The Art of the Epigraph collects more than 250 examples from across five hundred years of literature and offers insights into their meaning and purpose, including what induces so many writers to cede the very first words a reader will encounter in their book to another writer. With memorable quotations ranging from Dr. Johnson to Dr. Seuss, Herodotus to Hemingway, Jane Austen to Karl Marx, and A. A. Milne to Marcel Proust, here is a book that allows us a glimpse of the great writer as devoted reader. This lively and distinctive literary companion traces not only the art of the epigraph but the history of the book.
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One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever . . . The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose . . . The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits . . . All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
In The Sun Also Rises (1926), Ernest Hemingway
Taking it slowly fixes everything.
In The Red and the Black (1830), Stendhal
One of the many pleasures of reading Stendhal is his liberal use of epigraphs, which offer wry commentary on the chapters they announce. The great translator Burton Raffel warns that Stendhal had a notorious habit of writing the epigraphs himself and ascribing them to elevated or otherwise unlikely sources. We could be skeptical, but why not play along? Hailed as the “Homer of Rome,” Quintus Ennius (239–169 BC) was born in southern Italy, in what is today Calabria, where Greek was then the language of the upper classes. He learned Latin as a soldier in the Second Punic War and was taken to Rome by Cato the Elder. Working as a teacher and translator of Greek, Ennius began writing poetry, eventually producing the epic Annales, which recounted Rome’s history from the fall of Troy to Ennius’s own time. It was the most famous poem in the Roman world until Virgil’s Aeneid supplanted it nearly three hundred years later.
Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime . . .
—KORAN, LVII 19
In A Sport and a Pastime (1967), James Salter
Somebody said lift that bale.
—RAY CHARLES SINGING “OL’ MAN RIVER”
In Beautiful Losers (1966), Leonard Cohen
Life treads on life, and heart on heart;
We press too close in church and mart
To keep a dream of grave apart.
In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois
This epigraph opens the chapter “Of the Sons of Masters and Men,” in which Du Bois meditates on the history of colonialism and race relations, concluding that “only by a union of intelligence and sympathy across the color-line . . . shall justice and right triumph.” The quotation comes from “A Vision of the Poet” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861), who was outspoken in her opposition to slavery.
Some of it wasn’t very nice, but most of it was beautiful.
—DOROTHY GALE, THE WIZARD OF OZ
In Beautiful People (2005), Simon Doonan
O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.
—PINDAR, PYTHIAN III
In The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Albert Camus
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mold me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?—
—PARADISE LOST (X. 743–45)
In Frankenstein (1818), Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley was just nineteen when Frankenstein was published anonymously. Although the novel sold well, Shelley was too dogged by scandal and debts incurred by her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, to receive any benefit from it. In fact, most people believed that Percy Shelley was the true author, doubting that a young girl could possess the kind of experience that would produce such a dark imagination. In fact, Shelley was well acquainted with death and the desire to resurrect life. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, had died of an infection two weeks after giving birth to her. Mary herself had already suffered the death of one child before writing Frankenstein, and the child she was carrying while writing the novel would survive less than a year. A journal entry from 1815 reads: “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lives.”
February 19. Hopes?
February 20. Unnoticeable life. Noticeable failure.
February 25. A letter.
—FROM KAFKA’S DIARY, 1922
In Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian (2010), Avi Steinberg
Nineteen twenty-two was not a good year for Kafka. Suffering from tuberculosis, his health declined to such a degree that he gave up writing fiction. He instructed his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, to burn all his manuscripts and papers after his death. Brod can be forgiven for not granting his friend’s dying wish, as we wouldn’t have The Trial, The Castle, or Amerika otherwise.
All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere.
That is what the world is.
THE LAZARUS PROJECT
In Let the Great World Spin (2009), Colum McCann
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
—CHARLES DARWIN, ON THE
ORIGIN OF SPECIES
In The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008), David Wroblewski
The dirty nurse, Experience . . .
In Regarding the Pain of Others (2002), Susan Sontag
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.
In Unless (2002), Carol Shields
Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things—air, sleep, dreams, the sun, the sky—all things tending toward the eternal or what we imagine of it.
In The Comfort of Strangers (1981), Ian McEwan
Cesare Pavese (1908–1950), a towering figure in twentieth-century Italian cultural history, fell in love with American literature as a student in Turin. He wrote his thesis on Walt Whitman, and Moby-Dick was his favorite book. He began writing stories, poems, and novels, but his anti-Fascist activities landed him in one of Mussolini’s prisons for three years. With his own work censored, Pavese began translating Herman Melville, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, and others, and it is through his translations that most Italian readers first encountered these authors. After the war, Pavese’s novels Before the Cock Crows, August Holiday, and Dialogues with Leucò earned him great acclaim. Yet, at the height of his success, he committed suicide after a failed love affair. He was forty-one years old.
After all, my dear fellow, life, Anaxagoras has said, is a journey.
In The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), Nathanael West
The journey was cut short for Nathanael West (1903–1940), who died at thirty-seven, his literary talents unrecognized. He had spectacular bad luck as an author: one of his publishers went bankrupt, and his darkly comic vision never caught on with Depression-era readers. Broke, West went to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter. There he fell in love with Eileen McKenney, heroine of her sister Ruth’s popular book, My Sister Eileen. The couple was married less than a year when a car crash killed them both. This tragedy provoked interest in West and led to reissues of his novels and his posthumous fame. “Bergotte” is the author young Marcel worships in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; Anaxagoras was an influential Greek philosopher during the golden age of Pericles.
But there are two quite distinct things—given the wonderful place he’s in—that may have happened to him. One is that he may have got brutalized. The other is that he may have got refined.
—HENRY JAMES, THE AMBASSADORS
In Foreign Bodies (2010), Cynthia Ozick