The Interpretive Footnote

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My students and I are slowly making our way through Absalom, Absalom! this semester, contending every class meeting with another blast of Faulkner’s tidal waves of prose. Three weeks and three chapters in, we took a break to write together about word choice. The novel challenges even those with the most robust vocabularies and I’ve used this challenge to introduce the students to the value of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). In doing so, I don’t mean to have my students see the OED as the final word on any given word’s meaning; rather, I’ve been at pains to help them see that the meaning of any given word evolves over time and that we can track the changes in meaning by attending to the context within which a given word is used.

So, for our week of writing about Faulkner’s language in the first three chapters of Absalom, Absalom!, the students are tasked with producing what I call an “interpretive footnote.” Any of us can type an unfamiliar word into Google and pull up the word’s definition; and anyone in the class can go the extra step and do the same in the OED. That’s a start, but it doesn’t get us any closer to understanding whether the word is being used in a new or divergent way in the context of Faulkner’s chronicle of the South in its time of “undefeat” post-Civil War. Accordingly, the students are to choose a word or phrase that seems important and then provide an interpretation of that word or phrase in context.

To help get the students started, I do the assignment myself and post the response along with the assignment. And then, during the week while we are writing together, when I’m not conferring in a breakout room with individual students seeking on-the-spot guidance, I work on a second entry for our collective lexicon. (I’ve done with using websites I administer; this time I used “Piazza,” a wiki app in the Canvas LMS.) When the students are satisfied with their responses, they share what they’ve written with the rest of the class and everyone reads along.

Every time I do this assignment (and this is the first time I’ve ever done it with a work of fiction!) I’m amazed at the results. Freed of the idea that the footnote is for facts or for documenting erudition or for stockpiling support, the students use their time to explore nuance and ambiguity; they write about possible meanings and shades of gray. And, with no word limit provided, they keep writing, instead of preemptively tying things off because some outside indicator has signaled that the assignment is “done.”

The range of words covered goes from the familiar (“ogre,” “swagger”) to the less certain (“doubtless,” “sardonic”) to the unfamiliar (“chatelaine,” “grim virago fury”). I wish I could share the responses here, but they’re still current students. (We do include examples of student responses in Habits of the Creative Mind from when I was using Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts in my slow reading class.)

I can share a slimmed down version of one of my modelled responses, though, . You can show them how to be curious on the page and that, in turn, gives them permission to engage their own imaginative powers as they write.



The Stage Manager:

"Yes, he had corrupted Ellen to more than renegadery, though, like her, unaware that his flowering was a forced blooming too and that while he was still playing the scene to the audience behind him fate, destiny, retribution, irony--the stage manager, call him what you will--was already striking the set and dragging on the synthetic and spurious shadows and shape of the next one" (57).

As you know, I'm interested in thinking how the participants in Absalom, Absalom! make sense of what is happening to them and why the South lost the war. In my last entry (cf. "vouchsafed instinct"), I looked at how Miss Rosa's way of talking about herself places her at the mercy of the Old Testament God--a god of vengeance and punishment. She also uses words that are more readily associated with Greek tragedy: she speaks of her relatives having committed a "crime" (14) that has left her "family cursed;" and, too, she sees herself and others see her as Cassandra-like.

In the passage above, the speaker is Mr. Compson and the topic is Sutpen's influence on Ellen. Compson refers back to his earlier claim that the aunt "would have" described the years after Sutpen left for the war as Ellen's period of "renegadery." In that earlier passage, he elaborates on the form that this "betrayal" took: Ellen comes to take "pride" in her life at Sutpen's Hundred and her marriage to Sutpen. She has cast off the aunt's influence and has "bloomed" into having a bearing that is "a little regal." (This is when she starts going to town with Judith and having all the shopkeepers bring out their wares.) Compson continues that Ellen’s renegadery allows her to disavow reality itself and to see herself as "chatelaine to the largest, wife to the wealthiest, mother of the most fortunate" (all quotes in this paragraph from p. 54).

THREE pages after these observations, Compson returns to Ellen's renegadery, as the flourishing conclusion to how fully and completely Sutpen has corrupted her. First he tells Quentin that, after ten years of marriage, Sutpen now “acted his role too--a role of arrogant ease and leisure . . . " (57). Then Compson's analogy catches up with him: if Sutpen and Ellen are acting their parts, who's in charge? Sutpen thinks his "flowering" is of his own volition and so misses that what has occurred is a "forced blooming" set in motion by . . . ? None of the options Compson provides can be construed as being divine or sacred. Indeed, none of the nouns rise to the level of requiring capitalization: "fate, destiny, retribution, irony--the stage manager, call him what you will."

The first two options ("fate" and "destiny") deprive Sutpen of free will. There's a reason for what happens to Sutpen but invoking "fate" or "destiny" places that reason beyond human perception or interference. The second two choices ("retribution" and "irony") also deprive Sutpen of free will, but they place Sutpen in a context where whatever happens to him can be cast either as punishment doled out by the [lower case u]niverse or as the [lower case u]niverse getting a kick out of crushing reversals in human fortunes.

It is in this context that Mr. Compson adds an additional possible name for the cause of what lies ahead for Sutpen: the stage manager. As soon as Mr. Compson invokes this evanescent figure, he makes clear that nothing significant hangs on which term one prefers: "call him what you will," he says. What matters is that Sutpen thinks he is charge of his life, as he settles into the comforts of his enormous estate, his outsized cotton profits, his progeny, but "the stage manager" has already struck that set and is preparing the next one, which will also be composed of "synthetic and spurious shadows."

All of which drives me to note that Miss Rosa is the one to invoke God in the opening of the novel; Mr. Compson, covering much of the same ground and covering it more exhaustively, doesn't look to God or a god to explain why the South lost the war. He gives us, instead, the stage manager, who is a puny figure indeed.




About the Author
Richard E. Miller has been teaching writing for over 25 years. He has blogged extensively about digital technology, the end of privacy, and the future of higher education on his website He’s served on the executive committee of CCCC and of the ADE; he’s been on the editorial board of CCC, Studies in Writing and Rhetoric, and Pedagogy (ongoing). He’s an essayist, social media fanatic, sometimes poet, photographer, multimedia composer, graphic novelist (he writes about the misadventures of his alter-ego, Professor Pawn) and memoirist.