Happenstance and Historians
FOOTNOTES, AS ANTHONY GRAFTON reminded us some years ago, are fascinating creations, burdened with more responsibility than they can actually hold, hinting at both the intellectual firepower of their authors and the artificiality of the very argument they claim to support. But that is not how footnotes first appear. For most of us, whenever it was that we first paid real attention to the reduced text cached at the bottom of the page (or worse, hidden away among the book's final pages), the footnote was the mark of authority. In time, we recognized that real people lay behind the names and titles. For some of us, the lesson “got real” the first time we saw one of our own professors’ names in print. For many more of us, I suspect, that realization came near the end of our undergraduate years as we applied to graduate school and began to meet the very historians whose books we had read. I, however, was in neither of those groups: I “met” my first footnote when I was already halfway through my master's degree program.
The first time I shook hands with one of my footnotes was in 1992, in Houston, Texas, at the 11th International Conference of the Charles Homer Haskins Society. I met a lot of footnotes, in fact, over the course of that weekend. But I always remember the first. He was not who I came to meet, and such contingency was wholly appropriate.
I was still fumbling with my name tag and trying to discern where the presentations were going to take place in the Allen Park Inn when two other historians strolled by. I don't doubt that my confusion, or simple rookie status, was writ large on my face. It sufficed to draw the attention of the fellow with the dark, curly hair and a puckish gleam in his eyes. His mouth was pursed somehow just short of a grin. I’ve come to know since how easily his visage slides back and forth between gleeful and determined.
“Your first time here?” He tactfully framed the obvious as a question, as I’ve seen him do many times since.