Thomas Sutcliffe: The anti-slavery classic and the nag

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I've been forcefully reminded of the pleasures of footnotes this week, largely by a set of footnotes that offer very little pleasure at all - those attached to Henry Louis Gates Jr's annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin - a lavish new edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe's sentimental polemic against slavery. Strictly speaking, I suppose these don't really count as footnotes at all, being printed in the margins of the text - and, abandoning strictness altogether, they often blur the distinction between a footnote's urge to clarify and the baser instinct of marginalia - which is to demonstrate that the reader is better than the book - or at least not intimidated into silence by it. But footnotes is what they are in principal - a scholarly rubric which is intended to seal the gaps between the understanding of the novel's original readers and our disabled, limping comprehension.

Part of the problem with Uncle Tom's Cabin, of course, is that it has been left high and dry by a tidal change it helped to instigate. Attitudes to race are probably no less reflexive or unconsidered than they were in Stowe's time, but what is taken for granted about race has often been turned upon its head. One result of this is that Stowe's tactical caution in opposing the received opinions of her time has come to look like racism itself - indeed is racist by current criterion. And as a result, Gates Jr finds himself in a position where, more often than not, he's protecting the reader against the book's ignorance rather than protecting the book against the reader's ignorance. "There is no way to completely explain away the narrator's ugly tone here," he notes apologetically at one point - as if momentarily embarrassed to have been caught in the novel's company. Elsewhere, he leaps in to point out quite obvious examples of cultural prejudice, as if he's worried that a failure of vigilance might count as collusion with the enemy.

The sense that an annotator might have different interests to an author isn't necessarily a difficulty, of course. Indeed, it's part of the pleasure of footnotes that they admit a sense of contradiction to a book - either because writers want to disagree with themselves, or because a subsequent reader wants to dramatise the dialogue that inevitably takes place between a reader and a text. The form can easily accommodate waspishness or fury, though it's usually at its best when coloured by admiration. The annotator - however wise and however respectfully candid about the book's shortcomings - should be there to support the text, not undermine it. Otherwise why go to all that trouble in the first place? Like the perfect butler, the perfect editor appears without being summoned, carrying the thing you didn't know you needed until it was silently placed at your elbow. They may cough discreetly if they spot you hovering on the brink of a faux pas but otherwise remain in the background.

Gates Jr is no Jeeves of scholarship, though. He's just a nag. In his review of the edition for The New Yorker, John Updike confesses he put it aside after some 300 pages to switch to a Library of America edition, in order to escape from the "editorial heckling". But "heckling" is altogether too lively a description of Gates's interpolations, which range from the numbingly redundant ("This is a title to tug at every female reader's heartstrings" is how he glosses a chapter called "The Mother's Struggle") to the outright perverse. "Note... the 'colored' George Washington" he says meaningfully, about a passage in which it is clear that the phrase has no racial implication at all, but simply refers to a coloured engraving. At the same time, genuinely intriguing historical details - such as the fact that trusted slaves could move freely at night with a pass testifying to their reliability - are left undisturbed by helpful exposition. It is, frankly, a miracle that Updike lasted as long as he did.

There is one sense in which Gates's notes are instructive, though. Reading between his lines, you get a picture of the audience that he expects to read Stowe's - and it is not a particularly flattering one. The notional reader is assumed to be deaf to allusion and historical context, horribly ill-informed about basic details of American history and possessed of a surprisingly limited vocabulary. There is also an anxious sense that they may bolt from the novel entirely if it affronts their sense of moral order or simply exhausts their limited powers of concentration - and so they must be coaxed and cajoled by footnotes which publicly share their impatience. Above all they are not be trusted to get it - to yield to Stowe's book as its original readers yielded in their millions. I take it it's a portrait of the average American student - and one can only hope it's a libel.