Footnotes and Letters


The Wood’s House collection, as I’ve said before, is made up mostly of odds and ends; it’s a sort of Island of Misfit Books, including everything from ragged paperback novels to cookbooks and old editions of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. Among the better-kept misfits is a very nice cloth-bound 1976 edition of noted historian Page Smith‘s A New Age Now Begins: A People’s History of the American Revolution, in two large volumes, complete with the original dust jackets. While the book is clearly the product of considerable scholarly effort, it is not particularly scholarly in style — its voice leans toward the polemic. There are no footnotes, a choice the author defends in a Bibliographical Note at the end of volume 2; Smith is especially annoyed with “didactic” footnotes that have become “a sort of cumbersome vehicle, full of scholarly impedimenta, which is dragged along with the text and from which the author pulls forth for display endless exhibits of his erudition, fending off critics with frequent asides designed to demonstrate his knowledge of the field, and making snide comments about rival historians” (Smith, 1976, p. 1833).

While some reviewers found it entertaining, at least one found Smith’s turn toward narrative and away from the didactic unimpressive. According to Forrest McDonald (published in the Autumn 1976 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review),

One might sum this up merely by saying this is the worst book I have ever reviewed, which is true enough. But one cannot let it go at that. The book contains some potent and persuasive narrative, and plays upon highly fashionable prejudices, and thus there is a likelihood that it might be taken seriously. Indeed, in some quarters it already has been; it was an April Book-of-the-Month Club selection. One must therefore be more explicit in repudiating it. Had such a work appeared anonymously in an underground newspaper, no one would have a right to be offended, but for it to appear under the imprint of a respectable publisher and a reputable historian is nothing less than prostitution.

The Supreme Court has defined an obscene book as one that is offensive to ordinary standards of decency and contains no redeeming social value. By that criterion, A New Age Now Begins is on a par with the movies of Linda Lovelace.

McDonald, of course, begins his review with the bald assertion that “in the fuzzspeak idiom of our time, ‘people’s’ is a code word signifying an ideological position somewhere between that of Ralph Nader and that of Chairman Mao,” so it is possible that there are some ideological concerns coloring his reception of the text.* Ideology aside, however, the reviewer rightly points out a rather appalling number of errors of fact in the book — “The train of factual inaccuracies gets going midway through the first paragraph, when we are told that William and Mary were ‘monarchs of the German principality of Orange’ (p. 1),” and it only goes downhill from there.

What makes this particular edition of volume 2 of Smith’s book interesting to me, though, is something it contains that is unrelated to its content.


Inside of the front cover, I found two old letters and a postcard. The postcard is a simple pro forma acknowledgement of a church visit, sent by a pastor at the pictured Lutheran establishment to  Mr. Wood in 1978. It is clipped to two letters to Mr. Wood from a woman living in a nearby town, both neatly marked by the recipient to indicate when they’d been received and when he’d posted responses in the early months of 1979.

Facing the title page, I also found a hand-written draft  of a letter from  December 1979. The pages of the letter are all dated and neatly numbered, as is the title page of the book itself (received in 1976). It’s not clear whether the letter itself is actually complete; there is no signature, and there seems to be content missing between what’s said at the bottom of page 4 and  the sheet marked 5″ (an alternate page 5?).


It’s difficult to know quite what to do with these stowaways on the Island of Misfit Books. The people who wrote the letters are dead, and there is no reason to believe that their descendants would need or want to collect these particular bits of familial flotsam and jetsam. The two received letters are the sort of friendly correspondence  — mostly reporting tiny slices of the author’s life, basically small talk in text between old friends or fellow members of a congregation —  that might now be taken care of with a perfunctory email or text message. The unsent letter/draft is oddly poignant, but not something Mr. Wood’s surviving children would want to keep; he’s writing to a woman named Helen through what appears to be a pen pal exchange (he had apparently been separated from his wife for for some time when he wrote it). It’s an awkward getting-to-know-you letter, the kind of thing that I suspect most people find it difficult to write and even more difficult to send (see, for example, most dating site profiles).

The placement of the letters in the book seems, in a way, anomalous. I find myself wondering how a man who so meticulously indicated when he received and responded to his letters, a man who dated the books he received and made careful notes on them, came to leave correspondence in a book. The received letters were so neatly opened on the ends that I didn’t notice at first that they’d been opened. The book is in excellent condition, although it has obviously been read. I’m not surprised he didn’t send that tidy, awkward draft of a letter to Helen. I am, however, curious about why he kept it, and why he left it in this book. Perhaps he was interrupted, and never came back to the book. Perhaps someone else found the letters and stuck them in the book in the process of cleaning out the house, back when the university first took it over. There’s no obvious answer, although there are a number of entirely plausible and mundane possibilities.

There’s even less historical or archival value in these random letters than might be found in the “obscene” book in which they were left. Like Smith’s rejected footnotes, they are vehicles for information (personal rather than scholarly impedimenta) that have been dragged along with a text. The story of the world in 1978-1979 has been told without them. Yet it’s hard to ignore the sense of having a precious window into moments in someone’s life — not the world-shaking moments, but the small and entirely usual moments in which a person, however awkwardly, took the time to put pen or pencil to paper and reach out to someone else.

* McDonald was well known as a conservative historian, so this is perhaps a bit of an understatement on my part.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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