The Art of the Epigraph

December 11th, 2012

Rachel Sagner Buurma, an English professor at Swarthmore College, has a fun and interesting article in The New Republic in which she reviews a new book on epigraphs: Rosemary Ahern’s The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin. An epigraph is a phrase or quotation that stands between the title and the text that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “indicate the leading idea or sentiment” of a work or connect the work to the larger literary themes. (Think of Jack London’s epigraph to The Call of the Wild, in which he quotes from John Myers O’Hara’s “Atavism”: “Old longings nomadic leap, / Chafing at custom’s chain; / Again from its brumal sleep / Wakens the ferine strain.”)

As Buurma notes, though, “this [definition] vastly simplifies the real situation, which has more to do with action than meaning. Epigraphs escort us safely across the boundary between the title page and the story. Easing us into narrative, epigraphs make us pause and notice the transition from the world to the work, from life to the novel. They slow us down—which is why we often skip them.”

She continues:

In the introduction to her new compendium on “the art of the epigraph,” Rosemary Ahern notes that she is always surprised when someone claims not to read epigraphs: to her, this is “an offering refused, a pleasure skipped,” something like turning down tea and cookies. In Ahern’s imagination, epigraphs domesticate literature, wrapping us in the cozy blanket of “the author’s sensibility.” The friendly epigraph, she says, “remind[s] us that writers are readers” just like us. Other commentators see epigraphs as authorial strutting—a way to impress readers with the depth and the breadth of the writer’s literary knowledge. Yet neither the intimate nor the cynical view of the epigraph accurately captures its most basic function: it reminds us that the creation of literature is a social act.

In removing these epigraphs from their sources, The Art of the Epigraph attempts an impossible task and achieves an interesting failure. A symbiotic literary form, the epigraph cannot survive alone. Although Ahern offers some explanatory context for many of her selections, these brief descriptions can not restore to readers the deep roots that anchor epigraphs in the fertile ground of their hosts. If it floats alone, the epigraph is merely a quotation. […]

[E]pigraphs, as their rich history shows, are not just quotations, and in relegating this book to the Bartlett’s bucket we risk losing a sense of the epigraph’s distinctiveness. Epigraphs (or “mottos” as they were often called) first became popular in Europe during the early eighteenth century, accompanying the growing phenomenon of middle-class reading. Before this moment, to be literate was to be well-versed in the classical tradition. If you could read English, you were likely also familiar with the work of authors like Ovid, Horace, and Virgil. Writers didn’t need the obviousness of an epigraph to tether themselves to previous writers. Their work was shot through with their reading, and their readers almost effortlessly tracked their implicit references to the literary tradition.

But as the middle-class reading public materialized in the middle of the eighteenth century, almost no self-respecting publication could do without an epigraph. Emerging readers knew the English but not necessarily the classical tradition; they needed a path, a map of literary culture. Epigraphs stuck like burrs to the title pages of books of history, travel, and poetry, and even graced reference works such as Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary. (Johnson’s epigraph from Horace’s Epistles nervously invoked the classical tradition to authorize neologism: New words he’ll use if sanction’d they shall be/ By custom—parent of all novelty.) In this way, epigraphs allowed an author to rightly place (and justify) their work as a piece of the ever-growing literary conversation. […]

So it may be that when we begin collecting epigraphs, we end by dispersing the very social relations that make literature meaningful. The Art of the Epigraph’s epigraph, drawn from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, says that books “continue each other in spite of our habit of judging them separately.” This is true—but it might not be the whole truth. For though we like to imagine the autonomy of a world of books that speak to one another, separate from our own fallible judgments and best guesses and wishful thinking, it may be that all we have are groups of readers, gathering in circles around the glimmering lights of our authors’ epigraphs, building literature together one line at a time.

Read Rachel Sagner Buurma’s entire review at The New Republic

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