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  • “To Reconcile Book and Title, and Make ‘em Kin to One Another”: The Evolution of the Title’s Contractual Functions
  • Eleanor F. Shevlin* (bio)

For it is an antient [sic] maxim of the law, that no title is completely good, unless the right of possession be joined with the right of property; . . . And when to this double right the actual possession is also united, . . . then, and then only, is the title completely legal.

(Blackstone Commentaries [1765–69]) 1

“What use, what profit, what account it turns to, what ‘tis good for: how it answers the Name; how to reconcile Book and Title, and make ‘em kin to one another,” ponders John Dunton in A Voyage Round the World (1691). 2 Without a doubt, Dunton, the late seventeenth-century anything-but-staid author and bookseller/publisher, 3 understood the business of titles. He knew that the title as a complex device performed many more functions than simply [End Page 42] identifying texts, and that the effective reconciliation of a title and its text could foster success for the work at several levels. As my epigraph indicates, the eighteenth-century British jurist William Blackstone also understood titles. Blackstone, however, was not concerned with textual titles but rather with the title as a legal term that designates ownership of property. While these two senses of this English word—its textual meaning and its legal one—occupy distinctly separate realms, historical overlaps do occur. In these overlaps, the textual title often emerges as a metonym for the legal title’s function as a claim to property. The evolution of this metonymic relationship in England coincided and, at times, intersected with the development of the textual title’s function as a commercial and aesthetic device. These collective developments resulted in the acquisition and institutionalization of the textual title’s modern contractual nature. Recognizing and understanding the emergence of the title’s modern contractual roles can cast new light on titles as a field and on the ways titles can serve as an investigative tool for print scholars, literary theorists, and cultural historians.

Today we have internalized the textual title’s diverse roles, often overlooking the ways that titles influence us. Framing one’s approach as it shapes perceptions of the text, a title can evoke an entire tradition, or it can simply allude to a single work. A title can serve as an urtext, as when an author has only a title from which the whole story will originate. The title can supply a context, as in “What the Bullet Sang,” a title that situates its poem’s ensuing action on a literal battlefield of war rather than on the barren fields of a love lost. The title can act as a pretext, as when a title compels a browser to buy an unfamiliar work by an unknown author or when a title deliberately misleads, as in the case of the eighteenth-century author who named his moral essays La Jouissance de soi-même in hopes of attracting and then reforming libertines. Or the title can function as a subtext, as when the title creates a pervasive motif either by literally resurfacing from time to time in the text or by providing an overriding allusion to another work, tradition, or situation. Titles effect implicit contractual relationships with readers, authors, and publishers. Unlike a frontispiece, which may well visually encapsulate the themes of the text that follows, the title of a written work is made wholly of verbal matter and thus is identical to the material that forms the text. Yet the title also enjoys an external as well as internal contractual relationship with the text it labels. Whether its distance from the text it names is as close as a book’s spine or as removed as a question in a conversation about what one has lately read, the title participates in the world outside that text. Situated on the border of the text, the title commands a far larger audience than the actual work that it labels—a location that presents vast opportunities for its participation in cultural arenas. By casting such a wide contractual net, titles embody the potential to illuminate [End...

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pp. 42-77
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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