adequate book on footnotes is obvious. One of the earliest and most ingenious inventions of humankind, the footnote has been for centuries an indispensable tool of the scholar and a source of endlessly varied delight for the layperson. The lack until now of a substantial and appropriately annotated study of its nature, its history, its friends and enemies can only be ascribed to complacency. Annotators and literary connoisseurs simply have assumed too easily the continuing survival of this important adjunct to the printing press.

Such complacency is no longer possible. Gone is the time when the Reverend John Hodgson, the distinguished nineteenth-century historian, could unselfconsciously devote one quarto of his multivolume account of Northumberland County (England) to a single gigantic footnote on the Roman Wall. Nor could the equally well-known historian Edward Gibbon expect any longer to be congratulated for allocating one-fourth of his space in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to footnotes.

Footnotes distress publishers, who unfortunately lurk behind every book. They find notes unsightly, costly, forbidding. Toward the end of the twentieth century, publishers foisted upon the reader a recondite game to further discourage the use of notes. The game goes like this: First you must fix in your mind the number of the footnote, say 27, then you have to remember the page number on which footnote 27 appears, say page 85. Then you must turn to the back of the book, trying to keep your place with an inserted finger, and scan page after page until you discover one headed "Footnotes for Pages 81-107." By this time you have forgotten the footnote number so you must scramble back to the original page and seek it out again, sitting small and sulkily, in the text. Only enthusiasts of acrostic puzzles and nine-digit ZIP codes can possibly persist in this game.

So complicated have publishers made the arrangement of notes, in fact, that help from sophisticated mathematics has been required. Utilizing the theory of sets and subsets, a so-called Hoffman system has been devised to guide annotators in the placement of their notes. It provides an intricate flow chart complete with little boxes and directional arrows -- the kind of thing General Motors uses to keep track of its spare parts.

Several firms have gone so far as to announce that they will not burden their texts with footnotes, as if conferring a favor upon their readers. Others have slyly encouraged a writer or two to put up a Web site for the footnotes that have been refused the hospitality of the book itself. The notion seems to be that this way the scholar can find the "dull" citations if needed while the general reader can have an uninterrupted good read.

We know this to be nonsense, of course. The layperson as well as the scholar enjoys footnotes. They can be charming, an encouragement to read on, worth every penny of the extra expense.

The Letters of Evelyn Waugh might easily have been published without any interruption by its editor. But then we never would have learned that the "pornographer" whom Waugh said fed a horse vodka and got bitten for his pains was Norman Mailer. Nor would we have learned that Mailer -- tracked down by the indefatigable editor -- insisted that he had not been trying to get the horse drunk but was merely patting it.

Such information keeps us reading, but the main job of the footnote is to interrupt. Simply interrupt.

A stern, no-nonsense lecture on the eighteenth-century belief that the universe was a smooth-running machine is being delivered. Suddenly, from the bottom of the page, a voice whispers, "It should be pointed out, however, that de la Mettrie, the author of the famous book Man The Machine, died of over eating and gout; he stoked the machine too well." The reader is intensely grateful for this human interruption.

Being human, authors sometimes miscalculate, of course, which is part of the charm of footnotes. That gentlest of philosophers, William James, once interrupted his discussion of the brain to reassure the reader. "Nothing is easier than to familiarize oneself with the mammalian brain," he said. "Get a Sheep's head, a small saw, chisel, and forceps...and unravel its parts." Only a reader with a strong stomach will gain the assurance James intended.

Ironically, should the conspiracy to ease footnotes into extinction succeed, publishers' own interests will suffer. The absence of footnotes will discourage rather than attract the general reader, particularly when the text is difficult -- the time when an interruption is most welcome.

In a fit of self-mortification, a friend of mine was trying to fight his way through an explanation of Kant's categorical imperative. The explanation, by an Oxford professor, was brief and kindly but after sixty pages my friend's eyes glazed over. Fortunately, a footnote interrupted. "It is extraordinary," the professor said, "how early the human mind seems able to grasp the universality of moral law. A small boy of five, not especially conspicuous either for goodness or intelligence, was presented on a flag day with several flags. One of these he was kind enough to give me. Later he gave another to his sister, who rewarded him with a sixpence. Whereupon -- surely on the assumption that his sister's action was a manifestation of universal law (even if this was not without advantages to himself) -- he asserted, 'If G. gives me a sixpence, the Professor will have to give me a sixpence, too.'" My friend felt as if a window had suddenly been opened in a rather stuffy room; children's voices, distant band music drifted in. Refreshed, he managed to start marching through the text again -- someday he may even finish it.

Amusement, charm, a chance to rest: These gifts alone should make us grateful for the footnote. But the footnote is also educational. If it opens windows to bands and parades, it also lets us peer into the inner workshops of scholars. A few glimpses of what goes on there should convince anyone that it is an entirely human activity, that the impersonal recitation of ideas or seamless narrative a text sometimes allows us to enjoy is an illusion -- as much of an illusion as a Fred Astaire dance across tables and chairs, up walls, and across ceilings. Footnotes let us hear the missteps of biases, and hear pathos, subtle decisions, scandal and anger.

This function of the footnote is important enough to require a few immediate illustrations, though many more will be sprinkled throughout this book.

Bias: In 1838 Edmund Lodge, Esq., K.H., Norroy King of Arms, F.S.A., compiled for our benefit a book of documents illustrating "British history, biography, and manners in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth, & James I." They were "selected from the mss. of the noble families of Howard, Talbot, and Cecil." Only the unsophisticated would enter the book without recognizing that the selections may have been skewed by the taste and temperament of its distinguished Victorian editor. But by the time we arrive at page 316, we may forget that, like a reporter who travels for a season with the same baseball team, say the Red Sox, Edmund Lodge, Esq., may cease to be a recorder of the team's hits and pitches and become a fan. ("Joe DiMaggio may have hit in 56 straight games," such a writer might argue, "but he didn't join up after Pearl Harbor; Roger Maris may have hit 61 home runs but he didn't fight in the Korean War; Ted Williams hit over .400 for a season and served his country twice." This kind of writing is even-handedness to a Boston reporter.)

Fortunately, on page 316, a footnote returns us to our skepticism. A report from the earl of Shrewsbury to the Privy Council states: "If money could have been had in these parts, I would assuredly for the present need have mortgaged or sold any land or things I have...." At the bottom of the page Edmund Lodge, Esq., tosses his hat and cheers. "The reader will not hesitate to join with me here in a just tribute of veneration to the departed spirit of true patriotism." Well, yes, unless the reader is a Yankee fan.

Pedanticism: Hegel, author of Encyklopadie der Philosphischen im Grundrisse (Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline) and the late headmaster of a boarding school in Nuremberg, Germany, was a connoisseur of abstractions; in fact, some of his readers have come to believe that for Hegel only the mind was real. In a discussion of the beauty of nature, Hegel may have given support to that belief. He first suggests that "we call animal organisms bizarre, if the way their organs are connected falls outside what we have already often seen previously...." Then he offers, as an example, "a fish whose disproportionately large body ends in a short tail and whose eyes are together on one side of the head." The fish might have seemed simply a figment of Hegel's real or unreal mind had not his translator consulted an English colleague -- perhaps a fish-and-chips devotee -- who pointed out that "the description of the fish fits a Dover sole." This footnote both indicates the need for dogged and careful scholarship and recognizes the danger of pedanticism; readers who think scholars have an easy life are immediately put on notice. Scholars, like trapeze artists, risk humiliation -- if not something worse.

Scandal: We might believe that Daniel Bell, famous for The Coming of Post-Industrial Society and other pronouncements, is simply a Harvard professor who sits quietly in his office explaining our past and forecasting our future. Certainly the number of words making their way out of his office and into print suggests a deskbound existence.

Bell's life, however, has not been entirely sedentary. In 1959 he was in Salzburg, Austria, dangerously close to the Iron Curtain. There, injudiciously, he let be seen a preliminary blueprint of the future postindustrial society. Unauthorized eyes were watching. On his return to the café society of Cambridge, Massachusetts, as he ruefully admits in a footnote, his plans "inexplicably...turned up as a citation in the volume published by the Czechoslovak Academy of Science on the scientific and technological revolutions which were creating a post-industrial society." One suspects disingenuousness on Bell's part: The ubiquitousness of industrial espionage is sufficiently known that his experience is far from inexplicable.

Clash of egos: A scholar's life is not for the timid. A somewhat sad illustration of this occurred many years ago. Historians were engaged in a furious conflict set off by a recently unearthed confidential memo submitted to the U.S. Intelligence Bureau during World War I by John Dewey, the philosopher and Vermonter. (The intricacies of the dispute are no more necessary for the general reader to grasp than a knowledge of how to load a musket is required by War and Peace.) A short volley of criticism, supported by fifty rapidly fired footnotes, was directed at one of the combatants by an inexperienced graduate student. The response was a barrage of eighty-four notes, at least one of which struck home. "Zerby," the assaulted scholar's note exploded, "misquotes me, accidentally, I suspect by substituting 'which' for 'that'." The wound inflicted should not be minimized. Grammar -- despite the considerable evidence to the contrary -- remains important to graduate students. The imputation that the error was an accident instead of a subtle tactical move seems to have been devastating: "that" graduate student's name never appeared again in a scholarly journal.

The list of how the footnote humanizes scholarship could be extended nearly indefinitely. Indeed, for those of us who have followed its evolution with some care, the temptation is simply to extend the list ad infinitum.

We must recognize, however, that footnotes can be mistrusted precisely because they reveal the inner workings of scholarship. This has been talked about quite openly by Thomas McFarland, a deft biographer and scholar of the Romantic period. In a nice little confessional of his, "Who Was Benjamin Whichcote? or, The Myth of Annotation," he recounts his own ambiguous relationship with the footnote. For one of his early books, he produced a manuscript of some eleven hundred typed pages, which we can surmise included about five hundred footnotes; subsequently he added another five hundred. "The Clarendon Press at that time," McFarland assures us, "was noted for the elegance of its printing and design...." This commitment to elegance led the publisher to suggest that some of the notes be jettisoned; the conscientious scholar refused. Next came a suggestion that some notes be combined and placed at the rear of the book. McFarland took this to heart -- though perhaps in that heart of his pulsed the blood of Rube Goldberg, for as McFarland excised some notes he complicated the remaining. Some nineteen so-called excursus notes were added to the back of the book; these were essays "put together from cullings of reference and statements on various topics." And after those were added endnotes that were not "cullings" but "individually dialogical essays."

The experience, however, apparently disillusioned him. "The effect of the whole volume was somewhat parallel to the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. No matter how assiduously one read, one never seemed to be able to reach the end of the book; it was particularly dispiriting for the type continually to become smaller as one tried to hasten forward. Indeed, I have sometimes wondered whether anyone except me and my editor has ever actually been able to read the book through."

McFarland's charming self-doubts have had a profound influence on him. He more recently tried to persuade his publisher to put out a book of his without any notes at all -- no footnotes, no endnotes, no excursus notes, just the plain, unadorned, continuous text. A brave move for a scholar, one akin to an actor appearing on stage alone, sans costume, sans makeup, sans props, just the actor, his script, and his audience. McFarland's courage is of less immediate interest to us, however, than the reasons he gives for his proud nakedness. His explanation takes us back to his school days when he, as he puts it with commendable meticulousness, "was unusually erratic or, not to put too firm a point on it, decidedly neurotic." The academic label given him, he says (with what we imagine is a slight wince), was "brilliant but unsound." Thus he piled up footnotes to defend his arguments "much as a soldier at the front might throw up earthworks...." Earthworks: After years of labor any scholar might delight in tossing away notes, much as a kid runs along the beach kicking down sand castles and squealing. What a sense of freedom they both must feel, the wind whipping their hair, squinty-eyed onlookers muttering.

But then in another place in his confession, McFarland changes himself from a free spirit running along the beach to a suspicious miser looking over his shoulder. "To be quite cynical," he quotes himself as having written his publisher at the time, "I really see no other need for footnotes than to allow scholarly readers to purloin my citations without having to give me a reference. Certainly the average interested pleased rather than put off by the absence of footnotes. It is only other scholars who cry for footnotes, for reasons that they would be hard put to defend."

As tempting as it is to ascribe a hard-nosed, even commercial, motive to scholarly antagonism to footnotes, that is too easy. Anyone who has been around a practicing scholar knows there is more of the kid in his soul than the banker. (Many of them, for example, take summers off.) And always we should keep in mind that the footnote, like the haiku or terza rima, makes difficult and strict demands on the writer, however much pleasure it may give the reader. Impatience, even resentment, and certainly ambiguous feelings on the part of writers toward footnotes are to be expected.

McFarland expresses ambiguities not just in his autobiography but also in his metaphors and analogies; they are deeply set in his psyche indeed. Footnotes, on the one hand, are intended to be "an impregnable fortification"; on the other hand, they turn out not to be "steel cables woven into a gigantic interconnection of meaning" but in fact "connected to nothing." They are "short and localized outriggers." They come in and out of fashion as do bell-bottoms or stovepipes. However, to try to ignore "footnote indicators" when reading can be "something like driving over a road with innumerable potholes." The feeling that footnotes are trouble (and bone-rattling trouble at that) -- maybe more trouble than they are worth -- is unmistakable.

Scholars are often viewed as park rangers of footnotes; the notes are on their preserve and in their charge. But scholars are not entirely to be trusted. A notable example is the pioneering historian of the footnote, Anthony Grafton. His The Footnote: A Curious History is solid scholarship, an entertaining read, and a sophisticated defense of the footnote as scholarly tool. Alerted by our experience with McFarland to the fact that hidden and ambiguous feelings may be expressed in metaphor as they are in dreams, we can "psyche out" Grafton.

He turns out to be a terribly conflicted supporter of the footnote; his mind says one thing, his dreams something else. Early on a peculiar "low rumble" is ascribed to the footnote and the "rumble" compared to the dentist's drill's "high whine"; enthusiastic annotators then are compared to "dentists who have become inured to inflicting pain and shedding blood...." We leave the dentist's office only to hear that the "production of footnotes" resembles "the disposal of waste products." Next comes a comparison of the footnote to a fish that few readers bother to trawl for, then to a shabby podium, a carafe of water, a "rambling, inaccurate introduction." That each of these comparisons is in the service of a legitimate insight and that each extends our understanding of the footnote does not conceal the "low rumble" of hostility emanating from this scholar's prose.

It is true that when Grafton's story reaches the eighteenth century, the seductiveness of that century's footnotes moves him to say that "footnotes burgeoned and propagated like branches and leaves in a William Morris wallpaper." A lovely comparison that is preceded, however, by a comparison of footnotes to the "impregnably armored bottom" of a tank and succeeded by a scholar who uses a footnote the way "the hockey-masked villain in an American horror film uses a chain saw: to dismember his opponents, leaving their gory limbs scattered across the landscape." The Rabelaisian glee that one feels when thumbing one's nose at the footnote is nicely caught by a Noël Coward quip that Grafton joins many other scholars in retelling. "Having to read a footnote," the lyric dramatist claimed, "resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love." Scholars, as Coward understood, tend to become infatuated with their prose, though that sometimes astonishes their readers; and so when in the midst of crafting a subtly curving thought, the scholar may very easily feel the footnote is merely an inopportune interruption.

That is sad.

The footnote is just as likely to bring to the door a welcome visitor, perhaps handsome or pretty, sometimes garrulous but often pleasantly sociable. Many a somnolent reader has (metaphorically) hugged such a visitor and hoped many more would come to the door: A text sometimes is something only a scholar can love; a footnote, however, is like a blind date, threatening and exciting, dreary occasionally but often entertaining. And a footnote does not require or expect a long-term commitment.

The current climate of opinion of footnotes is ambiguous at best. With the advent of the personal computer, writers find it easier to arrange the "blind date"; publishers can also use the computer to take the guesswork out of the layout. But some writers and publishers have used the Internet as an excuse to eliminate the notes from the published book, offering instead a Web site to which an interested reader can go for the annotations. Virtual reality is a treacherous place, however, filled with black holes and out-of-control meteors; Web sites can go poof in a day, a year, a decade, a century. A book then will be left without notes, an argument without documentation, a scholar without credibility. And the relegation of notes to the Internet forecloses any of the dramatic possibility that the footnote's proximity to the text encourages.

Opinion and practice will not be changed simply by pointing out the speciousness of the arguments against the footnote. They will not be changed simply because the footnote has clearly demonstrated its usefulness in the past or because its future holds such promise. They will not be changed simply because scholars, humanists, literate laypersons, and experimental poets have a stake in its continued survival. Appreciation must be informed with knowledge; individual protest must find a common voice. Quite some time ago a scholar called for -- in a footnote, of course -- "some organization devoted to agitating for the return of footnotes to the place they belong." With the possibility of annotations being rocketed into a virtual space, untended and forgotten, the need for organized agitation is even more pressing. But first we must have a full account of the adventuresome history of the footnote and the many ways it has proved beautiful and desirable. The book is a step in fulfilling that obvious need.

Copyright © 2002 by Chuck Zerby

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (November 1, 2007)
  • Length: 160 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416587330

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Raves and Reviews

Michael Pakenham The Baltimore Sun [A] charming, witty history and exploration of the formal written aside.

Amanda Heller The Boston Globe In this short volume -- festooned of course with a rococo profusion of bottom-of-the-page diversions and digressions -- Zerby presents colorful examples of footnote use....A spirited defense of a little-loved and endangered species.

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