The Marginalia “Crisis:” now with update!

Today’s New York Times has an arti­cle on mar­gin­a­lia–the scrib­blings peo­ple often leave on the edges of books. “Some fear dim future for notes in mar­gins,” says the head­line. “Some” may fear this, or it may be that “some, fac­ing dead­line pres­sure, invent fake trend story.” Mar­gin­a­lia is over­rated, and the enter­prise of lov­ing mar­gin­a­lia is corrupt.

Early in my career I was once at a din­ner with Hsi-Huey Liang, a dis­tin­guished diplo­matic his­to­rian spe­cial­iz­ing in Ger­many. At the time I regarded diplo­matic his­tory as a dreary sub-field, hide­bound and   bor­ing, prone to end­lessly ask­ing the same ques­tions about the same doc­u­ments.1. Liang, rec­og­niz­ing me as cal­low, asked why a his­to­ri­ans would ever want to look at any­thing other than what peo­ple chose to leave of themselves.

Over the years I’ve come back to his ques­tion a lot. You would never break into your neighbor’s house and go through his closet, even though doing so would give you a lot of infor­ma­tion about your neigh­bor. It’d be a crime but also inde­cent and dis­re­spect­ful. But the dead are mostly pow­er­less; we can do as we please with them. Liang was slyly point­ing out the unex­am­ined con­tra­dic­tions in our allegedly human­ist enter­prise. Why don’t we accord the dead the same respect as the living?

The Times arti­cle on mar­gin­a­lia treats it as a glimpse into people’s pri­vate selves: “what Jef­fer­son thought as he read X.” This is impor­tant, we’re told, because Jef­fer­son is impor­tant, and we learn more about this impor­tant man via his mar­gin­a­lia. But we already know what Jef­fer­son thought: he vented his opin­ions pub­licly, in care­fully con­sid­ered ways. Why would we want to look at the opin­ions he did not chose to express? Isn’t it just the same creepy impulse that leads peo­ple to spy on their neighbors?

Well, you might answer, Jef­fer­son didn’t want us to know he was hav­ing sex with Sally Hem­mings, but the fact that he did is impor­tant to know. I’m not sure–we already knew Jef­fer­son was a hyp­ocrite in his views on slav­ery. We know from the pub­lic record that he alter­nated near total depen­dence on slaves with atti­tudes of con­tempt. Aside for the sala­cious, dirty laun­dry qual­ity of the rev­e­la­tion, does it show us much new about Jef­fer­son? I’m not sure.In the image from the Times, is any­one who’s read any Mark Twain at all sur­prised that he would dis­like Mary Baker Eddy? The prvate snark only con­firms what he wrote publicly.

So with mar­gin­a­lia. The Times finds a small group of peo­ple who it quotes being con­cerned about the decline of mar­gin­a­lia. What they are really con­cerned about, I’d argue, is the los­ing the exclu­sive capac­ity to gain a lim­ited view into the pri­vate lives of dead strangers. 2

What’s really at stake in this “prob­lem” is the way we con­strue pub­lic and pri­vate. The value of mar­gin­a­lia is for the most part the voyeuris­tic thrill of see­ing the pri­vate made pub­lic. The dig­i­tal age will cre­ate more forms of anno­ta­tion, more com­men­tary, more “mar­gin­a­lia.” but it won’t have the same creepy snoop­ing qual­ity. And that’s a good thing.

Update: I’ve got­ten lots of tweet cri­tiquing this post, which seems only rea­son­able,  since the post takes a pretty extreme posi­tion. I’d like to agree that yes, use­ful infor­ma­tion is gained by look­ing into the pri­vate spaces of the dead: use­ful for the his­to­rian. The same could be said about bur­gling someone’s house–it could pro­duce lots of good things for the bur­glar. I don’t really think his­to­ri­ans are bur­glars, but it seems to me that any­one claim­ing to be an intel­lec­tual has an oblig­a­tion to think about what they are doing–or rather, about what they do does. A col­league points out that if you want to do the his­tory of 19th cen­tury women, of course you need to look at pri­vate life, because women were for the most part denied a pub­lic life. That’s surely true, but what you are look­ing at then isn’t really 19th cen­tury women: it’s a 21st cen­tury idea of what 19th cen­tury women should have been: a life con­structed in the pri­vate sphere brought into a realm it was never designed for or imag­ined to occupy. This isn’t an argu­ment against doing that work: It just seems to me it’s worth being aware of what’s going on when we do that kind of work.

My own dodge around this prob­lem is typ­i­cal of cul­tural his­tory types: I don’t write about actual peo­ple, I write about “dis­course.” Not actual black peo­ple, but the dis­course of race. Not actual women, but the dis­course or the “debate about” gen­der. I wrote a dissertation/book about  the inven­tion of stan­dard time, not about the pri­vate expe­ri­ence of time. This is itself a con­t­a­m­i­nated and flawed position.

Regard­ing mar­gin­a­lia: the Times piece had a lot of the creepy celebrity snoop qual­ity: Mark Twain once touched this page! But what I really wanted to get at, and failed to get at, is the way dig­i­tal media has vastly increased the scope of “anno­ta­tion,” while dra­mat­i­cally reduc­ing the sense of the pri­vate equal­ing the real. The times essay deplores the loss of access to the pri­vate. But if what’s valu­able about mar­gin­a­lia is the record of thought evolv­ing, then a pub­lish­ing style that empha­sizes “pub­lish first/filter later” will only pro­vide more of that kind of mate­r­ial. And since pub­lish first/filter later puts more of a pre­mium on open debate, and less on the public/private divi­sion, it should fos­ter a cul­ture in which “mar­gin­a­lia” become more impor­tant, not less. But the “mar­gin­a­lia” of the dig­i­tal age won’t have the creepy voyeuris­tic quality.

  1. I still basi­cally think that, to be hon­est
  2. I have a num­ber of books belong­ing to two very dear friends who recently passed away. Some of them have exten­sive hand­writ­ten mar­gin­a­lia, and these mean a lot to me. The mar­gin­a­lia give a record of how they thought, and in turn a record of their per­son­al­i­ties. These are nice to have in a melan­choly way. But I already knew them privately–they were my friends, I knew what they thought about most things. I keep them because they had already allowed me into a degree of their pri­vate life, and so read­ing them isn’t snoop­ing.


  • Mike Bottoms wrote:

    But we already know what Jef­fer­son thought: he vented his opin­ions pub­licly, in care­fully con­sid­ered ways. Why would we want to look at the opin­ions he did not chose to express?

    Per­haps because the evo­lu­tion of an idea can be as impor­tant as the idea itself?

    I, too, am sus­pi­cious of the notion that mar­gin­a­lia can offer a coher­ent or trust­wor­thy pic­ture of someone’s think­ing, but the sug­ges­tion that we should con­fine our­selves to author-approved pub­lic state­ments seems odd, par­tic­u­larly when raised in rela­tion to politi­cians. Polk’s 1846 War Mes­sage was a “care­fully con­sid­ered” pack of lies, but one would have to refer to pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions to learn this for cer­tain. Care­fully expressed opin­ions can be used to obscure true feel­ing as often as they can be used to illu­mi­nate it.

    What about early drafts of speeches, let­ters, etc.? Lin­coln changed his mind about race, slav­ery, and the Con­sti­tu­tion over the course of his polit­i­cal life, and while his pub­lic state­ments mark the broad out­lines of those shifts in think­ing, the step-by-step process is really only vis­i­ble in doc­u­ments never intended for pub­lic con­sump­tion. While the final expres­sion of his think­ing mat­tered most for pub­lic pol­icy, the evo­lu­tion of that expres­sion tells us a great deal about the con­tours and con­straints in nineteenth-century thought.

    But it seems to me that this isn’t really what you’re get­ting at. The objec­tion isn’t really about pri­vacy for his­tor­i­cal actors per se, but about a par­tic­u­lar kind of pri­vacy. It seems to me that you are plac­ing exam­i­na­tions of the inti­mate lives of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures off lim­its, and in the process you are mak­ing a claim about what con­sti­tutes legit­i­mate his­tor­i­cal inquiry. Some might argue that Jefferson’s inti­mate life is really none of our busi­ness, and fur­ther that it was really irrel­e­vant to his pub­lic acts. I think this is wrong. The choices that we make on a daily basis, big and small, are always to some extent shaped by the demands of our inti­mate lives. Lincoln’s sex­u­al­ity, and his awk­ward rela­tion­ship with his crazy-ass wife pro­foundly influ­enced the course of his life. Why shouldn’t that be a part of history?

  • There’s no doubt you could learn a lot by going through your neighbor’s closet. Why aren’t the dead enti­tled to the respect given to the liv­ing? Is it just that they can’t fight back? Does the crazi­ness of Mary Lin­coln color the eman­ci­pa­tion procla­ma­tion? prob­a­bly, but so what? So does every other singe thing in Lincoln’s life. The procla­ma­tion was the thing that mattered.

    I’m skep­ti­cal of the idea that the real or the true lives in the pri­vate, and also of the idea that his­to­ri­ans talk about respect­ing the peo­ple of the past (and even “empow­er­ing” them) while root­ing through their metaphor­i­cal under­wear drawer.

  • My con­cern is how we know where the under­wear drawer ends and the items for show in the liv­ing room begin (lovely imagery). For exam­ple, diaries. His­to­ri­ans argue that some pub­lic fig­ures self-consciously wrote diaries know­ing they would be made pub­lic in the future. Oth­ers, I’m assum­ing, did not. How do we know the dif­fer­ence? Do we need to fig­ure out intent, whether I pur­posely hid a hideous paper I wrote in the drawer or proudly hung it up in my liv­ing room? How do we do that?

    On a per­sonal note, I still have books from my first semes­ter at grad school with mar­gin­a­lia in them. They are good for a laugh. Seri­ously, they show how far I’ve pro­gressed in know­ing how to read a his­tory book and how I ana­lyze the infor­ma­tion. So it’s impor­tant to me. Would I have a prob­lem show­ing you those books? Not at all. Oth­ers may. So should we never look any, or fig­ure out how to tell the difference?

    (Also — I have to ques­tion, do the liv­ing really get as much respect as you say — with cam­eras every­where, the Inter­net, blogs, iden­tity theft? Even web­sites want your dog’s name and what grade you got in middle-school math. So in a way, we are metaphor­i­cally going through people’s under­wear draw­ers all the time.)

  • Wait — you said closet.
    Where did I get under­wear drawer from?!
    Oh well it still fits.

  • Yes–I would say that the end of book mar­gin­a­lia will come along with the end of a cer­tain amount of public/private dis­tinc­tion. There will be less pri­vate in gen­eral, so the voyeuris­tic thrill now attached to mar­gin­a­lia won’t mat­ter as much

  • […] This post was men­tioned on Twit­ter by Sarah Werner, Richard Jones. Richard Jones said: RT @wynkenhimself NYT piece about mar­gin­a­lia ( and @theaporetic’s response ( […]

  • Paul F. Gehl wrote:

    I’m one of the folks quoted in the Times arti­cle sup­pos­edly wor­ry­ing the loss of our priv­i­leged but creepy access to the pri­vate thoughts of past read­ers. That head­line was unfor­tu­nate, since it seems to have con­di­tioned many read­ers of the arti­cle to find regret when none of the prin­ci­pals I know really feel any. More to your point, how­ever, is that 18th– and 19th-century read­ers did not think of their mar­ginal notes as entirely pri­vate any more than their let­ters were. Com­mon prac­tices were to read let­ters aloud and to read bor­rowed copies of anno­tated books, even for one reader to respond to the anno­ta­tions of another by mak­ing fur­ther notes. This helps recover exactly the kind of dis­course that inter­ests cul­tural his­to­ri­ans, or at least it can help. As for the creepy fac­tor, well, there is plenty of pub­lished lit­er­a­ture that would fit that char­ac­ter­i­za­tion too. I wouldn’t want to exclude it from a library col­lec­tion on that criterion.

  • Inter­est­ing stuff. I am remain uncon­vinced about the par­al­lel you draw between look­ing through the clos­ets of the liv­ing and the dead. Said dif­fer­ently, I think it may be a cat­e­gor­i­cal error to talk about the dead hav­ing pri­vacy. It would seem to me that con­cerns about pri­vacy have to do with the poten­tial to do harm to liv­ing peo­ple. With that said, you do right to point out that there are dif­fer­ent places where it is rel­e­vant to scholarship.

    I whole­heart­edly agree that our pri­vate thoughts and feel­ings are not more “real” or “true.” But it would seem that they are unequiv­o­cally an invalu­able ele­ment to use in the tri­an­gu­la­tion of the past.

  • You’re prob­a­bly right about pri­vacy only per­tain­ing to the liv­ing, in the same way that prop­erty only really per­tains to the liv­ing. But call­ing atten­tion to the way his­tory invades the per­sonal (which it didn’t really do when it was just pub­lic pol­i­tics, before social his­tory) also calls atten­tion to the flim­si­ness of the human­ist jus­ti­fi­ca­tion: it turns the dead into a mate­r­ial resource like coal or acres of tim­ber, to be enlisted in a spe­cific mod­ern project, aimed at man­u­fac­tur­ing a spe­cific thing, like a “truth” about the lives of 19th cen­tury women which is derived from com­pletely vio­lat­ing the terms of their lives as they lived them.

  • I think the point has already been some­what made on Twit­ter, but I’ll just add that lim­it­ing evi­dence to what his­tor­i­cal actors “chose” to leave behind would pretty much gut my research, which as you know is the most impor­tant thing in the world.

    The only way I could learn any­thing about ser­vant cooks, for exam­ple, was to look inside the T Series of the Archives nationales, an enor­mous cor­pus of doc­u­ments that’s pre­cisely the oppo­site of some­thing inten­tion­ally left behind. Instead it’s a mas­sive col­lec­tion of records seized from émigrés and the con­demned dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion and as a result pro­vides remark­able insight into every­day life since it includes the kinds of things that con­tem­po­raries (includ­ing con­tem­po­rary archivists) didn’t gen­er­ally con­sider wor­thy of preservation.

    So while I agree with you that it’s basi­cally intel­lec­tu­ally ster­ile (and necrophil­iac?) star-fucking to bran­dish mar­gin­a­lia from famous dead peo­ple, extend­ing the cri­tique more gen­er­ally to pro­tect “pri­vacy” would inex­orably exclude the very kinds of top­ics and peo­ple that you and I write about, how­ever indirectly.

  • Well there’s a dif­fer­ence of sub­ject and ques­tion, isn’t there? If your sub­ject is “what was the sex life of cooks like” or “how did cooks feel about lib­erte,” it’s dif­fer­ent from some­thing con­ceived as the dis­course of cook­ery or the mean­ing of cui­sine. Your sub­ject isn’t cooks per se, it’s a for­mu­la­tion which spans pub­lic and pri­vate. The sort of thins I’m object­ing to is the way in which the pri­vate is exhumed to prove or dis­prove or adorn the public.

    insight into every­day life” is in itself a phrase worth exam­in­ing. It kind of calls up the image of the neigh­bor with binoc­u­lars, gain­ing sight into the every­day life etc etc etc.

    Your enter­prise is hope­lessly cor­rupt. Have a nice day

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *