Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Reclaiming Poe's name

Poe's signature reproduced at Poe Park in Fordham, The Bronx, NY


I would like to make a simple proposal: We should rename Poe.

I suggest this for a couple of reasons. For one, the man often referred to as "Edgar Allan Poe" did not often use that name for himself. Most often, he was "Edgar Poe" or "Edgar A. Poe." Here's the story of his name.

He was born simply Edgar Poe (no middle name) in 1809. When he was taken in by the Allan family of Richmond, they christened him under the name "Edgar Allan Poe" — though, this was never made a legal name, nor was he legally their son. When the family moved to England, Poe was enrolled at a boarding-school as "Edgar Allan," though the name never stuck. The Allan family, after all, were only foster-parents or guardians (something John Allan reminded Edgar of quite often) and never formally adopted him. John Allan never considered Poe an heir — especially after he got re-married and had his own biological children. Allan was incredibly wealthy, a millionaire in fact — but Poe was left out of Allan's will (though Allan was sure to include money for his bastard children — more on that another day).

Despite how little Poe cared for John Allan, he did love his foster-mother. Frances Allan had been a kind and doting woman, but she died much sooner than John. Here's Poe's problem: The orphaned Edgar was taken in to live the life of high-society Virginia, raised as a true Southern gentleman. But John Allan didn't seem to want children (Frances Allan did) and never took the boy too far into his heart. Though early letters and journals indicate the potential for a loving father-son relationship was there, John Allan was never a proper father. He sent Poe to the University of Virginia with less money than it cost to enroll in two courses — and was disappointed when he didn't enroll in three. It was because of John Allan that Edgar A. Poe went into debt for the first time — from which he never recovered. All the while, there was the very, very wealthy John Allan, refusing to send enough money for Poe to get back on his feet. As Daniel Hoffman wrote in his fantastic Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (1972): "If there is a villain in Poe's destiny, a malign person insinuated into his fortunes by the machinations of that evil fairy who always spoils the christening party, it may have been his nonadoptive guardian."

It was Poe's desperation that led him to join the military (under the name "Edgar A. Perry"). His first published work with his name used "Edgar A. Poe" — a name he would use in most of his correspondence and in his future publications. Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Kenneth Silverman immortalized this fact by daring to title his book Edgar A. Poe: A Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance — a book which has continuously been in print since 1991. There are, of course, instances where "Edgar Allan Poe" is used by the man himself — some of them are letters addressed to John Allan (feel free to argue strategy; Poe was asking for money) or shortly after Allan's death (despite any ill feelings, Poe considered the man his "Pa" for two decades, so we'll allow the nostalgia for brief moments of happiness).

The name "Edgar Allan Poe" was so unusual during his lifetime, he had to actually explain what the "A." stood for in a letter to a relative!

I believe that the name "Edgar Allan Poe" was not cemented onto the collective tongue of the world until October 9, 1850, when Poe's most despised rival Rufus Wilmot Griswold wrote: "Edgar Allan Poe is dead." That's right, the name did not become popular until after Poe's death — and by his enemy. If we continue to call him by that three-letter name, Griswold has won.

As a Poeist myself, I also find the misspelling "Edgar Allen Poe" the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. The number of reputable scholars, publishers, and claimed diehard Poe fans that have made this mistake is astounding. If nothing else, we should rename Poe to make it easier on them.

So, here is my proposal: Strike out "Edgar Allan Poe" and forever claim "Edgar A. Poe." Will you join me in this cause?

11 comments:

brianjayjones.com said...

Hmmm. I'm not sure if I'm willing to eliminate the "Allan" just yet. There's something in the way those five syllables roll off the tongue that give the name such an official heft -- you almost want to put (tm) at the end. Removing it would be like referring to the works of "Louisa Alcott" or the national anthem by "Francis Key."

Or "Rodney Rippey."

Rob Velella said...

Brian, you just like being difficult! :) Which now makes me wonder: did Washington Irving have a middle name??

brianjayjones.com said...

Nope, he was just plain ol' Washington Irving. Though from here on out, I will refer to him as "Washington Allen Irving" just to bug you on several level...

Amateur Reader said...

I hope that by now I have written enough about Poe that I know how to spell "Allan." It took a while. I'd be happy to get rid of it.

Elizabeth said...

I had thought of this before, but you have now certainly induced me to fight for this cause.
Truth will prevail, eventually.

MADmoiselle said...

Allan is a part of him. He wouldn't have been himself without the influence of John Allan, and the love of Frances.
Allan is a part of his paradoxes.

Rob Velella said...

Allan may be a part of him, but it was not part of the name he went by. Isn't it a tad disrespectful for us to assign our own version of his name to him?

MADmoiselle said...

Honestly, when I speak about Him, I say Edgar Poe, or Poe.
I think if we should add an A, we would have to say : Edgar a Poet :)

Rob Velella said...

Poe - a poet to a "t"!

Poe Forward said...

I have a curious phenomena that occurs all too often. I'll be talking to someone and refer to EDGAR POE. They will interrupt and ask "Edgar ALLAN Poe?" I usually respond by asking them if they know of another Edgar Poe?

Aimee said...

Here here!
I've said simply "Edgar Poe" for years now, and when I'm around friends I just refer to him as "Edgar". Maybe a bit too familiar, but he's so much of my life that it'd be weird not to be familiar.
That's a great point you make!
And also, I'm glad to find out that I'm not the only one nearly driven to beating my head off of a tree at the sight of "Allen"~