The Cat in the Acknowledgments Page

Injunctions against excessive nonacademic acknowledgments are not new, explains Richard Hughes Gibson.

May 10, 2018 Sisperova

Late in the preparation of a monograph a few years ago, a colleague was admonished by his editor not to let his acknowledgments stray from scholarly circles. This was not the venue, the editor argued, in which to thank the students, babysitters, soccer coaches, pets and whoever/whatever else kept him compos mentis while in the throes of composition. My colleague tells this anecdote with a grin, since he did slip in a few words of gratitude to students and family members. He caved, though, when it came to the family dog.

Who or what is due acknowledgment? The question remains a live one across the disciplines. Several new and newly revised manuals for early-career scholars preach against the writer’s temptation to use the acknowledgments page as a platform in which to thank everyone and everything that lent a hand (or paw) along the way. One handbook for architecture students, for example, warns that copious acknowledging might seem to dissertation examiners “somewhat indulgent.” Concerns about excessive acknowledgments are also a familiar theme in our review culture. In a recent review of Vittorio Montemaggi’s Reading Dante’s Commedia as Theology for The Times Literary Supplement, even the ever-magnanimous Rowan Williams has gotten in on the act. Williams gently airs reservations about the “sheer quantity” of acknowledgments peppering the book from prologue to epilogue and “the sometimes awkward way” that tributes to grandparents and godchildren “interrupt the flow of the exposition.”

Injunctions against nonacademic acknowledgments are not new, of course. Nor is authorial resistance to such constraints. Diagnoses of acknowledgment sprawl in scholarly publications, particularly in the humanities, were already piling up in the 1990s. Some of the earliest discussions of the trend are in fact found in acknowledgments pages themselves.

The acknowledgments section of Jan Gordon’s 1996 Gossip and Subversion in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction offers an amusing example. It begins, “Although there is no way of determining this with certainty … I have the distinct feeling that the acknowledgements page has been a growth area of late." When, Gordon wonders, did the dedicatory space once reserved for patrons and masters “become something else which might include the family cat?”

Five pages into this section, though, Gordon is dishing a gossipy tidbit about a rendezvous with a colleague, which is trailed by a series of pithy thank-yous (“Tony Tanner taught me that every good gossip must know when to stop”). Gordon acknowledges the excesses of the new paradigm, but that doesn’t inhibit the author’s own bit of indulgence.

The most influential commentary on the overgrowth of acknowledgments appeared five years later in the Times Literary Supplement. In “A Thanking Task,” Mark Bauerlein suggested that acknowledgments rank among the most “illuminating” of “all the strange and closed rituals of academic work.”

To understand his critique, we do well to recall Gérard Genette’s theory of “paratext”: the “thresholds” at books’ edges, including both the physical apparatus (front and back matter, page headings, etc.) and the cultural noise (author interviews, for example) that frame the reader’s encounter with the text proper. Genette argues that these fringe elements serve not only transitional purposes -- they do more than simply ease the reader into a text. They are also transactional. In Genette’s account, the key transaction is with the reading public, whose experience of the ensuing text can be profoundly shaped by the claims made in an introduction at the front of a book or explanatory notes in the back (or bottom of the page). Even the publisher’s name or the presence (or absence) of the routine copyright page might affect the reader’s experience of what follows.

Bauerlein’s exasperation arises from academic authors who overexploit the more targeted transactional opportunity that acknowledgments pages provide, the chance to do business with particular readers. He writes:

Expanding into autobiography, the Acknowledgements has become independent of the text it precedes. It serves larger institutional purposes, as can be seen by the fact that professors admit that the first (and sometimes only) pages they read when picking up a book are, precisely, the Acknowledgements.

Bauerlein then rattles off the head counts of acknowledgees in works by leading literary critics and theorists. Among the worst offenders are Stephen Greenblatt (77), James Kincaid (105) and Homi Bhabha (142). In this account, the acknowledgments page has degenerated into a professional stat tracker. And Bauerlein believes that academic readers are in cahoots in sustaining this celebrity culture: they often read this -- and only this -- section in order to keep tabs on the scores (with particular vigilance, we may assume, for their own). In Bauerlein’s view, this trade is not only distasteful; it’s potentially alienating for readers, especially nonacademic ones, who don’t recognize the names dropped. Acknowledgments mark such readers as outsiders to what Bauerlein dubs the “closed society” of academe.

While I find Bauerlein’s cheeky jeremiad compelling reading and happily second its concluding call for a more publicly minded humanities, I find the history from which this and similar complaints arise rather shortsighted. In the final paragraph, we are told that “it is clear that what used to be a simple procedure of thanking others for permissions, access, etc. has turned into an indecorous display of favour and sentiment. They have turned discreet gratitude into solicitations of regard, professional aggrandizement.” When were the good old days, we might ask in turn, when scholars knew whom to thank and whom not to, and that such appreciations should be kept short (and not sweet)? How long did the old etiquette reign?

“A Thanking Task” doesn’t say explicitly. Bauerlein’s point is that there’s a generational shift happening now (or at least since the late 1980s) compared to the back then of institutional memory. But back then is muddled a bit when the author cites examples of an apparently common practice in the 1950s and ’60s in which male academics sentimentally thanked wives for doing the typing and gardening. Let’s acknowledge, furthermore, that in their 1930 satirical history of England, 1066 and All That, Walter C. Sellar and Robert J. Yeatman are already playing with this convention in their mock acknowledgments page: “Their [the authors’] thanks are also due to their wife, for not preparing the index wrong. There is no index.” While successful in its diagnosis of the then-recent inflation in acknowledgments, Bauerlein’s piece nonetheless leaves one with the quiet sense that the old days weren’t quite the businesslike affairs -- free of “favour and sentiment” (and inside jokes) -- that its author would like us to remember.

Through the Ages

That sense receives ready support if we expand our historical purview. While the convention of including a separate acknowledgments page (instead of folding acknowledgments into the preface as was common in the 18th and 19th centuries) is a 20th-century development, literary history offers us precursors. As an early example of “acknowledgement” as “(esp. in pl.) an author’s statement of indebtedness to others,” the Oxford English Dictionary directs our attention, for example, to Nicholas Billingsley’s 1667 A treasury of divine raptures consisting of serious observations, pious ejaculations, select epigrams. The word “acknowledGement” (with the capital G) appears in one of two triple acrostic poems (meaning, three acrostic elements per line) that Billingsley constructs around the names of helpful aristocrats, the present one for “RIGHT WORSHIPFULL [sic] S. TREVIR WILLIAM KNIGT [sic] AND BARONET.” While not explicitly labeled as “acknowledgments pages,” almost the entire front matter might be said to consist of them. The reader only touches A treasury’s goods after passing through a dedication to Billingsley’s patroness, Lady Mary Vaughan; an invocation of the deity; an address to his “much honored friend, John Birch, Esq.”; and a final shout-out to the “Company of Haberdashers of London.” The intricate designs and hyperbolic diction of these “thanking texts” put modern academics to shame in the fields of sycophancy and sentimentality.

Or consider the crowded “threshold” of John Florio’s 1603 English translation of Montaigne’s Essays. The front matter takes the reader on a tour of Florio’s social circle: an illustration of three altars name six female patronesses; then follows a dedicatory epistle, two verse addresses and a pseudonymous congratulatory poem by Florio’s friend Matthew Gwinne. Ostensibly addressed to his “best-best benefactors,” Lucy Countess of Bedford and her mother, Lady Anne Harrington, the dedicatory epistle is not the straightforward affair in which patrons and masters received their due thanks that Gordon nostalgically recollected for us above. Rather, Florio details for his putative addressees his numerous debts to fellow courtiers and writers.

In the edited collection Renaissance Paratexts, Neil Rhodes observes the parallel between Florio’s “mixture of tributes to rank and thanks to friends” and the magniloquent, network-minded modern acknowledgers that Bauerlein maligns. The habits of humanism, Rhodes implies, die hard. Rhodes also notes that Florio’s overindulgence came in for a similar kind of critique that we have seen in recent decades. In The Courtier’s Library, a catalog of imaginary books, John Donne parodies Florio in a sprawling imagined title (here translated from the Latin):

The Ocean of Court, or, The Pyramid, or the Colossus, or the Bottomless Pit of Wits: in which … anything that can be propounded is propounded on the subject of tooth-picks and nail-pairings; Collected and reduced into a corpus and dedicated to their individual writers by John Florio … poems in praise of the Author in Books I-XCVII, which follow.

Nearly the whole book, in other words, is consumed with the authorial trade of dedication and congratulation. In a Florio book, Donne suggests, favor and sentiment run rampant.

Perhaps the most famous complaints about the excesses of acknowledgments, at least in the English literary tradition, belongs to Jonathan Swift. In his breakout book of 1704, A Tale of a Tub, Swift satirized many facets of his contemporary book culture, with particular bite applied to his day’s paratextual practices (including within his own front matter). Section X of the book, “A Farther Digression,” takes on acknowledgments directly:

There can hardly pop out a play, a pamphlet, or a poem without a preface full of acknowledgments to the world for the general reception and applause they have given it, which the Lord knows where, or when, or how, or from whom it received.

“In due deference to so laudable a custom,” Swift then laughingly shows us how it’s done, humbly thanking the monarch, Parliament, the judiciary, clergy, gentry and yeomanry, “but in a more especial manner, my worthy brethren and friends at” seven London locales: Will’s Coffee-house, Gresham College, Warwick Lane, Moorfields, Scotland Yard, Westminster Hall and Guildhall. He concludes, “I accept their approbation and good opinion with extreme gratitude, and to the utmost of my poor capacity shall take hold of all opportunities to return the obligation.”

Swift plays up what Donne had detected a few decades earlier: that while acknowledgments still had a vertical element and were still dealing in the economy of patronage, they were increasingly horizontal affairs, fattened by reciprocal exchanges between authors. You approbate my book, and I’ll approbate yours. Reciprocal book-scratching goes way back.

In the making of books, we might say, there’s nothing new under the sun. Acknowledgments have been a venue for extravagant gestures, and thus also occasions for mockery and finger-wagging, for ages. While I recognize the vices festering in our front matter, I’ll confess to a preference nevertheless for the more fulsome sort. Certainly, a few panjandrums have turned their acknowledgments into catalogs (or, perhaps better said, travelogues) of self-congratulation. But must we then turn suspicious eyes to the debt recollections of the humbler set of authors? And aren’t these pages also ones that remind readers -- in the guild and outside -- that academe is an archipelago resting in a wider social sea -- all our researching and philosophizing taking place amid the daily havoc of dressing kids for school, attending to visiting parents, texting friends, stealing a kiss as the beloved heads out the door, and keeping an eye on the litter box? These pages allow us to acknowledge that academics are people, too.


Richard Hughes Gibson is an associate professor of English at Wheaton College and the author of Forgiveness in Victorian Literature: Grammar, Narrative, and Community. He also co-directs Manibus Press, an occasional publisher of artists' books.


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