Saturday, October 21, 2006

I'd like to thank...

I have a rather strange obsession with the acknowledgements pages in non-fiction books. Usually they're just your standard list of helpful librarians, colleagues, and critics, with a heartfelt thank you to family members at the end. Which is, you know, fine. I still find them a rather fascinating insight into how a book gets written, and occasionally you'll come across some real gems. Like this story:
Writing the history of African America from outside, indeed from halfway around the world, has many pleasures, and not the least of them in recent years has been trying to explain to the immigration officials at LAX or SFO, hypervigilantly guarding the United States, exactly what it is that an historian on a research trip does. Shane White has been the recipient of much gratuitous advice at American airports about how to write history. One immigration official, on being told that the Australian academic was flying on to New York, barked back, "There's history out there," pointing in the general direction of downtown Los Angeles or conceivably New York in the far distance. "Go and do it!" Shane White still occasionally wakes up in the middle of the night wondering about that little exchange.
-- The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History Through Songs, Sermons, and Speech, by Shane White and Graham White, p.231.

Also in The Sounds of Slavery is this rather strange little thank-you:
In particular, we would like to thank...Stephen Garton, a fine golfing companion until he became dean.
I also quite liked this brief digression into a discussion of endnotes vs. footnotes:
Generations of Captivity grows out of generations of scholarship which have made the historiography of slavery one of unrivalled richness. I have acknowledged my debt to that long tradition - and the men and women who made it - in the footnotes, which for reasons that confound logic no longer reside at the foot of the page.
-- Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves, by Ira Berlin, p.363.

In older books, you'll often read quite effusive praise of the ladies (never men) in the university typing-pool who turned handwritten chapters into proper manuscripts. Here's an example:
Mrs. Anne Granger, Mrs. Janet Villastrigo, and Mrs. Rebecca Davis, who had the unenviable task of deciphering my script, cheerfully typed several drafts of the manuscript.
-- The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, by John W. Blassingame, p.ix.

Authors often use the acknowledgements section to thank those who read drafts of the book. Not usually very interesting, which is why I found the following intriguing, especially as Kenneth M. Stampp wrote one of the most influential books on slavery, The Peculiar Institution... well, at least until Fogel and Engerman wrote Time on the Cross, probably one of the most controversial books ever written on slavery, if not all of American history.
We wish particularly to acknowledge our debt to Kenneth M. Stampp, who provided us with forty-one single-spaced pages of commentary.
-- Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, by Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, p.267.

After Time on the Cross was published in 1974, Fogel went on to write Without Consent or Contract, published in 1989. In that book's acknowledgement section, there was this lengthy testimonial to a particular colleague:
Marilyn Coopersmith, the administrator for our slavery project from 1966 until the present, not only efficiently coordinated the many aspects of data collection and analysis, sometimes personally searching distant archives for useful data, but provided a drive and enthusiasm for the work that infected everybody associated with the project. Perhaps the best assessment of her contribution was the one made by Albert Fishlow in April 1973, when he and Robert Gallman spent a day providing me with their detailed criticisms of a draft of Time on the Cross. At the conclusion of our session, deeply appreciative of all that I had learned from their many points, I offered to supply them with copies of our computer tapes, adding that Engerman and I wanted to compete, not by hoarding the data, but by trying to be more thorough in the analysis of them. Fishlow cocked back his head for a moment and said: "Who are you trying to kid, Bob? You know that unless you also give us Marilyn Coopersmith it won't be a fair contest."
-- Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, Robert W. Fogel, p.418.

Marilyn Coopersmith got a mention in Robert Fogel's Nobel Prize biography (he won for Economics in 1993), which I guess is one of the ultimate acknowledgements possible.

So yeah, acknowledgements. Fascinating! All of these are just taken from books I read for my most recent essay, but I've seen some other fantastic ones as well. Anyone got some favourites of their own?

(Yes, this is a nerdy obsession to have. But you know what? I really don't care...)

1 comment:

spy said...

David Adams once told us about acknowledgements in one of his honours student's thesis:

I'd like to thank my family and friends for keeping me sane, and I would like to thank my girlfriend for keeping me a little insane.
*David Adams and class squirms*