Cover image for First Pages: A Poetics of Titles By Giancarlo Maiorino

First Pages

A Poetics of Titles

Giancarlo Maiorino


$82.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02996-2

$25.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05874-0

376 pages
6" × 9"
35 b&w illustrations

First Pages

A Poetics of Titles

Giancarlo Maiorino

“Professor Maiorino’s First Pages, sparkling with witty aperçus, offers the first systematic and genuinely comparative study of ‘titology’ in literature. Proceeding from the thesis that the title is ‘the seed that contains the tree,’ the sophisticated work provides both theory and practice of its fascinating topic, taking representative examples from the Renaissance to the present. The reader will never again look at a literary title with the same innocence as before.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
“Titology,” a term first coined in 1977 by literary critic Harry Levin, is the field of literary studies that focuses on the significance of a title in establishing the thematic developments of the pages that follow. While the term has been used in the literary community for thirty years, this book presents for the first time a thoroughly developed theoretical discussion on the significance of the title as a foundation for scholarly criticism.

Though Maiorino acknowledges that many titles are superficial and “indexical,” there exists a separate and more complex class of titles that do much more than simply decorate a book’s spine. To prove this argument, Maiorino analyzes a wide range of examples from the modern era through high modernism to postmodernism, with writings spanning the globe from Spain and France to Germany and America. By examining works such as Essais, The Waste Land, Ulysses, and Don Quixote, First Pages proves the power of the title to connect the reader to the thematic, cultural, and literary context of the writing as a whole. Much like a façade to a building, the title page serves as the frontispiece of literature, a sign that offers perspective and demands interpretation.

“Professor Maiorino’s First Pages, sparkling with witty aperçus, offers the first systematic and genuinely comparative study of ‘titology’ in literature. Proceeding from the thesis that the title is ‘the seed that contains the tree,’ the sophisticated work provides both theory and practice of its fascinating topic, taking representative examples from the Renaissance to the present. The reader will never again look at a literary title with the same innocence as before.”

Giancarlo Maiorino is Rudy Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature, Indiana University. He is the author of numerous books, including At the Margins of the Renaissance: Lazarillo de Tormes and the Picaresque Art of Survival (Penn State, 2003), winner of the 2004 Modern Language Association's James Russell Lowell Prize.


List of Illustrations


Introduction: The Frontispiece of Literature


1. At the Top of the Page and Below the Frame: Arcadia, Concert Champêtre, and Pastoral Titles

2. The Title’s Novelistic Birthmark: La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y sus fortunas y adversidades

3. From Title to Genre: Essaying at the Threshold of Form


4. Title Translated into Title: Ulysses

5. The Waste Land: The Archaeology of Titles

6. Off the Page and onto the Stage: Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore

7. Between Expectation and Explanation: Waiting for Godot

8. The Dustbin of Titles: From “The Literature of Exhaustion” to “The Literature of Replenishment”


9. “La biblioteca de Babel”: The Archititle in a Library of Titles

10. Cervantine First Pages: The Inadequacies of Retitling

11. The Picaresque and the Quixotic: An Adventure in Titology

12. Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore: Et cetera, Et cetera

13. After the End of Art: The Obituary of Titles

14 The Literature of Titles




The Frontispiece of Literature

The title is a key to the book and, thanks to the book, a key to language and to society.

—Michel Butor

In a lively exchange of ideas about literary craftsmanship, Octavio Paz told Carlos Fuentes that the development of the modern novel “can be told between two titles: Dickens’ Great Expectations and Balzac’s Illusions Perdues (Lost Illusions).” Their minds set afire by republican idealism, middle-class ambitions, and the heroics of Napoleon Bonaparte, the novelistic youths Pip and Lucien dreamed of a brighter future in the midst of a mediocre present. The defeat at Waterloo, however, hastened either the consolidation or the restoration of power structures that were in place before 1789, the earth-shaking year of the French Revolution. From England to France, titles encapsulated a poetics in which hopes of individual distinction met with disillusionment. The heroic gave way to the bureaucratic once Bonaparte’s nephew, Charles-Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, known as Napoleon III, reigned under the diminutive nickname le petit Napoléon. Moved by conciliation rather than decisiveness, he tried to please everybody but ended up displeasing the whole nation. It could not be otherwise, if we only pause on a remark attributed to him: “How could you expect the Empire to function smoothly? The Empress is a Legitimist; my half-brother, Morny, is an Orléanist; my cousin, Jerome, is a Republican, and I am said to be a Socialist. Among us, only Persigny is a Bonapartist, and he is crazy.” Between myth and misunderstanding, materialism dug deep into the middle-class culture of the Industrial Revolution. In the aftermath of policies first progressive and then repressive, the extraordinary surrendered to the ordinary, which crushed most illusions and raised few expectations. In the post-epic age of disenchantment, titles could be at once palimpsestic and prophetic.

By chance or by choice, we may not read an entire book, but we do read its title. While some maintain that it is unfair to judge a book by its cover because the first page cannot do justice to the ones that follow, this study argues that interpretation begins with the title, which is the seed that contains the tree. As a literary nutshell that offers an introductory overview of etymological roots, semantic complexity, and literary echoes, the title ought to loom as large in the reader’s mind as it does on the book’s spine. In my own mind, this study began to take shape when, having become familiar with the scholarship that has linked allusions and references in Ulysses to the Homeric epic, I asked myself a simple question: Why did James Joyce entitle his book Ulysses instead of Odysseus? The answer first generated the chapter “Title Translated into Title,” and then the rest of the book.

Granted that the value of many titles is merely indexical, this study sets out to show that “good” titles are as significant as “good” texts. Between the indexical and the significant we can find an array of titles that are more or less successful in raising textual expectations. Likewise, there are texts that grow beyond what titles seem to have promised. From Oliver Twist to Nicholas Nickelby, the titles of Charles Dickens’s novels often take up social issues that exceed the protagonist’s concerns. A landmark narrative such as Madame Bovary heightens the inadequacy of onomastic titles. Although Gustave Flaubert charges Madame with irony and Bovary with a bovine-like ordinariness, the title of his novel does not quite do justice to the text. Nor does the title of Miguel de Cervantes’s master story mention Sancho Panza. These examples can be multiplied, especially when titles are strictly conceptual or overtly allegorical, from Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove to Light in August by William Faulkner. The relationship between title and text covers complexities and contradictions that cannot be overlooked. At their best, Michael Seidel would suggest, titles are apprehensive and comprehensive. Because it aims at making a case for titles as texts, this study may verge on “overkill” inasmuch as my selection hopes to make the best case for this emergent field of literary studies.

Whenever we wonder how to discuss books, titles come to the rescue, because they are the signposts of plots, characters, themes, and motifs that are resilient in the world of art and relevant in the archive of cultural landmarks. Indeed, titles create zones of transaction between readers and writers as well as zones of transition between literary traditions. The most comprehensive of common denominators in the arts, titles spur interpretation, stir criticism, and entitle literary history. While scholarly practice has enforced the belief that texts command most attention, calls for a focused study of titles already were heard in the 1970s, first by the Yale poet and academic John Hollander and then by Harvard’s Helen Vendler, the reader of modern poetry who noted that the titles of Wallace Stevens are a “form of caption, seizing the whole in a glance.” In spite of such authoritative statements, critical practice has remained tentative. The following chapters will make a case for “titology,” a term coined in 1977 by the comparatist Harry Levin when he decided to give a title to the yet unexplored field of title studies.

The first step in literary interpretation is the title, which sets up a critical perspective on the text. Insofar as my own methodology is concerned, I suspect that my approach betrays a weakness for aesthetics and a preference for the history of ideas. Nevertheless, I shall not speculate on whether I have tried to reconcile the irreconcilable, that is to say, New Criticism (smartly exhilarating, though a bit ethereal) with New Historicism (evidentially impressive, though a bit boring). At any rate, the time has come to do for titles what Leo Spitzer did for literary linguistics and Roland Barthes for semiology.

In this age of structuralism, deconstruction, and fragmentation, the symbolism of architecture in the language of the arts has become pervasive. To put it in terms of a visual image, I would like to frame this study by suggesting that the title is no less important to the text than the façade is to the building. First pages are the frontispiece of literature.


In our own day, development has given way to exhaustion, which has affected the production of art. We have been thriving on belatedness to such an extent that Jacques Derrida has championed the idea that the retrospective has no original source; instead, what we have is an endless sequence of beginnings. Once the dynamics of culture relapsed, the titological focus of literary interpretation shifted from the present-future to the present-past; the “Promised Land” of Thomas More’s Utopia made room for The Waste Land of T. S. Eliot, who describes a place where drawn-out processes of decay generate heaps of refuse. The end yielded aftermaths, and the linear continuity of humanist progress coiled into the circularity of procrastination; modernism stretched out into postmodernism, which spurred interest in those thresholds where history taught significant lessons about foundations and conclusions.

This study pins the contextuality of titles to the beginning (modern) and the end (modernist-postmodern) of modernity, which has unfolded westward from Mediterranean to Atlantic waters since the Renaissance. Instead of offering a systematic synopsis that might acknowledge ancient titles and do justice to a more inclusive list, this study focuses on highlights and crossroads. It is quite possible that some will resent the highlights and object to the crossroads; but then again, agreement and resentment are the dynamic poles of any interpretation that is successful, at least to the extent that it is provocative.

The structural makeup of this study finds a precedent in a recent title, From Dawn to Decadence, which Jacques Barzun introduces by pointing out that, by 1914, “the impetus born of the Renaissance was exhausted.” Barzun’s subtitle, Five Hundred Years of Western Cultural Life, foregrounds the intellectual changes of modernity from dawn to decadence. They are the Renaissance, the romantic period, and the contemporary age. Similarly, I shall consider a comparable triad: modern, modernist, and postmodern. I have anchored dawn to the humanist tradition of authoritative narratives, linear histories, artistic individualism, and sociocultural amelioration, which declined at the antihumanist threshold of discontinuous narratives, fragmented archaeologies, and authorless production in the art market of conspicuous consumerism. Focused as it is on Renaissance beginning (modern), modernist end, and postmodern ending-after-the-end, this study is about titles that shed light on dawn and decadence.

The Renaissance found in antiquity a source of inspiration for fostering a more earthbound worldview. Once that impetus waned and rebirths no longer were possible, modernism turned to the myths of antiquity to make decadence at least more bearable. My opening reference to the debate about Great Expectations and Lost Illusions highlights two titles that upheld the enduring validity of renaissance as the carrier of forthcoming success and of decadence as the harbinger of impending doom. As the intellectual translation of the biological concept of naissance (nascita), re-naissance (rinascita) spurred experiments in recovery and renewal that drew together the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian traditions at a time when the heliocentric universe of Copernicus had discredited the Ptolemaic worldview of an earth-centered universe. To experience Renaissance culture, Stephen Greenblatt writes, is to feel “what it was like to form our own identity, and we are at once more rooted and more estranged by the experience.” Ascent and decline take us to the student of philosophy, who defines modernity as “the epoch in which simply being modern became a decisive value in itself.” Gianni Vattimo traces its inception back to the end of the fifteenth century, when “an increasingly intense cult of the new and original emerged that had not existed before.”

The most significant crossroad in the literary map of this study separates representation from simulation. The first fastens the section on the “modern” to Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), Erich Auerbach’s epoch-making overview of Western literature. The second has grown from significant to dominant in Simulacra and Simulation (1981), in which Jean Baudrillard has linked modernism to postmodernism under the aegis of fictional representations of representations. From text to context, we can say that this study edges on the boundary where the “neo” and the “post” merge in a spirit of either renewal or exclusion.


As the most enduring of literary microstructures, titles are the etymologies of literature. I would like to believe that, when it comes to practical criticism, titles provide a degree of accuracy in matters of literary interpretation that is comparable to the certainty that DNA provides to our understanding of biological codes. From biology to physics, Italo Calvino takes up the matter of beginning on a cosmic scale: “Let’s say that to tell everything that happened in the first second of the history of the universe, I should have to put together an account so long that the whole subsequent duration of the universe with its millions of centuries past and future would not be enough; whereas everything that came afterwards I could polish off in five minutes.” The first second of the universe is pregnant with the rest of creation: “Thus the universe, from being an infinitesimal pimple in the smoothness of nothing expanded in a flash to the size of a proton, then an atom, then a pinpoint, then a pinhead, then a teaspoon, then a hat, then an umbrella.” In the universe of literature, the first second is foundationally etymological, while the rest of creation is transformationally semantic. The expansion that links protons to umbrellas—a rapprochement that juxtaposes Jackson Pollock to René Magritte—can give us a fair idea of the dynamics that relate the first page to the rest of the text, and this introduction to the chapters that follow.

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