Annotating the References within Texts
Project Newsletter Summer 1994.
Even their contemporaries could find the details and allusions of Stanton's and Anthony's letters baffling, if they had fallen behind in reading the news. "I have been so long at the far west and South, that what you write . . . is all Greek to me," Lucy Stone informed Susan B. Anthony in a letter from Pittsburgh in 1854. "But a package of Standards [an antislavery paper] . . . will give me light—"
The modern reader is more at sea. Names of failed presidential candidates are not stored in our minds. Cultural heroes have disappeared. Old scientific vocabularies have been replaced in our speech. One goal of an editor is to enable modern readers to understand the historical documents nearly as well as their original audience could. A concise note that explicates a reference in the original text can reveal to the modern reader a bit of nineteenth-century knowledge that the author took for granted.
If the name "Cass" means nothing to you, you will pick up social attitudes in this letter by Susan B. Anthony to her mother, written from Canajoharie, New York, in 1848, but you will miss her cousin's political identification. (In the edition, you will already be acquainted with the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass when you read this.) "I took supper at Georges, he thinks Cass is O.K. I asked him if there was no other smart man in the country, Oh yes Fred Douglas. Said I you do think my Father a little crazy on the subject of slavery, no said he not a little, but a good deal, he never saw a man so wrapped up in a nigger as Father is in Douglas." George favored the presidential candidacy of Democrat Lewis Cass (1782-1866), a northerner with southern principles who tolerated the expansion of slavery into new territories.
Unlike Lewis Cass, whose name appears once and needs only a simple identification, Louis Kossuth (1802-1894) returns, and each time the reference embraces the identity and achievements of this Hungarian exile who led his country's republican rebellion in 1848, his tour of the United States in 1852, and the debates that his tour triggered among Americans. "Have you read Emerson's speech to Kossuth?" Stanton asked Anthony in an undated letter early in the summer of 1852. "[R]ead it & note what it says of majorities." Thus he is introduced, and the man, his cause, his tour, and Emerson's speech must all be explained—concisely.
It is a pleasant coincidence that New Brunswick is home to the Hungarian American Foundation, where we found a fine collection of books pertinent to the Kossuth references—and Ralph Waldo Emerson's speech. Welcoming "the foremost soldier of freedom, in this age" to Concord, Emerson said: "We are afraid you are growing popular, sir; you may be called to the dangers of prosperity. . . . remember, sir, that everything great and excellent in the world is in minorities." Stanton sent Anthony to read Emerson to find the courage of a true reformer to be in the minority.
When Stanton urged her sons to rub that part of their heads that controlled "concentrativeness" if their attention wandered in class, her meaning is clear, even if we don't recognize the term as a faculty of the mind defined and located on the skull by nineteenth-century phrenologists. But the contemporary reader benefits from sharing Stanton's arcane knowledge of this popular science and its vocabulary. Unless we know that the faculty of "combativeness" creates an "energetic go-a-head disposition" (American Phrenological Journal, Jan. 1852), it is harder to grasp this passage about the resilience of two young women who'd met disappointment: "The effect produced was the opposite of what I had looked for. Combativeness seemed to receive the blow & forthwith came a Drama of some intellectual vigour." What Stanton wrote of her first meeting with Lucretia Mott in 1840 is subtler still: "her views are many of them so new & strange that my causality finds great delight in her society." Causality is the "why and wherefore faculty," the ability to reason and comprehend first principles. Stanton praised Mott more precisely than we could know without annotation. With Mott she had started down the road to questioning her rights and her faith.
Providing this extra information to the readers of the Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony takes time. A concise note to the text may conceal hours of research to find its scant facts. But the notes add enormous value to the documents. They allow informed reading of the texts.