A version of the footnote appeared around 1700, and evolved during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into the form used throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. The footnote became a standard scholarly tool, offering “the only guarantee we have that statements about the past derive from identifiable sources” (Grafton 233).  But in recent years, to the dismay of many scholars, the academic footnote has nearly disappeared.[1]

Why and how did this occur? As Betsy Hilbert explains, the footnote reigned until the 1980s, when the authors of the MLA Style Manual ordered scholars to “avoid essaylike notes, which divert the reader’s attention from the primary text. In general, if you cannot fit comments into the text, omit them” (401). In 1984, the MLA “delivered the final stroke: eliminating reference notes (and) devaluing content notes” (402). As Hilbert went on to write “the footnote today survives in universities only in tiny pockets of retrograde activity, required solely by those department curmudgeons now nearing retirement who still insist their students know the English translation of ibid[2] (402).

That ibid (and the growing number of readers who don’t know what ibid means) may have contributed to the footnote’s decline. When Harry Belafonte read W.E. DuBois’s Color and Democracy, he noticed that “at the end of some sentences there was a number, and if you looked at the foot of the page the reference was to what it was all about—what source DuBois gleaned this information from. Belafonte “went to a library with a long list of books he wanted to borrow,” but the librarian told him he was asking for too many. So he said, “I can make it very easy. Just get me everything you got by I bid.” When the librarians told him there was no such author, Belafonte called her a racist, and accused her of “trying to keep (him) in darkness.” He left the library angry (Gates 135).

Writers have attacked both ibid and its relatives.  G.W. Bowersock wrote that “Lively entries avoid supra, infra, ibid and id, all of which have given footnotes a bad name” (55). Mary-Claire van Leunen wrote that “when you hear the comment ‘the best part was the footnotes,’ you can be sure that doesn’t mean the ibids and op cits” (89). Frank Sullivan, in an amusing book review entitled “A Garland of Ibids,” began “I have been rendered cockeyed by the footnotes” (155). Bowersock in “The Art of the Footnote” lists footnote abuses and excesses, including too many footnotes,[3] and footnotes that are too long.

But most scholars agree that the combination of publishers’ desires to cut costs by eliminating footnotes, and students’ dislike of typing them, are the most important influences behind the MLA’s decision to assassinate the footnote. The endnote, which replaced the footnote, is disliked by many teachers and readers, who resent having to search through pages at the back of the book, going back and forth between the original text and the endnotes. As Himmelfarb writes, “it takes two bookmarks to keep track of one’s place in the text and in the back of the book” (1).

Protests against the elimination of the footnote and defenses of footnotes rose from many sources. Bowersock wrote that a footnote “in the hands of a master can become a work of art and an instrument of power” (54), and listed some of the uses to which a footnote can be put: advise the reader of the relevant source or sources; explain or elaborate unfamiliar material; debunk myths; expose the errors (or forgeries) of others; and award praise or blame (56). But, as Himmelfarb points out, there are fewer and fewer footnotes, even in huge books on major topics, such as Simon Schama’s 948 page Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, 1989.

But if footnotes in scholarly nonfiction have almost disappeared, perhaps contemporary novelists, poets, and dramatists will come to their rescue. Eighteenth-century fiction writers employed footnotes. Henry Fielding used them in Tom Jones, ­­­­1749[4] to comment on the story, to enter into it, to become a part of it. The text reads, “The Tortoise, as the Alderman of Bristol, well-learned in eating, knows by much Experience, etc,” while the accompanying footnote reads: “Owing to the extravagant feasts consumed on such civic occasions as the Lord Mayor’s dinner, the gluttony of aldermen was proverbial” (32). Laurence Sterne in Tristam Shandy, 1760–1767, used footnotes to challenge statements made by his characters. In one footnote he points out mistakes made by the fictional Shandy.

In the twentieth century, authors began to use footnotes in new ways. Mary Karr in the introductory essay to the Modern Library edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Writings, discusses “The Waste Land’s impenetrability” (x), and adds that “The author’s notes, written in a somewhat dodgy and sometimes coy tone, tend to confuse rather than illuminate the poem’s references, its quotes and quirks” (XIV). But Hilbert opines that Eliot’s footnotes to The Waste Land were never intended to elucidate, but “serve to add another layer to the poem” (403). Whatever Eliot’s intentions, those struggling to understand the poem are undoubtedly frustrated by footnotes that deepen the darkness, rather than shedding light.[5]

James Joyce used footnotes in Finnegan’s Wake, 1939. According to Benstock, his notes are the voices of various characters and “develop a new line of narrative” (205). Perhaps, but since most of the voices in both the text and the footnotes are incomprehensible, it is difficult to say. For example, the text reads “we see the copyngink strayed-line AL (In Fig., the forest) from being continued, stops ait Lambday,” while the accompanying footnote reads “Ex jup pep off Carpenger Strate. The kids’ and dolls’ home. Makeacake-ache” (294).

J.D. Salinger includes a very long footnote (nearly a page) in Franny and Zooey, 1961. It begins “The aesthetic evil of a footnote seems in order just here, I’m afraid” (52). He then goes on to describe the history of the seven Glass children, including the deaths of Seymour and Boo Boo, and the whereabouts of the others.

In Seymour, an Introduction, 1963, Salinger’s footnotes intervene, making the author part of the story. Example: “This modest aspersion is thoroughly reprehensible, but the fact that the great Kierkegaard was never a Kierkegaardian, let alone an existentialist, cheers one bush-league intellectual’s heart to no end, never fails to reaffirm his faith in a cosmic poetic justice, if not a cosmic Santa Claus” (117).

Garrison Keillor not only used footnotes in Lake Wobegon Days, 1985, but also defended the practice. As he explained, “I was pleased with the footnotes in the book…There is supporting material which can be read in sequence or earlier or just glanced at or eliminated entirely, and that can go into footnotes. It really allows a person freedom of digression that you want in a book. And I like the idea of a book being packed and rich and having layers” (Robeck 139).

Lake Wobegon is crammed with discursive footnotes, some brief, as in a reference to a man fishing: “It is Dr. Nute, retired after forty odd years of dentistry, now free to ply the waters in the Molar II, and drop a line where the fighting sunfish lie in wait. ‘Open wide,’ he says ‘This may sting a little bit. Okay. Now bite down’” (2). Or a footnote can run on for half a page or more, as in the author’s discussion of front porch society and rules. Indeed, Keillor included “What I believe to be the longest footnote in American fiction” (252-274).

With the advent of the Postmodern Age, fiction writers began to use footnotes in even more original ways. John Fowles, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, 1969, does not number his footnotes, as if to make the point that the footnote is not a reference to a specific point in the novel.  He corrects his characters—e.g., when a character uses the word “agnostic,” Fowles points out in a footnote that the word doesn’t yet exist. He imparts interesting information such as a description of the first condom (or sheath) and becomes a part of the story, as in his statement “I had better here, as a reminder,” etc., in a modern commentary on actions and dialogue set in the past. Fowles also uses headnotes, mostly quotations from everyone from Arnold and Austen to Tennyson, and he sometimes refers to a headnote in a footnote.

In Sabbatical, 1982, John Barth confounds the reader on the first page with a footnote that reads “This we, those verses, Susan’s tears, these notes at the feet of certain pages. All shall be made clear, in time” (1). Why tell us this?  Do we believe it? Many of Barth’s footnotes sound false. But are they? His text is crammed with fictional news reports, and many of his cultural references are unverifiable. Barth constantly reminds the reader that the world he is writing about is unreal. Instead of using footnotes to create verisimilitude, he uses them to make the reader doubt the truth of what is being read.

Finally, Tim O’Brien, in his much admired In the Lake of the Woods, 1994, uses fictional footnotes composed of nonexistent newspaper reports, and reports pertaining to historical events altered to fit into his imagined world, a new and interesting technique. The use of these footnotes lends verisimilitude to his book, but at the same time, the voice of the narrator sometimes appears in a footnote. This intervention by the author reminds the reader that this is, after all, fiction.

As Hilburt advises, “Never turn your back on a wounded literary genre. The creature is resurrecting itself, sniggering softly at its own cenotaph. The footnote is being reborn in another medium, learning to survive in contemporary fiction” (402). Welcome back, old friends.

Works Cited

Barth, John. Sabbatical. New York: Putnam, 1982.

Benchley, Nathanial. “Shakespeare Explained.” The Benchley Roundup. New York: Harper, 1954. 33-35.

Benstock, Shari. “At the Margin of Discourse: Footnotes in the Fictional Text.” PMLA 98 (1983): 204-225

Bowersock, G.W. “The Art of the Footnote.” The American Scholar. 53.2 (1983-1984): 54-62.

Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones. 1749. New York: Modern Library, 1985.

Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. 1969. New York: Little, 1998.

Gates, H.L. “Belafonte’s Balancing Act.” The New Yorker. 6 August 1996, 132-143.

Grafton, Anthony. The Footnote, A Curious History. 1997. Boston: Harvard, 1999.

Hilbert, Betsy. “Elegy for Excursus: The Descent of the Footnote.” College English. 51.4 (1989): 400-404.

Himmelfarb, Gertude. “Where Have All the Footnotes Gone?” New York Times Book Review. June 16, 1991, p.1, 24.

Joyce, James. Finnegan’s Wake. 1939. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Karr, Mary. “How to Read The Waste Land So It Alters Your Soul Rather Than Just Addling Your Head.” Introduction. The Waste Land and Other Writings. By T. S. Eliot. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Keillor, Garrison. Lake Wobegon Days. 1985. New York: Penguin, 1986.

—. Interview by Diane Robeck. Publishers Weekly 13 September 1985. 138-139.

O’Brien, Tim. In the Lake of the Woods. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. 1961. New York: Little, 1991.

—. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. 1959. Boston: Little, 1987.

Sterne, Laurence. Tristram Shandy. 1760-1767. 1912. New York: Knopft, 1991.

Sullivan, Frank. “A Garland of Ibids.” The Antic Muse. Ed. R.P. Falk. New York: Grove, 1955. 55-58.

Van Leunen, Mary-Claire, “The Content Footnote.” 1978. A Handbook for Scholars. New York: Oxford, 1992. 89-101.


[1] See Gertrude Himmelfarb’s “Where Have all the Footnotes Gone?” for a list of supposedly scholarly works without footnotes, sometimes with bibliographical essays, but lacking page numbers and other essential information for corroboration.

[2] Ibid: In the same source, from the Latin, “in the same place.”

[3] For a send-up of writers using too many footnotes, see Nathaniel Benchley’s hilarious essay, “Shakespeare Explained,” in The Benchley Roundup, 33.

[4] See Shari Benstock’s discussion of the use of footnotes in Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, and Finnegan’s Wake, in “At the Margin of Discourse.”

[5] In an undergraduate class in Modern Poetry, the professor taught The Waste Land in a version without the notes.