On Footnotes

Dobson had an ambivalent attitude towards the footnote. Fond of footnotes as a reader, in his own writing he took pains to avoid them. He gave some indication of his thinking in the pamphlet It Behoves Me To Write At Some Length On Footnotes, Without Footnotes (out of print):

When I am reading a book or a pamphlet or a hysterical tract, I am very fond of footnotes. Indeed I lap them up. I have been known to ignore the main body of a text and read only the footnotes. Yet when it comes to the composition of my own sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose, it is my staunch belief that one should avoid footnotes wherever possible, and embed or incorporate the matter of the footnote into the main text. This can, and indeed usually does, have the effect of interrupting the flow of one’s argument, and risks undermining the majestic sweep of one’s prose. Why, then, do I eschew the footnote?

My guide in these matters was Herr Von Straubenzee, who taught me to write in the old wooden schoolroom long ago. Now it must be admitted that his own pathological loathing of the footnote was born, not of reason nor of a concern for the felicities of style, but of childhood trauma. Herr Von Straubenzee had been orphaned young, and he held a footnote responsible for his parents’ deaths. I could never quite grasp the details, though he often told us the story as he handed around our rations of blotting paper, and Frau Von Straubenzee would enact the grisly episode through the medium of shadow puppetry in the old wooden schoolroom when our lessons were over for the day. As far as I could gather, it was something to do with a footnote appended to a funicular railway timetable in some remote Alpine fastness, and the consequences thereof. Oddly, Herr Von Straubenzee was fixated on the footnote rather than on funicular railways themselves. Indeed, both he and Frau Von Straubenzee were daily passengers on one, as were all we tinies, for the old wooden schoolroom was otherwise inaccessible, perched as it was high up on a mountainside.

But psychological flaw or no, the abomination of footnotes expressed by my pedagogue had a lasting effect. I remember when I made my first faltering steps as a pamphleteer, and sent a draft of A Draft In Preparation For My First Ever Pamphlet (never in print) to Herr Von Straubenzee. I was young and cocky, and included in the draft a provocative footnote. My main text included the phrase “the contents of an ostrich’s stomach”. I plopped a superscript number “1” after this – thus threatening further footnotes! – and added, at the foot of the page,

1. The contents of the stomach of an ostrich which died in London Zoo in 1942 included a lace handkerchief, a buttoned glove, a length of rope, a plain handkerchief (probably a man’s), assorted copper coins, metal tacks, staples and hooks, and a four-inch nail – a step too far, and the cause of death.

Herr Von Straubenzee returned my manuscript unread, partly blotted out, partly burned, and torn into a thousand pieces. He enclosed a note in which he consigned me to the deepest pit of hell for all eternity. He had no power to do so, of course – though I have always suspected Frau Von Straubenzee did – but I felt suitably intimidated and sent a fawning letter of apology, in which I promised never to knowingly write a footnote ever again so long as I should live. This seemed to do the trick, and over the next few years I retained the good graces of my old teacher. He sent me a crate of Carlsbad plums on my birthday. Well, one year he did. The following year he sent me a sausage. After that, not a sausage. And then later of course, he died.

It was after the death of Herr Von Straubenzee that I fell prey to the temptations of the footnote. I no longer need fear his disapproval. Frau Von Straubenzee was still among the living, very much so, but she had always pooh-poohed her husband’s footnoteophobia, so I had no cause for concern from that quarter. I remember the first time I felt impelled to insert a post-Herr Von Straubenzee footnote into one of my pamphlets. Curiously enough, it concerned the pedagogue himself. The pamphlet was Hysterical Reactions To Misprints, Footnotes, Redactions, And Blotting Mishaps In Alpine Funicular Railway Timetables, 1900-1949 (out of print). I had constructed a particularly fine paragraph on the Von Straubenzees, and felt I ought to disclose that their orphaned child went on to become my teacher in the old wooden schoolroom perched high on a mountainside. I did not see how I could include this gobbet of information in the text without fatally undermining its sweeping majesty. And so, with a heavy heart and the hope that Herr Von Straubenzee would not be rolling in his grave, I made it a footnote.

I may well have gone on to shove footnotes willy nilly into my prose thereafter, had it not been for the reaction it provoked. In those days my pamphlets would occasionally be reviewed in learned journals, and it was one such review, in The Learned Journal Of Hysterical Reactions To Misprints, Footnotes, Redactions, And Blotting Mishaps In Alpine Funicular Railway Timetables, that stopped me in my tracks. A certain B. Tick wrote:

A new Dobson pamphlet is usually a cause for rejoicing in this neck of the woods. Indeed our small editorial team has been known to crack open a bottle of vitamin-enhanced goaty milk when postie toils up the gravel path bearing the latest outpouring of the titanic pamphleteer. We don’t much care what he writes about, so long as it is suitable reading matter for a funicular railway journey, which, with Dobson, it always is. This time, however, he is trespassing on a subject about which we know not a little. I would go so far as to say we know everything there is to be known. I had hoped to be able to say that he has acquitted himself with aplomb, but alas, he has not. This is a witless and foolish pamphlet, marred particularly by an extraordinarily jarring footnote. Had Dobson inserted the footnoted matter within the main body of his text, I would be singing his praises, and extolling the pamphlet as perhaps the finest of all his works. But if you are going to thrust a footnote upon your reader, you have to know how to wield it. Dobson hasn’t got a clue. He thinks it is enough merely to plop a superscript “1” into his text and then add some blather at the foot of the page. Did he ever listen, when tiny, to the wise words of Herr Von Straubenzee in the old wooden schoolroom perched high on a mountainside and accessible only by funicular railway? He must have had an excess of earwax that prevented him from hearing that great man.

The review went on like this for page after page, and quite frankly, I threw the Learned Journal aside before I finished reading it, and broke down sobbing. When I dried my eyes, I used a matchstick to dig around in my ears to remove the clotted wax that had been accumulating for decades. Then I made a vow never to write another footnote for as long as I should live. This will explain to my readers why so many of my pamphlets consist of little else but subsidiary and incidental matter. Works such as Subsidiary And Incidental Matter Appertaining To Hysterical Reactions To Misprints, Footnotes, Redactions, And Blotting Mishaps In Alpine Funicular Railway Timetables, 1900-1949 (out of print) are in fact the footnotes I could have written, oh I could have!, but never did.

2 thoughts on “On Footnotes

  1. How might von Straubenzee have responded to ‘The Mezzanine’ by that master footnoter Nicholson Baker? It would have been wholly burnt and torn into a hundred thousand pieces, I shouldn’t wonder.

  2. Footnote symbols have a hierarchy.

    Now, I’ve remembered this inconsequential fact, but can’t remember what the hierarchy is or where I was first introduced to it.

    I do remember one symbol is named “double-dagger”.


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