Literary footnotes: Past joins present

November 30, 1997|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun staff

"The Footnote: A Curious History," by Anthony Grafton. Harvard University Press. 235 pages. $22.95. In the Renaissance, Anthony Grafton reminds us, historians were gentlemen, and gentlemen were expected to write in the same style that they rode or made love - with great skill but without obvious effort. A gentleman was respectful, never impudent. He and his footnotes offered authority, not dissonance. Eloquence was more highly valued than originality.

This extended essay is the graduate seminar in which you never enrolled: a dense, oddly passionate celebration of the history of the historian's craft with, however improbable, the footnote as a major character. The real actors are of course the historians. But their footnotes offer a sort of archaeology of intellectual inquiry, a deep coring that tells you how a writer worked, where he #F worked, how much confidence and pleasure he had.

Writing history was for a long time a matter of consulting your private library. In the 19th century, the birth of a new university system in Germany literally opened the archives, and increased the number of voices, so that the footnote takes on the role of democrat.

There are heroes and anti-heroes. There is Pierre Bayle, a 17th-century French historian who compiled a vast encyclopedia errors in historical writing, offering footnotes and then footnotes on his footnotes, and in the process inspiring a later generation of scholars to think critically about the truthfulness of sources. There is the little- known Gottlieb Wilhelm Rabener, author in 1743 of "Notes Without Text." It was exactly that: footnotes without a text. Since Rabener saw his peers becoming famous through their commentaries, he proposed becoming a commentator without going to the bother of writing a text.

Looming over everyone else is Leopold von Ranke, the 19th- century German historian whom Grafton casts as the hinge between the old and the modern in scholarship. It is Ranke who makes footnotes into literary events conveying the pleasures of research and the beauty of archives. His readers share his pleasure of discovery.

Grafton, professor of history at Princeton, offers a large crop of footnotes himself. Notes on "anti-authenticating" footnotes, on satire in footnotes, on the brothers Jacob and Michael Bernays ++ and their analyses of Geothe and Lucretius. All of that by the end of page 4. But it is a fine, eclectic education.

Parts of the main text are less fine. In his earlier "New Worlds, Ancient Texts" and in essays elsewhere, Grafton offers intellectual history with great elegance. But "Footnote" has labored analogies (footnotes likened to a dentist's drill, to

anthills, and so on) and odd twists in chronology.

In their (literally) lowly footnotes, historians change from purveyors of certainties to figures of doubt. By the late 19th century, a footnote becomes less a proof of absolute authority than a go-between for past and present, writer and reader. The footnote gives you the means to argue. "Only the use of footnotes," Grafton says, "enables historians to make their texts not monologues but conversations, in which modern scholars, their predecessors, and their subjects all take part."

You can no longer just tell a story. You must cite the evidence, and you must show how it was manipulated. It is, or should be, in the footnotes.

Robert Ruby, on leave as deputy foreign editor of The Sun, majored in romance languages as an undergraduate. He served as a foreign correspondent for four years in Europe and five in the Middle East, and is author of "Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms" and its 19 pages of endnotes.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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