When I think about the books I love, the books that brought me to reading and, soon after, to writing, I do not think of the epigraphs with which they begin. I’m not even sure which ones have epigraphs. I know Catcher in the Rye begins, “IF YOU REALLY want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like…” (I had to look that up to be accurate, but I’d pretty much nailed it in my head before looking). I don’t recall the words of the opening paragraphs to The Great Gatsby, but I know they concern Nick trying to convince us we can trust him and that he’s about to tell us about a summer he spent on Long Island. And isn’t that what I should remember?
Thus far in my own writing, I’ve avoided epigraphs. This comes, in part, from a lack of self-confidence. From the pantheon of poetry and prose, what do I choose? What if I get it wrong. Or worse, what if my epigraph is better than my first line, or first paragraph, or the entire first page? What if the epigraph is all anyone remembers? It’s the equivalent of asking a student in your Principles of Literary Studies course (which I did) what he was most struck by in reading The Great Gatsby:
Student: I really liked the baseball stuff.
Me (hopeful): Okay. So, you mean the two references to the Black Sox scandal?
Student: Yeah, it was cool.
Me (still hopeful): How so? Because it reveals something about Gatsby’s character? Or do you mean the metaphoric possibilities of corrupting the American Pastime and therefore the American Dream?
Student: Nah. It was just cool to find who was really behind that. Ol’ Meyer Wolfman. He’s a bad dude.
Me (defeated): Wolfscheim, yeah. He’s a total gangsta.
This, of course, is what the inattentive reader may do—remember something the author wasn’t necessarily emphasizing. But I am an attentive reader. I read the epigraphs, which are emphasized by their very placement, and am rarely struck by them. By the second stanza or paragraph or page, I’m invested in the work to which the title refers, not the sub-subtitle an epigraph seems to be.
So why do so many writers feel compelled to have an epigraph? Of course it sets the tone for the work, but isn’t that what the opening lines of the work are supposed to do? If, perchance, the writer needs a beginning before the beginning, isn’t that what a prologue does? In a short piece—a poem, story, or essay—is the epigraph some kind of mini-prologue? I could accept this if I didn’t see so many book-length works with epigraphs and, comparatively, so few short pieces without them.
Perhaps I’m being simpleminded about this. As a good, hardworking, American capitalist, maybe I should view epigraphs as part of the presentation, a kind of preview or commercial for what is to come. Better yet, to borrow an adage from the years I worked in advertising, perhaps I should see this is as how the wise author sells the sizzle, not the steak.
But I have to ask, if the cover and the blurbs and the prologue and the foreword and the opening lines are already setting the tone, enticing the reader and marketing the book, isn’t the epigraph coming too late? Isn’t it just a transparent effort to borrow from the familiar and excite the reader in some tangentially-related way?
So why be coy when familiar and exciting are so close at hand? Why quote some dead poet when you’ve got pop culture at your fingertips? Why not start your sonnet with,
“Love is a burning thing / and it makes a fiery ring” –Johnny Cash. Maybe your memoir can begin, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” –Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now. And whether your novel is sports-themed or not, can you go really wrong with, “Are you ready for some football!” –Hank Williams, Jr.
Maybe I’m completely missing the point. A good epigraph often borrows from a fellow artist, in part a nod to that person’s fine work, and in part a way to acknowledge that we all borrow from our literary predecessors (as TS Eliot reminds us in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” which, I realize now, I need to peruse again for some good epigraphs). So, perhaps using a good epigraph isn’t much different than the band you’ve gone to see covering a Rolling Stones or a Beatles song.
If a writer wants to pay homage and borrow a little, I suppose I’m fine with it (even if it is treading into the territory of the acknowledgements and dedication pages).
As for my own work, though, I’d rather just get started and not distract my reader with the greatness (and possible betterness) of some other writer.
In fact, The Great Gatsby does open with an epigraph. I checked, and it goes as follows: “Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; / If you can bounce high, bounce for her too, / Till she cry ‘Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, / I must have you!’” It’s from a poem by Thomas Parke D’Invilliers who, it turns out, isn’t even a real person, but a character from an earlier Fitzgerald novel. There is no argument that it works, that it sets the tone for a great novel, but so does the title, and so do Nick’s opening lines. After all, Nick is the implied author here, Thomas Park D’Something is just getting in the way. If he weren’t dead, I’d rap Fitgerald’s knuckles for taking a novel about a pompous ass and starting it with an epigraph from another fictional pompous ass that makes him, Fitzgerald, sound like a pompous ass. And suddenly, I’m thankful that my students are more likely to remember the Black Sox Scandal and ‘Ol Meyer What’s-His-Name than the epigraph by ‘Ol Thomas Parke D’Nothing.
And doesn’t this underscore how little the epigraph really means? Can’t we simply choose artistic merit over marketing, avoid allusions outside the context of the work we’ve written and focus on the work we actually wrote? And if we can’t resist the temptation, then can we get things going with as little distraction as possible?
For all writers of poetry and prose, and for the editors who let them get away with it, I offer the last, best epigraph for any work in any genre from now until the end of days:
“Begin the begin” –Michael Stipe
R Dean Johnson
Assistant Professor, Department of English & Theatre
Eastern Kentucky University
R Dean Johnson lives in Kentucky with his wife, the writer Julie Hensley, and their two children. An Assistant Professor in the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University, he teaches creative nonfiction workshop and The Great Gatsby (even in courses where it isn’t required). His essays and stories have appeared in Ascent, Atticus Review, Juked, Natural Bridge, New Orleans Review, Slice, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. A new story and author interview are available now (or very, very soon) in the online journal, WIPs: Works (of Fiction) in Progress.