Getting On The Same Page

Reviewing a new compendium of epigraphs, Rachel Sagner Buurma traces the origins of these flourishes that begin many great books:

[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.