To whoever is reading this: this is for you. While maybe that statement doesn’t have such a grand implication that, say, a 100,000-word novel would, nonetheless the meaning is the same. I spent my time, my effort, my very thoughts on this piece of writing for you to read. Hopefully, you will enjoy it, but you and I both know there’s never a guarantee there when it comes to writing. Regardless, this is for you.
Author dedications are one of the most personal and human-seeming parts of a published book. The acknowledgments, too, give an insight into the who behind the bound book in a reader’s hands in a way the author bio’s couple of sentences does not. But the dedication is so very personal, I can’t help but infer what is meant in the white space around the handful of words.
But where did this practice of writing the briefest love letter at the beginning of a novel come from? Dear reader, let’s take a little walk back through history and find out together.
To understand the practice of book dedications, first, we have to talk about the Roman literature scene.
At the time, according to scholar A. Dalzell, there was no real established way for authors to get paid for their work “except in a few limited cases,” so poets and the like of the time would try to get into the graces of the elite in order to act as sponsors of sorts to pay for and promote their work. Maecenas, for example, “generally considered the greatest of the Roman patrons of letters” was a patron for Virgil, Horace, and many others.
Oxford Reference echos this, pointing out that the circulation of literature of the time was dependent on a “network of social relations,” so writers needed the help of the elite to also spread their works within their far-reaching circles.
Oftentimes, authors and poets in the 3rd and 4th centuries who managed to get an in with an elite member of society, however they could, would include a “dedicatory letter” in the text in honor of their patron. Other times they’d be written in an attempt to gain the patronage of an important figure in a sort of Gatsby-esque party-thrown-for-one-person kind of way. They’d write praise of a monied person in hopes they’d see it and decide to take them, too, under their patronage wing. And this practice of literary patronage didn’t stop with the Romans.
In the 15th century, a friar John Capgrave dedicated a book to King Henry VI, praising him and his “Lancastrian predecessors.” Then, in 1462, Capgrave “reassessed God’s view of the Lancastrians” in his next book, dedicating it instead to Edward IV who had since seized the throne. While many “vilified” this flip-flopping, it’s more suggestive of the political nature of the “network of literary patronage” he and the other authors of the time had to “negotiate.” Having a book already finished aligned with the change in leadership, Capgrave leapt at the opportunity to “align” himself with the new king.
According to his article “A few words in dedication“, Ivan Doig says by Elizabethan times, “patron-wooing” had become so standard dedications were seen as “bills of lading” and sometimes “political insurance” too. This can be seen in the approximately sixty books dedicated to the six wives of Henry VII, Mary Tudor, Lady Margaret Beaufort, and Elizabeth of York from authors and translators seeking support but also from printers wanting them to “endorse the new practice of print.”
It’s unclear when this anecdote occurred, but in The Excursions of a Book-Lover by Frederic Rowland Marvin published in 1910, he alleges an author who published their book in “many volumes” changed the dedication to a different patron each time and so “harvested a multifarious reward” before anyone discovered the scheme. Dedications, Marvin says, “were too often for sale.” This anecdote isn’t far off from a similar practice of rededicating a work after the original patron died was “a common enough practice” for authors still needing support.
During this time, dedicatory letters could be paragraphs or even multiple pages long, including opinions on current events, excessive praise of the patron, and sometimes the author’s thoughts of the work itself. And they weren’t always to patrons, either. Sometimes, they were dedicated to religious figures like the Virgin Mary.
In the decades to follow the literary plying of 1500s English royalty, printers became “so prolific in England that they no longer relied upon royal patronage to run their print shops.” Thus changed the function and look of dedications.
The Difficulty Studying Dedications
One note here, before we move on to the modern style of dedications. I want to point out the difficulty modern scholars have when attempting to study dedications through history because they were and still are sometimes omitted by a modern-day editor. The dedications seem, or seemed, “to lack a direct bearing on the work itself” with Buchtel calling it a “historian’s Clorox.”
There are also instances in which dedications weren’t actually added by the author themselves, but instead by the publisher or someone involved in the time after it leaves the author’s hands. According to an American researcher, Geoffrey Caveny, the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is no longer a mysterious figure linked to Shakespeare himself, but instead the Mr. W.H. might have been a friend of the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, who had recently passed away.
In a study conducted by Susanta Koley and B K Sen published in 2006, of 600 book dedications analyzed with 812 dedicatees, roughly 17% were parents, 8% were wives/husbands, followed by teachers, children, and friends. Most often, dedications were indented for one person tallied at 321, but surprisingly (to me) 67 were intended for ten or more people.
Koley and Sen also determined the main reasons for dedications: to express homage, pay respects, show love, extend prayers, and acknowledge assistance from loved ones, partners, religious figures, or those an author has lost.
So, while this practice of including a dedication in manuscripts has “gone on for centuries,” the meaning of them has changed in the last few hundred years. Out with the financially motivated (at least most of the time) words of praise and in with the “black and white valentine” of today.
Modern-day dedications are, for all intents and purposes, a handheld couple-of-word love letter no matter what form of love that may be. They say “I love you” and “I’m grateful for you” and “thank you” and in proof, here are these words in print, forever.