Towards the Heart of a Book: In Praise of the Epigraph
Thomas Swick on the Importance of the “Ceremonial Gate”
I recently read back-to-back Craig Pittman’s Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country and Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections of My Nonexistence—two books that have almost nothing in common, including one thing no reviewers ever comment on: epigraphs. Solnit’s memoir carries none, while Pittman’s popular history features two, plus one at the beginning of every chapter, including the prologue and epilogue, bringing the total to 22. Oh, Florida! is a book not just for connoisseurs of the bizarre, but for lovers of the epigraph.
We form a sizable though unnoticed community, the silent majority of the bookish, for most anyone drawn to the written word is drawn to those that appear first (or very close to it). The epigraph page is like a ceremonial gate ushering us into the realm of the author with his or her beloved quotation from a great mind or celebrated scamp that perfectly reflects, or distills, the essence of what follows.
Of the two main-stage epigraphs in Oh, Florida!, one is from Hunter S. Thompson, a man not generally associated with the state, though Pittman tells us, under the quote, that he “launched his gonzo journalism career at Eglin Air Force Base, near Fort Walton Beach.” This information reinforces the premise of the book, just as the quote—“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”—amplifies the theme. In the world of the subtitle, epigraphs sometimes do double-duty.
Like pitchers taking the mound, readers have a routine when picking up a book: We turn it over to read the blurbs, excerpt, or summary on the back, then we open it from that end to see the author photo and scan the bio on the flap. Sometimes we go to the acknowledgements page (or, increasingly, pages) before eventually turning to the front with the usually standard dedication and the seemingly bespoke epigraph.
I am always disappointed when I don’t find one. It’s like looking at a man in a suit who’s not wearing a tie. Not only is an interesting piece of the ensemble missing—at least to me and my fellow epigraphiles—so is a helpful signal, as well as something front-and-center to admire.
The classic epigraph is short, usually just a line or two. There are exceptions: Pearl Buck began The Good Earth with a passage from Swann’s Way that took up half the page, and Henry Miller fronted The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, an account of his drive across the United States after long residence in France, with a 320-word meditation from Swami Vivekananda. But the unwritten rule is that an epigraph must fit on one page. You don’t want to wear readers out before they tuck into you.
And as long as you stay on that page, there is no limit to the number of epigraphs you can use, though three tends to be the maximum. John Updike affixed four to his memoir Self-Consciousness—from Emerson, Virginia Woolf, Saul Bellow, plus an epitaph in Latin—perhaps to suggest a prolific career. A half dozen epigraphs would look like a mini-bibliography, and a boastful show of erudition. Paul Theroux hitched his first travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar, to the supporting words of George Gissing, James Joyce, and T.S. Eliot. While each epigraph seemed custom-made for the occasion—the excerpt from Ulysses begins with the words “frseeeeeeeefronnnng train”—they all relayed a sense of who the then-unknown author and scavenger of gorgeously apropos prose was. With his opening salvo of familiarity with the canon, Theroux made it safe—this was the mid-’70s—for readers to continue.I am always disappointed when I don’t find one. It’s like looking at a man in a suit who’s not wearing a tie.
Graham Greene’s two travel books, Journey Without Maps (about a trek in Liberia) and The Lawless Roads (a journey in Mexico), required five epigraphs between them, including long excerpts from the writings of, respectively, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Cardinal Newman. You see the beauty of the practice, though the all-encompassing nature of travel writing may make it more open than some other genres to eclecticism. Pico Iyer, who wrote a book about Greene (The Man Within My Head), can always be counted on for a choice epigraph or two, sometimes from a haiku master or an American transcendentalist. A thought from Henry David Thoreau, in a letter to Lucy Brown, enhanced his Greene book—in lieu of a line of Greene’s. Just as unexpectedly, but in a very different way, Paul Theroux’s Deep South featured as an epigraph (part of a pair) a passage from one of his earlier books. The literary equivalent of a selfie.
Even when epigraphs are not pulled from one’s own oeuvre they can strike some readers as a form of grandstanding. It’s why we almost never see them in Latin anymore; no quoting Ovid in the original, as Joyce did at the start of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Virgil (Willa Cather, My Antonia). Joseph Conrad adorned Lord Jim with a quote from Novalis, though he did readers a favor by translating it from German: “It is certain my conviction gains infinitely, the moment another soul will believe in it.” For In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin was not so accommodating with Blaise Cendrars’ French.
In truth, the epigraph almost always serves two purposes: It is an indication of the essence of the book and the sensibilities of its author, and it is an introduction to, or a reminder of, treasures past. Passages from the Bible, almost as unfashionable as Latin these days, forcefully cling to secular works that keep their freshness. Flannery O’Connor cited the verse from Matthew that ends with the phrase “the violent bear it away” for her novel The Violent Bear It Away and Tolstoy took from Romans—“Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord”—for Anna Karenina, a book whose opening sentence was an epigraph-in-waiting for future generations of domestic novelists.
Often authors use epigraphs, as O’Connor did, to reveal the sources of their titles. Evelyn Waugh, not a regular practitioner, prefaced A Handful of Dust with the passage he’d cribbed from The Waste Land. Similarly, Ken Kesey, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, provided the two well-known lines from the “Children’s folk rhyme” and Updike graced his novel In the Beauty of the Lilies with the third verse of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In her memoir Comfort Me with Apples, Ruth Reichl faked a handoff to the Song of Songs—possibly because Peter De Vries, in his novel of the same title, beat her to it—and tossed the ball to A.J. Liebling. Much more radically, Toni Morrison, for her novel Song of Solomon (the title an alternate name for the Song of Songs), created her own epigraph: “The fathers may soar/And the children may know their names.”
Waugh was one of countless writers who have mined poetry for epigraphs. Jerzy Kosinski turned to Mayakovsky in The Painted Bird, Susan Sontag to Elizabeth Bishop in Where the Stress Falls, Mary Lee Settle to Nazim Hikmet in Turkish Reflections, Freya Stark to Shakespeare in Perseus in the Wind, a book of personal essays that is a windfall for fans of the epigraph, as each chapter is introduced by no fewer than six. De Vries gifted his novel Sauce for the Goose with Elinor Wylie’s “Let No Charitable Hope,” which ends: “In masks outrageous and austere / The years go by in single file; / But none has merited my fear, / And none has quite escaped my smile.” An epigraph that could have served as his epitaph.
Sometimes an epigraph is such an ideal match for a book that it speaks to it and nothing else. Jonathan Swift’s observation, “He was a bold man that first eat an oyster” was, really, the only option for M.F.K. Fisher’s Consider the Oyster, a slim volume that gave the line an afterlife and caused it to be uttered by well-read gourmands (usually with a changed verb tense) wherever bivalves are served. So even if its meaning didn’t transcend the book, its application did.
This suggests a good reason for writers to forego epigraphs: Ideally, we want readers quoting us, not the people we quote.
Also, an old literary convention, an epigraph can look out-of-place introducing an experimental novel. Writers who view themselves as true originals recoil at the idea of dragging in their antecedents. Jack Kerouac gave us no epigraph in On the Road, a book that, like Anna Karenina, became a popular source for them. This prose appropriation would seem to turn the epigraph into a cliché, something to avoid unless, like Morrison, you create it yourself.
Yet the vast majority of writers spend more time reading than writing; why not share what we’ve learned, untouched by synthesis? Solnit, though she let her latest book go without an epigraph, bestowed one on her second, Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West. It was, she tells us on page 170, “James Baldwin’s spectacular sentence ‘It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.’” An epigraph so noteworthy it earned a mention in the memoir.
A love of epigraphs makes becoming an author even sweeter. A first book is more than a debut, it is a chance to brandish your first epigraph. You thrill at stumbling upon the perfect fit, which apparently was written with your book in mind, or, you delight at unveiling the quote you’ve been saving for years, the one you regard as a kind of personal motto. You didn’t write the book just to give it a second home, but you take great pleasure in putting it at the doorstep.
For me, a book is not finished until the epigraph’s in place. My words are not enough; they need the sparkling jumpstart of somebody else’s, the clear sign of a continuing conversation.