The story behind the story is under the story

Forget about reading between the lines. Go directly to the footnotes and be enlightened.

Ideas: Wordplay

March 17, 2002|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,Special to the Sun

Footnotes in books can be fun, even collectible.

Not the tedious or showy kind that the humorist Robert Benchley spoofed in an essay, "Shakespeare Explained: Carrying on the System of Footnotes to a Silly Extreme" (The Benchley Roundup, University of Chicago Press, 1983).

In a faux scene from Pericles by Benchley, the "first lady-in-waiting" says "What! Ho! Where is the music?" and Benchley drowns us in explanation. For example, he examines "Ho!", with Clarke, Techner and Ham being scholars:

"In conjunction with the preceding word doubtless means 'What ho!', changed by Clarke to 'what hoo!' In the original ms., it reads 'What hi!' when 'What ho' was meant. Techner alone maintains that it should read 'What humpf!' Cf. Ham. 5:0, 'High-ho.' "

Footnotes have traditions, missed by some. A writer in the Baltimore Evening Sun once cited "the Roman poet Ibid" in referring to a footnote. Ibid. is an abbreviation of the Latin ibidem (in the same place). When footnotes begin with ibid., it means further reference to the same source previously listed.

This anecdote reminds me of Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn's supposed retort when an associate said a script was "too caustic" to be made into a movie. "To hell with the cost. If it's a good story, I'll make it."

Over the years, I have collected some bottom-of-the page adventures more interesting than the larger type giving them birth. They are not short stories, they are tiny stories. Here is a sampling:

History speeds by

Ship collisions are a dime a dozen. Geoffrey Marcus adds a different scenario when he describes large ships recklessly speeding on the oceans to save their owners money. The book is Titanic: The Maiden Voyage (Manor Books Inc., 1969).

Marcus' footnote: "Many years after the Titanic disaster, a certain steamship was running at high speed in thick weather, when a Dutch liner suddenly swept past, missing her by inches. The fog was so dense at the time that those on the steamship's bridge could see nothing of the other vessel but one of her boats hanging in the davits. The Master gasped at the apparition and immediately ordered the junior (the future Commander W.C.A. Robson) not to breathe a word of what he had seen -- not even to the officers out on the other wing of the bridge; then he went below for a stiff peg. ... It is scarcely necessary to add that, even so, speed was not reduced."

Here's a quick American history lesson you may have skipped, from the standard AMC White Mountain Guide (Appalachian Mountain Club, 21st Edition, 1976). It describes trails in Northern New Hampshire's White Mountains:

AMC footnote: "For many years after the Revolution, the Connecticut Lakes region was claimed by both the United States and Canada. The settlers formed their own local government which about 1829 became known as Indian Stream Territory. On July 9, 1832, they organized the 'Republic of Indian Stream' with a written constitution, council, assembly and courts. This tiny state existed for over three years, ending its career in the 'Indian Stream War' (1835-36) when after trouble with the Canadian authorities, the territory was occupied by New Hampshire militia. By the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1843) the region was awarded to New Hampshire."

How about a juicy parlor game? In Judith Thurman's biography, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller (St. Martin's Press, 1982), the long Danish winter evenings of 1951 featured spirited talk between the author of Out of Africa, known also as Karen Blixen, and her friends:

Thurman footnote: "One game she [Dinesen] often played with friends was to take turns confessing one's 'worst sin.' Hers, she claimed, was to have seduced a cabin boy on the ship home to Denmark in 1915, when she knew that she had syphilis. He was too beautiful to resist, she liked to say -- although she also claimed that she arranged for his treatment in Paris. Weighing this 'confession' with everything one knows about her state of mind at that moment, her physical suffering, her character and her attitude toward sex, it is almost certainly pure invention: the fantastic reminiscence of Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag' [one of Dinesen's fictional characters seen as her alter ego]."

Speaking of the military

Some footnotes are super-skimpy. In March to Quebec (Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1938), Kenneth Roberts compiled and annotated soldiers' journals from Benedict Arnold's march to Quebec against the British. An American soldier, George Morison, wrote that an enemy bullet hit "my brave captain ... and lays him dead on the spot. We have no time to weep."

Roberts' note, in total: "The enlisted man of 1775 was greatly given to bursting into tears."

At the other extreme in length, another Roberts footnote tells about an intrepid colonel whose good deeds did not go unpunished:

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