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Wheatyard - The Epigraph

I have mixed feelings about epigraphs. When used appropriately, they effectively convey and summarize the author's thoughts about the work - but when misued, they can come across as pretentious and desperate invocations of earlier classics, as if the author is saying, for example: "By quoting from Milton, I am insisting that my book is every bit as great as Paradise Lost."

Erring on the side of caution and wanting to completely avoid the latter case, at first I gave no thought whatsoever to an epigraph for my novella-in-progress, Wheatyard. I finished the first draft last spring, epigraph-less, but then during my Summer of Classics I happened to read Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, and was struck by this passage from the narrator's introduction:

Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him, except, indeed, one vague report which will appear in the sequel.

I immediately saw the obvious (and, I hope, non-pretentious) parallel between Bartleby and Wheatyard. Both protagonists are mysterious, idiosyncratic individuals who have mostly withdrawn from society and want to live their lives entirely on their own terms. Both interact with society only to meet their most basic needs - Bartleby for employment (and a clandestine place to sleep), Wheatyard for outlets willing to publish his fiction. And both Bartleby the Scrivener and Wheatyard are narrated by individuals who discretely and over-cautiously seek to find out the truth about the protagonists - tiptoeing around the periphery of the protagonists' lives without directly confronting them to get an immediate answer to the mystery.

Obviously, I could write for centuries and never achieve the status of Melville, and hope that in choosing this epigraph I'm not being too presumptuous. I'm doing so because Bartleby's sad story is very much reflected in the life I've conjured up for Elmer Glaciers Wheayard, and not because my writing in any way approaches the greatness of Melville. I'm merely standing on the shoulders of giants.

January 26, 2008 in Fiction, Wheatyard | Permalink