Historians are dull people; they can kill a conversation with a fact.It is impossible to verify the quotation above. Bob Littlewood said something along these lines when I was in his office for one of our periodic meetings. We were discussing the possibilities and pitfalls of interdisciplinary research. Many of our conversations worked their way through the perceptions of scholars in one academic discipline about the methodologies of another. I was working in literature, anthropology, and history.
Under Littlewood’s tutelage in anthropological theory I read The Sacred Canopy (1967) by Peter Berger; Eric Wolf’s seminal essay, “The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol,” Journal of American Folklore (1958); Talal Asad’s “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz,” Man (1983); and much more. I outlined a research program focused on the study of patriotism as civil religion with attention towards Texas v. Johnson 491 U.S. 397 (1989), the Nez Perce flag dance, the rise of the Religious Right in the Seventies and Eighties. Because I mentioned in passing Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilization (1987) by Hans Peter Duerr, he read it and demanded some accountability from my perusal. Dreamtime is a fantastic book with a mere 125 pages of main text and many hundreds of pages of footnotes. Once Littlewood looked at the book, I could no longer afford to neglect the footnotes, which were “the most interesting part,” he said.
Dreamtime is a book that I stumbled upon in the bookstore. While I was looking at it, a colleague came by and we discussed the book. I showed her the extensive footnotes and bibliography amounting to more than three quarters of the volume. This colleague, who was pursuing a Ph.D. in composition and rhetoric, told me I should spurn the book simply out of principle in opposition to writers that draft long discursive footnotes. I listened to her dissertation on principles, on writing, and upon the consumer behavior of bibliophiles. I bought the book because it reflected principles of scholarship important to me. I value footnotes.
I read Dreamtime the day I bought it, but forgetting my principles, neglected the footnotes until Littlewood drove me back towards them.
I’ll be having this really interesting conversation with James, and then he’ll start speaking in footnotes.Readers of Sherman Alexie’s poetry and fiction will have seen statements where he disparages certain aspects of academic practice and perhaps also his use of footnotes as a trope for detail obsessed scholars. His statement above, if it was ever spoken, was reported to me through a third party to whom he spoke about me. Nearly a decade after this alleged utterance, he admitted to me that he probably said something along these lines.
Novelists are in the business of making up conversations to carry along a story, including often credible accounts of another era. Part of the business of historians is creation of stories from verifiable fragments of conversations in other eras. Footnotes offer the records of verification, and often the adventure of the quest or alternate plots lines for the story. In the case of bad history—fabrication, falsification, plagiarism—the footnotes (or their absence) often tell the story. These facts may end interesting conversations, but they also provoke new and vital discussions.
Footnotes are integral to reliable texts.