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Doctorow and Poe

A tale of two Edgars, and the predestination of names

Paul Berman
July 28, 2015

The mysterious initials in E.L. Doctorow’s name—what do they stand for? From the obituary in the New York Times, by Bruce Weber, I never did learn the significance of the L., for “Lawrence.” But the E., for “Edgar,” turns out to signify one of Doctorow’s father’s favorite writers, who was Edgar Allan Poe. Evidently E.L. Doctorow turned an ironic eye on this circumstance. On the matter of his father’s literary taste, Doctorow said, as quoted in the Times: “Actually, he liked a lot of bad writers, but Poe was our greatest bad writer, so I take some consolation from that.” I hope Doctorow did not entirely believe this evaluation. It may be true that Poe was, in Doctorow’s words, “a drug-addicted, alcoholic delusional paranoid with strong necrophiliac tendencies.” Still, he expressed a lunatic intensity of New York. And who has better captured certain crazy intensities of New York than Edgar Doctorow?

But my point is not to defend the abused Poe. I note, instead, that Doctorow’s father and mother evidently entertained a plan or ambition for their newborn son, which they expressed by choosing his fateful American literary name. The plan was for little Edgar Doctorow to grow up to be a great American writer. And, lo! This turns out not to be uncommon. The mother and father of Ralph W. Ellison, born in Oklahoma in 1914, named him after Ralph Waldo Emerson. And, lo! Little Ralph Ellison grew up to be a great American writer. There is the case of Eugene V. Debs, the greatest of America’s Socialists, from a century ago. Debs was named for Eugène Sue, the author of the social-conscience popular classic The Mysteries of Paris (as well as, a bit oddly, The Wandering Jew). And Debs was named for Victor Hugo, the author of the greatest novel ever written on themes of social compassion, Les Misérables. And, lo! Little Eugene Victor Debs of Indiana grew up to become one of America’s greatest champions of the downtrodden.

The strangest case is that of Walt Whitman. Little Walt’s parents named three of his brothers for great American presidents: George Washington Whitman, Thomas Jefferson Whitman, and Andrew Jackson Whitman. Little Walt himself was named for his father, Walter Whitman, who was an entirely ordinary hardworking man of the people, without an ounce of national or international or intergalactic glory. But these circumstances evidently created a pressure for little Walt. He grew up feeling that, as the brother of George and Thomas and Andrew, it was his predestined duty to demonstrate that, in matters of national mythology and cosmic fame, the man named “Walt Whitman” was fully the equal of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. And, lo!

The America of Whitman, Debs, Ellison, and Doctorow is the America I love.


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Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.