I see this time and again in books sent to me for a blurb request. The author will be prattling along about her search for love or the perfect hamster, and suddenly will insert a line from To The Lighthouse. I want to send the young woman (or man) a note and say, “No.”
And yet I myself am obsessed with epigraphs. I put epigraphs everywhere — not just at the beginning of my books, but in the middle and sometimes taped to my refrigerator. And always, always the epigraphs are written by authors so vastly superior to me we do not exist on the same plane of Being. I have quoted Emerson, St. Augustine, Thornton Wilder, Pablo Neruda, and Johnny Cash. Just today I discovered the perfect epigraph for the last chapter of my new horror novel — perhaps I wasn’t clear just now when I said ‘horror novel’ — and it is by Mr. Ralph Waldo again. A minister, one of the most brilliant thinkers of the American Romantic era — a man of sublime and highly evolved spirituality. His sentence structure alone is enough to make an alpha gorilla weep. And yet I did it, I most assuredly did quote a writer better than myself.
Sometimes an epigraph is so good one is forced to read the entire book simply to understand it. I’m thinking now of a truly miraculous collection of poems by Sarah Messer, The Bandit Letters. If you read this blog entry and then read the following epigraph and you do NOT rush out and find the book, then you are perhaps suffering from scurvy or the bursitis:
Please search hotels and keep general lookout around railroad depots, saloons, gambling resorts, etc., and inquire of yard or train masters for his having applied for employment and of railroad trainmen for his having “beat” his way on freight or passenger trains; also search pawn shops and jewelry stores for jewelry having been pledged or sold. Also inquire of ministers, class leaders, and at Young Men’s Christian Association rooms for trace of him.
He is likely to be traveling as a woman.
— Pinkerton Circular, circa 1895