Before the First Line

Survey the great first lines of literature and you will find a wide array of strategies: they dive into the action at hand, begin with a bit of wisdom, or simply describe a character, a time, or a place. But no matter how a book begins, one thing is clear: first lines are not the first thing we read in a book. If you pick up any recent volume, hardcover or paperback, you’ll realize immediately what I mean. There’s a lot of information to absorb before you decide to buy or read the book in your hands: the title, the author’s name, jacket copy, blurbs, bar codes, author photos, snazzy graphic design, and copyright pages. Even before the 20th century, when books came unencumbered with so much data, words often intruded between title and first line. Long prefaces by the author might alert us to the facts surrounding the fiction, or a lengthy dedication to a patron might acknowledge the author’s debt to the wealthy person who paid for it all. Some early novels even appeared with extensive contents pages, outlining the chapters, each with an individual title, annotated with a brief summary of the action it contains.

Similarly, titles often carried a greater share of information than contemporary ones do. We all know a book called Robinson Crusoe, but here’s how the actual title read (in a variety of type sizes):

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely delivered by Pirates. Written by Himself.

Defoe acts as his own publicist (long before there was such a creature). The lengthy title is as succinct and neat a summary as you might find on a jacket flap today. Writers have always known that first sentences alone don’t grab readers, and that a good informative title can help, or even better, a title can resonate in other ways. What do Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Forsyth’s The Dogs of War, and Huxley’s Brave New World have in common? Only that all three have titles come from Shakespeare. Each of these authors no doubt has a different reason for paying homage to the Bard, but we don’t know what it is until we begin reading.

Jacket copy — that summary you find on the inner flaps of hardcover books — is usually written by a copywriter, so it’s part of the publicity business of publishing and has little to do with the author’s intentions. You might just dismiss it all as flapdoodle, so to speak. (Rumor has it though that more and more writers in this ever-increasingly competitive business are beginning to write this copy themselves). Blurbs — those short paragraphs in which one writer praises another — are also a very modern development. Some are written to return the favor of a nice review, or their authors have a publisher or agent in common with the novelist. But some blurbs — and you can usually tell from the quality — are driven by genuine admiration. Notably, the genial and gracious Walker Percy (1916-90), in the last decade of his life generously provided blurbs to many young novelists. The author of The Moviegoer (1960) no doubt appreciated that his own National Book Award–winning debut was plucked from relative obscurity by a sympathetic reader. The 1980s also witnessed a proliferation of blurbs comparing fiction by young writers to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), which continues to be the touchstone for every coming-of-age novel, regardless of gender, race, or place. Kaye Gibbons, now a much-loved writer favored by Oprah, among others, began with a double score: a blurb from Walker Percy that likened the eponymous heroine of Ellen Foster (1987) to Salinger’s Holden Caulfield.

Skimming the pages before the first sentence, we often find dedications, which can take up one line of an entire page, and are usually private affairs, indulged by publishers who would rather the author not waste so much space. These are a long way, in any case, from those lengthy and obsequious dedications of earlier centuries. Nowadays we might also run into acknowledgments — those seemingly endless lists of everyone the author would like to thank. In the past they came at the end, and frankly that’s where they belong.

Up front still, though, let’s not ignore my favorite of all those early bits of writing we might encounter before those precious first lines: the epigraph. Epigraphs are those snippets of verse or prose that often command a valuable page of their own. We can be sure of one thing: the author, not the publisher or editor or copywriter, has selected this quotation. And another thing: the writer considers it vital to our appreciation of the book that follows. At its simplest, the epigraph gives us the source of the title — The Dogs of War begins with the phrase from Shakespeare. (Faulkner, on the other hand, expects his reader to know exactly where “the sound and the fury” comes from, so no epigraph.) Ken Kesey quotes the children’s rhyme which engendered the title for One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). Robert Penn Warren, whose All The King’s Men (1946) also derives from a nursery rhyme, provides no such familiar verse. Instead, he inserts a line from Dante’s Purgatorio — in the original Italian, no less — that, even in translation, tells us very little (“so long as hope keeps aught of green”). Penn Warren cites Dante for reasons that his novel will confirm: he considers his tale of corrupt southern politics to be a descendant of Dante’s great moral epic.

Penn Warren clearly swings for the fences, and most readers agree that his novel’s a home run. But consider the following anecdote, an example that reached way too far but tells us a lot about epigraphs. Back in the 1980s, a literary agent called to interest me in his client’s first novel, a coming-of-age tale. He began reading over the phone. I was stunned. For what seemed like five minutes, I heard prose that was lush and lyrical, complex and profound. He came up for air, and I gushed, “Fantastic.” “Oh,” he replied, “that was just the epigraph from Proust.” The actual first sentence was something like the more prosaic: “My grandfather was a bookie in Cleveland.” This young, aspiring Proust was overreaching; his novel had nothing in common with the great Frenchman’s roman-fleuve, other than that both involved memories. The novel eventually appeared to good notices — without the epigraph from Proust (although it did have a blurb comparing it to The Catcher in the Rye).

What does an epigraph do? At its best, it tells us about the work to come, and it does this in a variety of ways, whether providing a neat little summary or just a hint of the type of work we’re about to read. There’s nothing wrong with quoting the heavyweights, but you have to live up to them. Percy’s The Moviegoer begins with a short bit from the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, drawn from his lugubriously entitled The Sickness unto Death. But it’s a dead-on description of main character Binx Bolling’s malaise: “…the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” Percy is also pointing toward what his subsequent books make just as clear — Kierkegaard’s Christian philosophy is more or less his own. Another fair warning of a character in existential anguish begins Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” This snippet from Samuel Johnson sends up flares, if not fireworks: reader beware — a beast is loose. A perfect description of the psychedelic romp to come.

Joan Didion, in her marvelous essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, prepends an entire poem by Yeats, “The Second Coming” (though, oddly, she does include not the title itself, which Percy would borrow for a novel in 1980). It’s a bold epigraph to a demanding volume. Yeats’s last line provides Didion’s title, but the poem reads like a collection of titles: “the widening gyre”; “Things fall apart”; “ceremony of innocence”; “what rough beast.” And Yeats doesn’t lack for sententiousness: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”; “the center cannot hold”; “The best lack all conviction.” The version of the 1960s Didion presents throughout her edgy journalism reflects Yeats’s vision: the poem is a perfect harbinger of all to come. But there’s more. As if to undercut the poem’s solemnity, Didion adds a line from “Miss” Peggy Lee: “I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant.” Didion, we clearly see, is versed in culture high and low.

Everyone knows the great first line from Moby-Dick, but how many bother to read Melville’s collection of epigraphs at the beginning of the novel, which he calls “Extracts.” There are almost 100 quotations, and they’re just part of the many pages that precede “Call me Ishmael.” It all adds up to a brilliant précis of what’s to come, a novel forged from experience to be sure, but also from a wealth of knowledge gleaned from other books. Even before the “Extracts,” Melville places an “Etymology,” a comprehensive list of foreign words for “whale”; read the introduction to this page and you’ll see that the author has already begun shaping his fictional world. He describes the source for the “Etymology” as “a late consumptive usher to a grammar school,” just as the collection of “Extracts,” we’re told, was “supplied by a sub-sub-librarian.” The Melville weirdness is already in full tilt. The collected quotations all mention whales, of course, but they range from whaling songs and newspaper accounts to the Bible and Montaigne. What saves all this from stupefying pretense? The novel itself, a masterpiece that echoes all these writers and more. In many ways, Melville was one of the first modernists, a writer who felt overwhelmed by all the great thought that came before him and struggled to assimilate as much of it as he could into his work. His catalogue of epigraphs serves him well because they let us know just how much he’s read, and how much that reading informs his mighty book.

When it comes to epigraphs, Melville isn’t the best example for aspiring writers, and many readers probably lose patience as well. Let me turn in closing, then, to my all-time favorite epigraph. It achieves for its author everything that the epigraphs used by Melville, Didion, Thompson, and Percy do — and it does so with perfect economy. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, published posthumously in 1980, did not come with a blurb from Percy — it came with a three-page foreword by him! Beloved by so many, Toole’s extraordinary book bears this epigraph from Swift: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Toole gets his title from the quotation; he prepares us for satire in the Swiftean vein; and he summarizes the hilarious tale of the unforgettable Ignatius Reilly all in one swoop. A perfect epigraph indeed.