Our American Poets.

Allan Metcalf describes part of the furnishing of a house he lived in as a graduate student in English in the early ’60s:

In a hallway that I walked through several times a day hung a wood-framed glass-fronted collection of photographs of six distinguished-looking people. And though they were mainly looking at each other — three on the left looking toward three on the right, and vice versa — every now and then one of them seemed to glance at me, telling me to take notice.

After all, I was studying literature — one of about 500 graduate students in English — and those portraits were captioned “Our American Poets.” These, I realized, were our great poets, the ones we would have been expected to study if we had been there around the year 1900, with the 19th century just gone by.

From left to right, these six were:

• Whittier, John Greenleaf, 1807-92. Author of Snow-Bound.
• Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-82. Author of “Days” and “Concord Hymn.”
• Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, 1807-82. Author of The Song of Hiawatha.
• Lowell, James Russell, 1819-91. Author of The Biglow Papers.
• Holmes, Oliver Wendell, 1809-94. Author of “The Chambered Nautilus.”
• Bryant, William Cullen, 1794-1878. Author of “Thanatopsis.”

Strangely, though, most of them were not the American poets of the 19th century we were most likely to study in 1963.

(You can see the framed photos at the link.) As it happens, I had a strikingly old-fashioned elementary school education in the ’50s and early ’60s, and we read all those poets (and I’m pretty sure I read the named poems), but they are certainly not the ones people think of today, and it’s sobering to be confronted with such shifting patterns of taste. As he says in his conclusion, “I couldn’t decide whether to feel superior to the narrow tastes of that century, or to feel less certain about the durability of my own tastes in the centuries that followed.”

Comments

  1. Whom do Americans think of today? I’ve read a vanishingly small amount of nineteenth-century American poetry, but if asked to name nineteenth-century American poets I’d still name Emerson and Longfellow, albeit with Dickinson and Whitman. The only other name mentioned in comments to the original post is Poe, whom I suppose I’d be as likely to think of as a poet as I’d be to recall Lowell.

  2. What sort of list would you get for any other country at that point in time?

  3. albeit with Dickinson and Whitman

    An interesting way to phrase it, as for the past 50 years or more Whitman and Dickinson have been considered the most important poets to have written in English during the second half of the 19th century, full stop. It’s their glaring omission which supplies the ironic poignancy to Metcalf’s post.

    The poets Metcalf lists are all extremely conventional poets whose productions were very much in keeping with the tastes of their contemporaries (this includes Emerson, whose essays were radical, but whose poetry was banal). The point is, all six have basically been forgotten qua poets. Or, in the case of Longfellow and Lowell, if not forgotten, then barely read or subjected to serious academic criticism. (I wonder if schoolchildren still read Whittier’s “Snow-bound.” I did, back in the day, but I’m growing old, and I’d be surprised if it’s still included in school textbooks.)

    As noted, the selection is not surprising for a selection made ca. 1900. It’s only the notion of such a portrait of “Our Poets” still hanging in a university ca. 1963 that seems comically anachronistic.

  4. A quarter century ago, we still read the poetry of Bryant, Longfellow, and Lowell in high school. Of Emerson, we only read prose. We did not read Holmes in school, but his essays have not fallen completely out of cultural focus; I’m sure he benefits some from having the same name as his more famous son.

    Holmes’ poetry though, and all the works of Whittier, just seems to be forgotten.

  5. The only line of Whittier that has survived seems to be “Barefoot boy with cheeks of tan”, though he wrote “cheek”.

    Update: “Barbara Frietchie” too, perhaps, though rather as a revival than a survival. It was illustrated by Thurber and parodied by Bullwinkle, which must be worth something.

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    It might still be the case that more living Americans know this J.G. Whittier poem or at least know its “punchline”* than know any single Dickinson poem you might care to name. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45483/barbara-frietchie I’m thinking that with the perhaps sole exception of Tennyson most of the British poets who would have seemed worthy contemporaries and coequals ( in style, reputation, and cultural heft) of those six American dudes back in the day are likewise little read today – Victorian poetry is a bit of a lacuna between the end of the Romantics and the rise of, if not full-blown modernism, at least properly decadent fin-de-siecle fellows like Swinburne and maybe the callow young Yeats.

    *By punchline I’m thinking e.g. of how the Southey poem with the line “But ’twas a famous victory” is little known in extenso these days but the punchline is much better known because (parodically?) referenced in Alice in Wonderland.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    I suppose it’s possible that one of Holmes Sr.’s most enduring (in terms of vague awareness by some critical mass of the culturally literate) poetical works has by now finally fallen out of even the second-tier canon. More’s the pity. http://holyjoe.org/poetry/holmes1.htm

  8. Except of course here at the Hattery: “I dew vum!

  9. From the introduction to the English edition of Lowell’s Biglow Papers:

    Greece had her Aristophanes; Rome her Juvenal; Spain has had her Cervantes; France her Rabelais, her Molière, her Voltaire; Germany her Jean Paul, her Heine; England her Swift, her Thackeray; and America has her Lowell. By the side of all those great masters of satire, though kept somewhat in the rear by provincialism of style and subject, the author of the “Biglow Papers” holds his own place distinct from each and all. The man who reads the book for the first time, and is capable of understanding it, has received a new sensation. In Lowell the American mind has for the first time flowered out into thoroughly original genius.

    I think not.

  10. I only know of Holmes because of his Aestivation, which I once quoted here.

  11. From eBay, etc, the same printmaker (W L Haskell of Chicago) also produced, in roughly the same layout and at about the same time, “Our American Statesmen,” with Washington, Jackson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Lincoln and McKinley, “Our Lord Jesus Christ,” with stages of His life, and, oddly enough, another edition of “Our American Poets,” having instead of the Fireside Poets, Will Carleton, Poe, J. Whitcomb Riley, Eugene Field, Whitman and Bret Harte.

  12. In Croatia, Poe is part of the curriculum for his poetry. Melville, Harriett-Beecher Stowe, and Mark Twain are included in the curriculum for their prose. This is all translated to Croatian of course.

    Of the 20th century US authors, the Hemingway is included in the curriculum too.

  13. Holmes’s poetry is now referenced more than read, I should think.

    (That eye dialect is excruciating, for one thing.)

  14. January First-of-May says:

    Incidentally, best I could figure out from online descriptions, the true hero of the events depicted in Barbara Frietchie was not in fact the titular elderly woman (who wasn’t even nearby), but a little girl named Virgie (Virginia) Quantrill, then only six years old.

    She eventually married a Mr. Perry Brown, and died in relative obscurity in 1917.

  15. and her mother Mary.

  16. We read excerpts from Stowe in history class, but never in English.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    As noted, the selection is not surprising for a selection made ca. 1900. It’s only the notion of such a portrait of “Our Poets” still hanging in a university ca. 1963 that seems comically anachronistic.

    Well, that’s right around the time when Austria was as its most conservative since at least 1900. (The election results of 1966 and 1970 were almost mirror images of each other.) Was there such a trend, or backlash, in the US in the time leading up to 1968?

    The only line of Whittier that has survived seems to be “Barefoot boy with cheeks of tan”, though he wrote “cheek”.

    This looks like an automiscorrection.

  18. Was there such a trend, or backlash, in the US in the time leading up to 1968?

    Not really, though US politics was getting more and more split thanks to the double whammy of civil rights and the Vietnam War, but it’s irrelevant anyway — the photographs weren’t put up to express anyone’s current political views, they’d obviously been hanging there for generations.

  19. Oh, and on the main topic:

    if asked to name nineteenth-century American poets I’d still name Emerson and Longfellow, albeit with Dickinson and Whitman.

    You’re unusual, then; I’m pretty sure the average American who was able to name any at all would name Dickinson and Whitman, and maybe Poe. The others are known only to people who know such things (and probably have favorite literary critics to boot). And having one line stuck in people’s head thanks to a parody or whatever doesn’t count.

  20. I think Longfellow is still pretty well remembered. He probably isn’t considered very literary these days, meaning that kids are more likely to read his stuff in elementary school that high school; but they certainly still do read it.

  21. Sure, but when they’re grown up and asked to name nineteenth-century American poets will they remember his name? I doubt it, but anything’s possible. Even though I read all those guys as a kid and remember bits of poems, if you asked me for nineteenth-century American poets I’d name Dickinson and Whitman, and maybe Poe. The rest have sunk into the back of the drawer along with trigonometry and Avogadro’s constant. “I’m aware of his work,” as they say.

  22. they’d obviously been hanging there for generations

    I wouldn’t reject out of hand the possibility that some English major found it in a thrift shop and put it up ironically.

  23. January First-of-May says:

    As a non-American with minimal familiarity with American culture, I likely would have mentioned Longfellow first or close to first (the Song of Hiawatha is pretty famous), and then probably would have started grasping at straws and suggesting answers like Mark Twain or Edward Lear.

    (I can name much more 19th century English-language poets, of course, but for most of them – including Poe and Dickinson – I wasn’t quite sure which side of the Atlantic they were from; and for some reason I thought Leaves of Grass was written in the 1910s.
    I might have lucked out and mentioned Jack London, who is at least actually an American who published some poetry in the 19th century. Of course, he is mostly known for prose published in the 20th century.)

    (Fun fact: I wanted to mention that I might have thought of one more 19th century American poet – the author of Ride of Paul Revere. I have forgotten, however, who that author was – and it turned out to also be Longfellow, so that poem would not have added to my tally.)

  24. I’m thinking that with the perhaps sole exception of Tennyson most of the British poets who would have seemed worthy contemporaries and coequals ( in style, reputation, and cultural heft) of those six American dudes back in the day are likewise little read today. Victorian poetry is a bit of a lacuna between the end of the Romantics and the rise of, if not full-blown modernism, at least properly decadent fin-de-siecle fellows like Swinburne and maybe the callow young Yeats.

    That’s kind of a narrow window – after Wordsworth (who died in 1850) but before Swinburne (who wrote from 1865 onwards), and excluding Tennyson?

  25. I wouldn’t reject out of hand the possibility that some English major found it in a thrift shop and put it up ironically.

    That’s possible, of course, but political conservatism is still not in the picture.

  26. Speaking of the Avogadro constant, its value will be reset some time next year, to the fixed numerical value of 6.02214076×10^23 mole^(-1). And, yes, this is the ‘draft’ value, the actual fixed value may be a bit different. See:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proposed_redefinition_of_SI_base_units

  27. In Croatia, Poe is part of the curriculum for his poetry.

    French cultural influence, perhaps; they held M. Poë in far higher regard than his countrymen did or do.

    I might have lucked out and mentioned Jack London

    Who is or was far more famous in Russia than in the U.S. or Canada.

  28. January First-of-May – “Paul Revere’s Ride”
    From memory (cross my heart)

    Listen my children, and you shall hear,
    Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.
    Twas the 18th of April, in ’75
    Scarcely a man is yet alive
    Who remembers that famous day and year.

    and that’s as far as I can go. Except that somewhere later on:

    Hang a lamp in the loft of the belfry-arch
    of the Old North Church, as a signal light
    One if by land, two if by sea
    And I on the opposite shore will be.

    As you suspected, it’s Longfellow.

  29. That’s kind of a narrow window – after Wordsworth (who died in 1850) but before Swinburne (who wrote from 1865 onwards), and excluding Tennyson?

    I think most would consider that Romanticism, as a popular literary movement, died well before Wordsworth did.

    Even that narrow window, however, would still include most of the poetry of the Brownings, Arnold, and Hopkins, whose works I’d certainly expect to see included in any survey course of Brit Lit, and who also still provide grist for the mills of academia, whether or not they still attract many readers among the general population. Therefore, I don’t think the notion of a “lacuna” really works. The degree to which the six named “important” American poets have ceased to be either read or studied is much greater.

    Curious, I just looked to see if they’re even still included in the latest unabridged Norton Anthology of American Literature: Longfellow, Whittier and Bryant get token entries; Emerson gets a substantial selection of his essays, but only a couple of poems; Holmes and Lowell don’t make the cut.

  30. And the opening lines from another one about the same event, The Concord Hymn by Emerson:

    By the rude bridge that arc’d the flood
    In the April breeze, their flag unfurled
    Here the embattled farmers stood
    and fired the shot heard ’round the world.

    If you went to school in Reading, Massachusetts half a century ago (I attended Joshua Eaton Elementary, named for a Reading militiaman killed in the Revolution), you memorized this stuff.

  31. It’s a shame that Emerson isn’t still read. Longfellow is impossibly dull; Poe is silly; Whittier and Lowell are unbelievably trite. But Emerson has something to say to a modern sensibility.
    PS – Emma Lazarus should make the list. She’s remembered only for one poem, but it’s a hell of a poem.

  32. Emerson I recall only as the provider of aphorisms that undergraduates try to adorn essays with. Even when I was 18 I thought they were cheesy.

  33. Whatever this is, it’s not cheesy:

    The horseman serves the horse,
    The neat-herd serves the neat,
    The merchant serves the purse,
    The eater serves his meat;
    ‘T is the day of the chattel
    Web to weave, and corn to grind;
    Things are in the saddle,
    And ride mankind.

    Nor this:

    Parks and ponds are good by day;
    I do not delight
    In black acres of the night,
    Nor my unseasoned step disturbs
    The sleeps of trees or dreams of herbs.

  34. Sir JCass says:

    “Our American Poets” looks like a case of a young nation a little too eager to establish a cultural identity for itself making some poor choices. I’m sure you’ll find a similar story if you look at Australia or Canada.

    Even that narrow window, however, would still include most of the poetry of the Brownings, Arnold, and Hopkins

    Yeah, Tennyson, the Brownings, Arnold, Hopkins (the equivalent of Emily Dickinson in his posthumous fame), and Christina Rossetti are all still in print in paperback selected or collected editions from mainstream publishers like Penguin. There’s also Fitzgerald’s “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”. You can add Hardy and Housman too if you count them as Victorian. Borderline cases might include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Arthur Hugh Clough and George Meredith (if only for “Modern Love”).

    The British equivalents of Whittier and Lowell are probably writers who were way too much of their time like Sir Henry Newbolt and the truly astounding (in all the wrong ways) Martin Farquhar Tupper. William Topaz McGonagall is one of the immortals though.

  35. If you like McGonagall, you should check out Amanda McKittrick Ros.

  36. John Emerson says:

    Hi people.

    Those are the main poets I studied in HS English, 1964. There were some later ones, too, mostly populists like Sandburg, Masters, Vachel Lindsay, et al. Not much modernist poetry.

    Just stopping by.

  37. The Midnight Ride of William Dawes
    (Helen F. Moore, 1896)

    I am a wandering, bitter shade,
    Never of me was a hero made;
    Poets have never sung my praise,
    Nobody crowned my brow with bays;
    And if you ask me the fatal cause,
    I answer only, “My name was Dawes”

    ‘Tis all very well for the children to hear
    Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;
    But why should my name be quite forgot,
    Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?
    Why should I ask? The reason is clear —
    My name was Dawes and his Revere.

    When the lights from the old North Church flashed out,
    Paul Revere was waiting about,
    But I was already on my way.
    The shadows of night fell cold and gray
    As I rode, with never a break or a pause;
    But what was the use, when my name was Dawes!

    History rings with his silvery name;
    Closed to me are the portals of fame.
    Had he been Dawes and I Revere,
    No one had heard of him, I fear.
    No one has heard of me because
    He was Revere and I was Dawes.

    I don’t think Longfellow’s “Excelsior” (which is the basis of the song “Upidee, Upida” and its many parodies) is boring at all.

  38. Hey! Stick around — don’t be a stranger!

  39. David Marjanović says:

    the shot heard ’round the world

    Oh, that’s where that comes from.

  40. David Eddyshaw says:

    As a non-American, I’d have come out immediately with the amazingly ill-matched trio of Dickinson (of course), Whitman and Longfellow. If somebody then said “what about Poe?” I’d have kicked myself but probably wouldn’t have thought of him without prompting. And after that I would have struggled.

    Now twentieth-century American poets, on the other hand … basically all of the greatest English-language poets except Auden (and he tried to be American. A bit.) OK, and Yeats. And … well, OK, most of the greatest.

  41. When I call R. W. Emerson cheesy, I’m talking about “To be great is to be misunderstood,” “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us,” “Always do what you are afraid to do,” and other such bilge destined to be printed over photos of pebbles.

    (John Emerson—welcome back, sorry to be putting down your namesake [q.v.])

  42. Stan Freberg:

    Well, to tell you the truth, I was just going out of town for the weekend.
    But it’s only Wednesday.
    Yeah. Well, you know, a penny saved is a penny earned.
    What does that got to do with anything, Franklin?
    I don’t know. It was the first thing that came into my head. I was just making conversation. An idle brain is the Devil’s playground, you know!
    Say, you’re pretty good at that, aren’t you?
    Yes, they’re just some new wise sayings I just made up.
    Wise sayings?
    Yeah, I call em wise sayings.
    Uh-huh.
    Well, what can I do for you?

    (From this immortal record, which I pretty much memorized a half century ago.)

  43. David Marjanović says:

    “Always do what you are afraid to do,”

    Wow, that is singularly bad advice. I know worse*, but it’s really hard to find anything comparable.

    * There’s that defunct German proverb:
    Wo man singt, da lass dich ruhig nieder;
    böse Menschen haben keine Lieder!

    “Where people sing, don’t be afraid to settle down;
    evil people don’t have songs!”

  44. “Always do what you are afraid to do,”

    Well, yes, Emerson’s essays preach. But this is from the essay that that aphorism is from:

    Times of heroism are generally times of terror… Human virtue demands her champions and martyrs, and the trial of persecution always proceeds. It is but the other day that the brave Lovejoy gave his breast to the bullets of a mob, for the rights of free speech and opinion, and died when it was better not to live.

    Lovejoy was an abolitionist newspaperman who was murdered by a mob bent on destroying his press. You can disagree with Emerson, but you can’t claim he didn’t understand the implications of what he was saying.

  45. The thing is, I agree with you that the essays are more or less unreadable today except by specialists, and the out of context aphorisms are annoying. But in at least some of the poetry there is something unsettling, something alienating and surprising – what Dickinson called “slant” – that speaks to me, at any rate.

    Does this disturb you? It does me:

    Every day brings a ship,
    Every ship brings a word;
    Well for those who have no fear,
    Looking seaward well assured
    That the word the vessel brings
    Is the word they wish to hear.

  46. The British equivalents of Whittier and Lowell are probably writers who were way too much of their time like Sir Henry Newbolt and the truly astounding (in all the wrong ways) Martin Farquhar Tupper.

    I’m not sure Tupper was ever regarded as a giant of contemporary poetry. Newbolt, yes – one of many Victorians who’s now remembered for That One Thing He Wrote (Vitai Lampada), like Southey (Goldilocks and the Three Bears) and even, I’d say, Clough (the Modern Decalogue is still very funny).

  47. The horseman serves the horse,
    The neat-herd serves the neat,

    Written not that long ago, but “neat-herd” is not only unusual, it is now, I would say, completely unused and probably completely unknown except among people who’ve had to look it up after finding it in Victorian poems – is it still used in any dialects, I wonder?

  48. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Neat” is very familiar in this meaning to us in the British Cryptic Crossword Community (usually representing the letters OX in some way.)

    “The Latest Decalogue” is wonderful. Moreover, I wish I had sixpence for every time I’ve seen “strive/ Officiously to keep alive” cited as an argument from authority in favour of passive euthanasia. I last saw it attributed (not altogether implausibly) to William Osler. It doesn’t seem to be quite as prevalent now people have Google.

    Thou shalt not steal. An empty feat
    When ’tis so lucrative to cheat …

  49. “Latest Decalogue”, not Modern. Thanks!

    It seems to exist online in several slightly different versions. And none seem to include the last four lines which I remember as:
    And, last of all these, thou shalt love,
    If anybody, God above;
    At any rate thou shalt not labour
    More than thyself to love thy neighbour.

  50. David Eddyshaw says:

    Yes, you’re right. The version that I pretty much have by heart without ever having set out to memorise it (it’s that sort of poem) has those lines; I think it’s from the old Oxford Book of English Verse, but I can’t see my copy just now.

    It’s the same as this:

    http://bvl14.umwblogs.org/2014/10/06/meredith-reed-the-last-decalogue-by-arthur-hugh-clough/

  51. Thomas Hardy used neat in Growth in May (1922):

    Elsewhere the mead is possessed of the neats,
    That range not greatly above
    The rich rank thicket which brushes their teats,
    And HER gown, as she waits for her Love.

    See also the popular motif of King Alfred being reprimanded by the neatherd’s wife for letting her cakes burn.

  52. The British equivalents of Whittier and Lowell are probably writers who were way too much of their time like Sir Henry Newbolt and the truly astounding (in all the wrong ways) Martin Farquhar Tupper.

    And Coventry Patmore, who is probably remembered only in footnotes to Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women.”

  53. January First-of-May says:

    Now that I think of it, the reason I would not have thought of Edgar Allan Poe as a 19th century American poet might not have been as much in the “American” part (though that too) as in the “poet” part: the first work of his that comes to my mind is The Gold-Bug, which is most assuredly not in any way poetry.
    (With some luck I could have remembered The Raven, which is poetry.)

    Emily Dickinson, on the other hand, is pretty much just a name to me; I vaguely know of her as an English-language author, but I wouldn’t have definitely pegged her as 19th century, American, or a poet.

    And I was pretty certain that I have heard of Oliver Wendell Holmes (in that order) somewhere before, but my googling was unable to find any plausible-looking examples in any of the expected places.
    My current best guess is that the reference was probably to his son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a Justice of the US Supreme Court – most likely, as someone’s running mate in an alternate history timeline (though I have no idea which particular timeline it could have been).

  54. the reason I would not have thought of Edgar Allan Poe as a 19th century American poet might not have been as much in the “American” part (though that too) as in the “poet” part: the first work of his that comes to my mind is The Gold-Bug, which is most assuredly not in any way poetry.

    He’s one of those rare writers who is equally well known for prose and poetry; many great poets also wrote excellent prose (William Carlos Williams and Osip Mandelstam, for instance), but are famous for their poetry, the prose being known mainly to specialists. Other writers (Stephen Crane, Ivan Bunin) are famous for their prose despite having written fine poetry. With Poe I’d say it’s about equal.

  55. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    I have a haunting feeling that Oliver Wendell Holmes, or at least his name, turns up in someone else’s limerick or saying or parody, but I can’t get any further!

  56. Whittier is probably best known in Britain as a hymn-writer, notably of ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’.

  57. @Jen: Hmm. I guess you could shoehorn his name into a double dactyl, although it would be less than ideal.

  58. A name like that would be ideal for a clerihew.

  59. Oliver Wendell Holmes
    Wrote a great many pomes.
    He was eclipsed by his son
    Who had much less fun.

  60. I can’t find a limerick about OWH, but he was himself the author of a classic specimen of the genre:

    The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher
    Called a hen a most elegant creature.
    The hen, pleased with that,
    Laid an egg in his hat.
    And thus did the hen reward Beecher.

  61. Hats off to you and your pome, Hat!

  62. J.W. Brewer says:

    Entertaining random wikipedia sentence: “H. P. Lovecraft considered Swinburne ‘the only real poet in either England or America after the death of Mr. Edgar Allan Poe.'” I vaguely think of Poe-qua-poet being more highly valued in France than in the U.S., much like the late Jerry Lewis. As to prose writers who also dabbled in verse, I doubt anyone thinks of R.L. Stevenson as other than primarily a prose writer, yet quite a lot of Anglophones for a number of generations knew the short piece ending “Home is the sailor, home from the sea / And the hunter home from the hill.” Again, probably more than knew any specific work of Dickinson’s you might care to name.

    The likes of Newbolt and Whittier were popular in former generations with a broad demographic of mainstream readers perhaps less open to the austere pleasures of the avant-garde. They have become less popular as poetry itself has become a more marginal genre with less of a mass audience. Maybe that means the wheat has finally separated from the chaff now that only those with a more intense interest in poetic form can bother to have an opinion on the matter; maybe there are less positive ways to view that development. .

  63. Of course, Henry Ward Beecher is an example of a hugely prolific and influential writer, but one whose work was so overwhelmingly tied to the political and social issues off his time that he is essentially not read at all today. According to Wikipedia, he only wrote a novel because he was offered a huge sum of money for it, the publisher hoping to duplicate the wild success of Beecher’s sister’s book.

  64. Sir JCass says:

    If you like McGonagall, you should check out Amanda McKittrick Ros.

    How could I have forgotten her…

    I’m just wondering who are the equivalents of McGonagall and Ros in other languages. Is there a Russian Irene Iddesleigh or a Japanese Tay Bridge Disaster?

    I’m not sure Tupper was ever regarded as a giant of contemporary poetry.

    True. He’s probably in the same category as Patience Strong, Rod McKuen and Rupi Kaur.

  65. I’m just wondering who are the equivalents of McGonagall and Ros in other languages.

    Good question.

  66. David Eddyshaw says:

    All that can now be done is merely to allow the thought to dwindle into bleak oblivion, until aroused to that standard of disclosure which defies hindrance.

  67. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    Got it – although it’s not really any of the things I suggested!

    L. M. Montgomery, Anne’s House of Dreams

    ‘Captain Jim had never heard of Oliver Wendell Holmes, but he evidently agreed with that writer’s dictum that “big heart never liked little cream pot.’

  68. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    I don’t know about ‘serious’ poetry from RLS, but various bits and pieces from the Child’s Garden of Verses are familiar to me from childhood (the shadow, especially, but also the lamplighter and the birdie with the yellow bill and going to bed by day and ‘faster than fairies, faster than witches’) – I think they got into those books of selected poems.

  69. I vaguely think of Poe-qua-poet being more highly valued in France than in the U.S., much like the late Jerry Lewis.

    Plausibly. Though I think pretty much every American still reads The Raven in school, as this classic bit from one of The Simpsons early seasons implies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLiXjaPqSyY (Quoth the Raven “Eat my shorts!”)

  70. From the introduction to the Biglow Papers (online):

    It remains to speak of the Yankee dialect. And, first, it may be premised, in a general way, that any one much read in the writings of the early colonists need not be told that the far greater share of the words and phrases now esteemed peculiar to New England, and local there, were brought from the mother-country. A person familiar with the dialect of certain portions of Massachusetts will not fail to recognize, in ordinary discourse, many words now noted in English vocabularies as archaic, the greater part of which were in common use about the time of the King James translation of the Bible. Shakspeare stands less in need of a glossary to most New Englanders than to many a native of the Old Country. The peculiarities of our speech, however, are rapidly wearing out. As there is no country where reading is so universal and newspapers are so multitudinous, so no phrase remains long local, but is transplanted in the mail-bags to every remotest corner of the land. Consequently our dialect approaches nearer to uniformity than that of any other nation.

    The English have complained of us for coining new words. Many of those so stigmatized were old ones by them forgotten, and all make now an unquestioned part of the currency, wherever English is spoken. Undoubtedly, we have a right to make new words, as they are needed by the fresh aspects under which life presents itself here in the New World; and, indeed, wherever a language is alive, it grows. It might be questioned whether we could not establish a stronger title to the ownership of the English tongue than the mother-islanders themselves. Here, past all question, is to be its great home and centre. And not only is it already spoken here by greater numbers, but with a far higher popular average of correctness, than in Britain. The great writers of it, too, we might claim as ours, were ownership to be settled by the number of readers and lovers.

    I must say I was taken aback to read terms like “mother country” and “Old country”, which have only in the last generation or two fallen out of use in Australia. In all conscience, this kind of writing betrays a ghastly colonial cringe, seeking to validate colonial culture by out-mother-countrying the mother country. Regrettably this kind of appeal to shared linguistic (and racial) roots is a meme that continues to be trotted out even today.

    Then this, which sounds just like some late 19th century Australian writing, although in a different idiom:

    Mister Eddyter:—Our Hosea wuz down to Boston last week, and he see a cruetin Sarjunt a struttin round as popler as a hen with 1 chicking, with 2 fellers a drummin and fifin arter him like all nater. the sarjunt he thout Hosea hedn’t gut his i teeth cut cos he looked a kindo’s though he’d jest com down, so he cal’lated to hook him in, but Hosy woodn’t take none o’ his sarse for all he hed much as 20 Rooster’s tales stuck onto his hat and eenamost enuf brass a bobbin up and down on his shoulders and figureed onto his coat and trousis, let alone wut nater hed sot in his featers, to make a 6 pounder out on.

    I find J.W. Brewer’s comments in this thread enlightening. The poets listed, Whittier, Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, and Bryant, sound like a procession of archetypal DWMs, earnestly poetising the colonial white experience in the peculiar heavy conventions of the time. This attempt to create a ‘national poetry’ was a typical product of the 19th century. Longfellow wrote:

    We want a national literature commensurate with our mountains and rivers… We want a national epic that shall correspond to the size of the country… We want a national drama in which scope shall be given to our gigantic ideas and to the unparalleled activity of our people… In a word, we want a national literature altogether shaggy and unshorn, that shall shake the earth, like a herd of buffaloes thundering over the prairies.

    And so he wrote Hiawatha. Enchanting though it may be, it is a white man creating a tale of indigenous Americans as part of an attempt to create a ‘national literature’, entirely European in inspiration, white in execution.

    As Sir JCass points out, ‘“Our American Poets” looks like a case of a young nation a little too eager to establish a cultural identity for itself making some poor choices. I’m sure you’ll find a similar story if you look at Australia or Canada.’ Hear hear!

    Much of this “efflorescence” was blown into oblivion by the Great War and Modernism, which could no longer take all this earnestness so seriously. No wonder exceptions like Dickinson and Hopkins were salvaged with such alacrity by a later generation, which no longer believed in the power of conventional Victorian-era / colonial poets to express the human experience.

  71. J.W. Brewer says:

    New England was a rather earlier colonial project than Australia. Lowell was born just under two centuries after the beginning of the English settlement of Massachusetts (although the first Lowell did not turn up until 1639, which is rather late when talking old New England genealogies). An Australian writer born a comparable gap of time after the First Fleet anchored in Botany Bay would currently be in the process of planning his or her 30th birthday party. So it is not surprising that American writers of Lowell’s generation were still working out their “mother country” issues in a way that seems odd to Americans, in particular, of more recent vintage.

    Lowell was FWIW one of the founders of the American Dialect Society (along with more academically-inclined New England WASPs of the day such as the great Sanskritist Wm. Dwight Whitney) which then as now promoted good descriptive linguistics work.

    Longfellow, for his part, was sufficiently eager to get beyond mother-country forms that he wrote Hiawatha in a weird (by Anglophone standards) meter he cribbed from the Kalevala. Whether he ever learned more than a smattering of Finnish is apparently debated, but having even a smattering made him cosmopolitan-to-the-point-of-eccentricity by the standards of his day as well as our own.

    This isn’t to say for either of them that their poems necessarily hold up well, but they were broad-minded DWM’s, with some degree of uncomplacent curiosity about the wider world.

    For some broader context here’s an online version of a decently-sized 1912 anthology of “American verse,” probably representing a comfortable-conventional-wisdom POV as of that date. Apparently you had to be already dead when the work went to press to be anthologized, but having died just the year previous (as two of the poets had) was okay. All six of the fellows referenced in the picture that gave rise to this thread are well-represented, as is Poe. Whitman gets one entry; Dickinson (not yet the critics’ darling she would become by the 1930’s) zero, although other female poets are included. http://www.bartleby.com/102/index1.html

  72. Odd to attack people for being dead when we’re talking about the 19th C. What living 19 C authors would you recommend that we read?

  73. that he wrote Hiawatha in a weird (by Anglophone standards) meter he cribbed from the Kalevala.

    a.k.a. trochaic tetrameter. But, yes, sufficiently eccentric that Longfellow is still frequently cited in explications of poetic meter, just as Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” is the inevitable example of dactylic dimeter.

  74. DWM is, of course, the standard term used by those wishing to overturn the canon. It does not suggest in any way that one should seek out living white male authors from the 19th century.

    Since it was the era that broadly preceded our own, the 19th century was crucial in creating the world that we live in. The open-mindedness of many people of the time is beyond question, whether Longfellow with his Kalevala or Lowell with his abolitionism.

    But the overall mindset, assumptions, horizons, worldview, and conventions of that era have less appeal to the sensibilities of (many) people in our own time than they did then. This is due partly to the era’s catastrophic denouement and legacy, and partly to the successful efforts of people to eradicate the evils of the time.

    But much of this poetry undeniably speaks to a bygone mentality. For instance, these lines, laudable as they are, do not seem to speak to modern sensibilities:

    Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
    As the swift seasons roll!
    Leave thy low-vaulted past!
    Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
    Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
    Till thou at length art free,
    Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

    It is not at all strange that they might have fallen in general estimation.

  75. From the introduction to the Biglow Papers

    You are quoting the fictional editor of the Papers (Homer Wilbur, A.M.) rather than the actual author; the opinions of the fomer should not be attributed to the latter. Wilbur may be compared to Jedediah Cleishbotham, the editor/narrator/introducer in some of the Waverly novels, who was certainly not identical with the Great Unknown (later identified as Walter Scott). And it’s still true, of course, even after more than two centuries of independence, that much of the literature we seppos read in school is British, and indeed English — but this is not a cringe, but rather an appropriation.

    Odd to attack people for being dead when we’re talking about the 19th C.

    You don’t have to be dead to be a DW(E)M, though naturally most of them are (most people are dead, if it comes to that). Wittgenstein and Joyce were pretty much born as DW(E)Ms.

    Nabi Tajima is the last living person born in the 19C.

  76. January First-of-May says:

    I’m just wondering who are the equivalents of McGonagall and Ros in other languages.

    Well, the Russian equivalent – at least in terms of infamy (in his case perhaps not entirely deserved) – is probably Dmitry Khvostov

  77. J.W. Brewer says:

    We’re now quite a long way removed from 1960 when an acclaimed and not-yet-D WM poet (great-great-nephew of one of the Old Six mentioned supra) could write unrhymed lines like:

    “The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
    giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
    a savage servility
    slides by on grease.”

    I think I understand the mentality lines like that reflect, because it was certainly still current in my own youth when I was beginning to read poetry ‘n’ stuff. But how much longer before it becomes as bygone as the mentality of the age when Whittier could crank out stanzas like

    “CONDUCTOR BRADLEY, (always may his name
    Be said with reverence!) as the swift doom came,
    Smitten to death, a crushed and mangled frame,

    Sank, with the brake he grasped just where he stood
    To do the utmost that a brave man could,
    And die, if needful, as a true man should.”

    (NB that Mr. Bradley was killed in the line of duty in an unfortunate 1873 railroad accident that the poet must have read about in the newspapers.)

  78. @ John Cowan

    How times change. Cringe then, appropriation now 🙂

  79. American writers of Lowell’s generation were still working out their “mother country” issues

    And go on doing so until roughly Mark Twain.

    Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul

    I didn’t recognize the poem, but when I read this stanza (the last) I immediately thought “Chambered nautilus” (and so it is). Next I thought of Eleanor Arnason’s dinosaurs chirping in the trees.

  80. American writers of Lowell’s generation were still working out their “mother country” issues
    And go on doing so until roughly Mark Twain.

    I wasn’t aware they’d stopped. Certainly they still seem to be going on about the importance of someone writing the Great American Novel, or the awfulness of having the literature syllabus still overrun by people from the mother countries of Europe, or how some politicians look too European to hold office.

  81. Sir JCass says:

    Since it was the era that broadly preceded our own, the 19th century was crucial in creating the world that we live in. The open-mindedness of many people of the time is beyond question, whether Longfellow with his Kalevala or Lowell with his abolitionism.

    And it’s possible future historians may see more continuity than disruption between the 19th and 20th centuries. In poetry at least, the influence of Browning’s dramatic monologues on T.S. Eliot and Cavafy is glaringly obvious; Auden shared a fascination with Norse poetry and Iceland with William Morris; I think you can still find traces of D.G.Rossetti even in late Pound; the world view of The Waste Land is not so very different to the one expressed in some of Matthew Arnold’s poems or James Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night. Longfellow’s experiments with importing Finnish metre have parallels with the modern adaptation of foreign forms such as haiku.

    There was also a concerted Modernist campaign to put the boot into Victorian literature, perhaps because it was so popular. The most enthusiastic crusaders were not so much the writers themselves as their academic admirers such as F.R. Leavis. I remember reading Donald Davie’s claim that there was simply no good Victorian poetry whatsoever. These figures also gave their immediate critical forebears a good kicking, dismissing them as lightweight belle-lettrists. Yet I remember an anecdote about the allegedly amateurish Edmund Gosse who one day realised he knew nothing about Dutch literature, decided he wanted to find out more and taught himself the language. I can’t see many of his professional descendants doing that today.

  82. J.W. Brewer says:

    To Sir JCass’ point, yeah, sometimes listening to that old Modernist invective against the Victorians is like listening to ones hopelessly uncool / out-of-it / fuddy-duddy parents complain about how uncool / out-of-it / fuddy-duddy their own parents (ones grandparents) are/were. From ones own youthful-yet-jaded POV, one doesn’t feel obligated to pick sides and feels like the stakes being fought over are trivial.

  83. I wasn’t aware they’d stopped. Certainly they still seem to be going on about the importance of someone writing the Great American Novel, or the awfulness of having the literature syllabus still overrun by people from the mother countries of Europe, or how some politicians look too European to hold office.

    But none of that is what’s meant by “mother country issues,” which refers (in this context) specifically to the problem of distinguishing oneself from the mother country while still trying and failing to produce work that can measure up to the work of said mother country. By the 20th century that was no longer a problem. And I have no idea what you mean by “how some politicians look too European to hold office.”

  84. Well, the Russian equivalent – at least in terms of infamy (in his case perhaps not entirely deserved) – is probably Dmitry Khvostov…

    Do these comments allow Cyrillic? [I have replaced Sir J’s transcription with the original Cyrillic — LH]

    Граф Хвостов,
    Поэт, любимый небесами,
    Уж пел бессмертными стихами
    Несчастье невских берегов.

    Which always reminds me of Pope’s:

    “Now night descending, the proud scene was o’er,
    But lived in Settle’s numbers one day more.”

  85. And I have no idea what you mean by “how some politicians look too European to hold office

    John Kerry, widely ridiculed in 2004 for “looking French”.

  86. Was he? I thought he was ridiculed for speaking French. In any case, I’m quite sure that “looking too European to hold office” isn’t actually a thing, since there’s no such thing as “looking European” in a country so largely settled by Europeans.

  87. “‘Our American Poets’” looks like a case of a young nation a little too eager to establish a cultural identity for itself making some poor choices. I’m sure you’ll find a similar story if you look at Australia or Canada.”

    Or any small country in the age of nationalism. I have always felt that Eminescu and Shevchenko are not internationally competitive poets, but they were fêted in their respective countries due to the ease by which they could help form a canon as part of the overall project of creating a modern identity for a nascent state.

    With regard to Poe, I had no idea he even wrote poetry until I spent a lot of time in the former USSR, where he is quite popular as a poetry known, under a name dissonant to native ears, as “Edgar Poe”. Incidentally, it was this love of Poe abroad that Larkin referred to in his infamous “Foreign poetry?!” remarks.

    Interesting here that Longfellow is immediately associated with Hiawatha and praised or decried for that. I tend to think of him more as the poet of Evangeline, which is metrically remarkable too for its English forced into dactylic hexameter.

  88. J.W. Brewer says:

    It is possible that an American (whether or not a politician) might “look European” by dressing in a fashion stereotypically associated with current Europeans and not generally adopted by current Americans of ultimately European ancestry. There definitely are such wardrobe “tells.” You can sometimes pick out European tourists on the subway in NYC before they open their mouths and talk all foreign-sounding (not just because they look confused by their surroundings and uncertain about their stop — that could equally well be tourists from Oklahoma). But I’m not aware of a prominent US politician (including John Kerry) who has fallen prey to that particular hazard.

  89. the former USSR, where he is quite popular as a poetry known, under a name dissonant to native ears, as “Edgar Poe”.

    They doubtless picked that up from the French (“Le tombeau d’Edgar Poe“).

  90. “They doubtless picked that up from the French”

    I don’t think so. If a writer is known in the English-speaking world as <first initial> <middle initial> <last name> Russians will instead refer to him as <full first name> <lastname>. I’ve seen W.H. Auden referred to as “Уистен Оден”, for example.

  91. January First-of-May says:

    I don’t think so. If a writer is known in the English-speaking world as <first initial> <middle initial> <last name> Russians will instead refer to him as <full first name> <lastname>. I’ve seen W.H. Auden referred to as “Уистен Оден”, for example.

    Yes – just from a few examples of writers known by their initials, A.A. Milne is Алан Милн, H.P. Lovecraft is Говард Лавкрафт, H.G. Wells is Герберт Уэллс, J.K. Rowling is Джоан Роулинг, and even P.L. Travers (the author of Mary Poppins) is Памела Трэверс (even though it’s a pseudonym).

    Actually, I highly suspect that it’s not limited to writers – it’s just that writers are a lot more likely to have such a name in the first place (perhaps it gives a slight air of pseudonymity?), and the relatively few non-writers in that category tend to be so obscure that they’re hardly ever referred to in Russian anyway.

  92. Jules Verne uses “Edgar Poe”.

  93. @Christopher Culver: Poe is probably equally famous as a poet and a writer of prose, but not in a symmetric fashion. His most famous work is a poem, “The Raven”; his other verse is quite a bit less read. None of his stories are as famous as “The Raven,” but many of them are still quite well known.

  94. I can’t see many of his professional descendants doing that today.

    To be fair, Gosse was a librarian and a lecturer at Cambridge and probably had a whole lot more spare time than they do.

  95. @ Sir JCass and J. W. Brewer

    Wikipedia has an article on the Fireside Poets which uncannily deals with exactly the issues raised in Metcalf’s post and this blog entry.

    It covers the incredible popularity of the Fireside Poets (which includes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and sometimes Ralph Waldo Emerson), and the way that their “domestic themes and messages of morality presented in conventional poetic forms deeply shaped their era until their decline in popularity at the beginning of the 20th century”.

    “These poets’ general adherence to poetic convention (standard forms, regular meter, and rhymed stanzas) made their body of work particularly suitable for memorization and recitation in school and at home” — which is perhaps why critics and students browned off at their sermonising turned against them.

    The article also notes that Whitman complained that they were too focused on reflecting English styles and themes in American poetry: “Thus far, impress’d by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only — which is a very great mistake”.

    An article well worth reading.

  96. Transliterating “H.G. [Wells]” into Russian would suggest that it is an abbreviated name + patronymic.

  97. J.W. Brewer says:

    One important factor affecting the colonial-cringe/mother-country-issues dynamic is relative scale and how it changed over time. As of 1830 the total population of the UK, including Ireland, was roughly double that of the USA; by 1860 the populations were roughly equal; by 1910 the US population was roughly double that of the UK’s. Australia (and/or Canada and/or NZ) have still not gotten to that point where possession of a larger raw number of Anglophones leads to a certain swaggering cultural confidence that your locally-produced Anglophone literature is not merely marginal/provincial/rustic/imitative compared to that of the metropole.

  98. David Marjanović says:

    Kerry was ridiculed for speaking French. He looked like Abraham Lincoln or Herman Munster depending on who you asked.

    <full first name> <lastname>

    It’s simply very uncommon outside the Anglosphere to go by initials. Even middle initials are rare; people either spell their middle names out or (much more commonly) keep them secret altogether.

  99. It’s very common in Russian, but as JC says that’s name + patronymic.

  100. “I’ve seen W.H. Auden referred to as “Уистен Оден”, for example.”

    Poetic justice at work. Serves him right for having called W. B. Yeats “William Yeats.”

  101. Sir JCass says:

    Wikipedia has an article on the Fireside Poets which uncannily deals with exactly the issues raised in Metcalf’s post and this blog entry.

    There’s also a Wikipedia article on Canada’s “Confederation Poets”:

    “Irrespective of their explicit statements about nationalism, in terms of their aesthetics the Confederation Poets were not Canadian nationalists, but thorough-going cosmopolitans. They did not aim to create a Canadian literature; they aimed at a world class literature created by Canadians.

    “In the late 19th century world class literature meant British literature, which was Victorian by definition. The Confederation Poets were writing in the tradition of late Victorian literature; and like most in that tradition, the most obvious influences on them were the Romantics.”

  102. Transliterating “H.G. [Wells]” into Russian would suggest that it is an abbreviated name + patronymic.

    Also, transliteration into Cyrillic would give rise to further problems: Герберт Джордж Уэллс → Г. Дж. Уэллс?

  103. January First-of-May says:

    Tolkien, conveniently, has two middle names – too many to be confused with a patronymic – which might be why he’s still Дж. Р. Р. Толкиен (or Толкин – the authority on that part is split).

  104. In French he’s “John Tolkien,” which makes it hard to google articles about his son the wicked priest.

  105. @David Marjanović: One exception (unless you count them as Anglospheric) seems to be the Afrikaners, who have a special fondness for initials.

    @January First-of-May: I have two myself, largely because my parents felt obliged to honor great-grandfathers on both sides of the family. (“Lazar” is one of them.)

  106. Poetic justice.

    Not really. W. B. Yeats called himself “William Yeats”, as on the inscription at Thoor Ballylee:

    I, the poet William Yeats,
    With old mill boards and sea-green slates,
    And smithy work from the Gort forge,
    Restored this tower for my wife George.
    And may these characters remain
    When all is ruin once again.

    It’s been ruined three times since then due to abandonment and flooding, but repair work is underway. I saw the inscription myself in 1980.

  107. the wicked priest

    John Tolkien seems to be a very borderline accusee. Only one person came forward, and he is a big fan of JRRT and well aware of the size of the Tolkien estate. Police said at the time that they had found anonymous accusers “in the low single digits”, and while the evidence was credible, they decided not to prosecute because of Tolkien’s age and mental state.

  108. J. K. Rowling is another celebrity who usually keeps her initials in Russian (Дж. К. Роулинг), presumably because her “K.” is a pen–middle-initial, so to speak. I have also seen Гарри Эс Трумен and Дж. Эдгар Гувер. If you can’t see this comment it’s because there’s too much Cyrillic script in it (so I’m adding this sentence to prevent it from disappearing).

  109. January First-of-May says:

    J. K. Rowling is another celebrity who usually keeps her initials in Russian (Дж. К. Роулинг)

    On the book covers, maybe, but she’s also fairly commonly known as Джоан Роулинг.

  110. David Marjanović says:

    the Afrikaners, who have a special fondness for initials

    Oh yes.

  111. It’s simply very uncommon outside the Anglosphere to go by initials. Even middle initials are rare; people either spell their middle names out or (much more commonly) keep them secret altogether.

    Mongolians use initials in official documents. Of course, the initial here is a patronymic and must be followed by the full first name. (surnames are usually omitted since they are not actual surnames, but clan names like in Scotland)

    Now, even with population of 3 million, this creates way too many opportunities to confuse people with the same initial and first name. (there could thousands of B.Gandbolds, for example).

    Out of necessity, this led to creation of two letter initials – Da.Ganbold (as opposed to ordinary D.Ganbold) which stands for Davaadorj Ganbold.

    So if you are William Johnson and your father’s name is Robert, then you will be recorded in Mongolian document as R.William (and Johnson will be omitted altogether)

  112. Southern Indian personal names often initialize the secondary names (village name and father’s name), which precede the given name (e.g. C. V. Raman). In North India (and its diaspora) given names are often initialized (e.g. V. S. Naipaul).

  113. https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/03/news/globalist-the-republicans-barbjohn-kerry-looks-french.html&ved=2ahUKEwiL-7bqxNfYAhXDDMAKHYfyBH8QFjAAegQIERAB&usg=AOvVaw2aJqTmo8FBfk9A0nQw77fC

    One of many, many articles that you find if you Google “John Kerry looks French.”

    On another topic, why did so many 19th century American writers use middle names? It wasn’t because there were lots of other Edgar Poes or Henry Longfellows out there that they could be confused with…

  114. In Poe’s case, Allan is his foster father’s surname; in Longfellow’s case, Wadsworth is his mother’s maiden surname (like Delano in FDR); so they are rather special kinds of middle names.

  115. Middle initials make people trust your authority, according to this study. In fact, the more middle initials, the wiser they think you are. These conclusions must be true because both authors sport middle initials, and Wijnand A. P. van Tilburg even has two of them plus a van. Since I’m entitled to Jerzy (George) as my middle name, perhaps it isn’t too late to start looking at least a little smarter.

    Yours sincerely,

    Piotr J. Gąsiorowski.

  116. It’s simply very uncommon outside the Anglosphere to go by initials.

    E.T.A. Hoffmann is one of the few exceptions I can think of.

  117. Not just writers. Thomas Alva Edison. Alexander Graham Bell. Henry Ward Beecher. William Jennings Bryan. Charles Wilson Peale. James McNeil Whistler. J. Pierpont Morgan.
    I do think Piotr is on to something: these middle names are all surnames. They may have originated as a matter of family pride or status, where the mother’s family (or another family somewhere in the genealogical tree) was as or more prominent than the father’s. Once the upper classes started to use the middle name in full, the middle class may have followed along – because three names seemed more genteel than just two. But eventually the three-name thing started to seem outdated and pretentious. It was a matter of style, no different than hats or mustaches.
    Just a hypothesis –

  118. Hey! What’s wrong with hats and mustaches??

  119. E.T.A. Hoffmann is one of the few exceptions I can think of.

    Also, frequently, C. P. E. Bach (though, unlike E. T. A., C. P. E. is not a pseudonym).

  120. David Marjanović says:

    In fact, the more middle initials, the wiser they think you are.

    At last – the Dutch explained!

    (Not to mention that paper from the 1950s by Theodore H. Eaton, Jr., and Peggy Lou Stewart.)

    C. P. E. Bach

    Never heard of him. (…Her?)

  121. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. (Not a fan of 18th-century music, eh?)

  122. Here is his signature, in Kurrentschrift, to show that this “C. P. E.” abbreviation is not a modern invention.

  123. “Hats and mustaches.”
    Oh dear. I was trying to say that naming practices, like headgear and facial hair, seem to go in and out of style for no apparent reason.

  124. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    So if you are William Johnson and your father’s name is Robert, then you will be recorded in Mongolian document as R.William (and Johnson will be omitted altogether)

    Similar things can happen in Spain and Portugal if your surname happens to be Ingles. When I was a student I went on holiday there with two friends, on of whom was called John Geoffrey Ingles (I’ve changed the Christian names in the interest of privacy, even after half a century). We were puzzled that whereas two of us were recorded in the hotel registers more or less accurately, he always appeared as John Geoffrey. As this was the same in several different places we came to the conclusion that they regarded Inglés as a description of his nationality rather than as a name.

  125. P. D. Q. Bach, the only forgotten son of the Bach family, was unfortunately rediscovered by Peter Schickele, and may yet be forgotten again.

  126. J.W. Brewer says:

    Using the mother’s maiden name as a middle name for (usually) the eldest son is a naming custom that never went away in certain ethnocultural subsets of the US population (although it may be quite rare in other subsets). Indeed, that accounts for my own middle name, and my younger brother’s middle name was a different maiden name that came into the family a bit earlier via a great-grandmother, although I guess his full name seems more ambiguous because that’s one of those surnames that also became common as a free-standing given name.

    This same custom more or less accounts for the middle names of my uncles and male first cousins on my mother’s side of the family (as well as the middle name of my late maternal grandfather and various other now-deceased male relations of), but not on my father’s side of the family. If a family uses the same Christian name generation after generation the predictable variation of the middle name driven by this custom is a useful way to disambiguate.

    This is btw one of several good reasons why “what’s your mother’s maiden name” is not a particularly high-security “security question”; no one would think of using “what’s your middle name” for that function, would they?

  127. Oh dear. I was trying to say that naming practices, like headgear and facial hair, seem to go in and out of style for no apparent reason.

    I know, I was just busting your chops!

    Using the mother’s maiden name as a middle name for (usually) the eldest son is a naming custom that never went away in certain ethnocultural subsets of the US population

    Case in point: I, an eldest son, have my mother’s maiden name as my middle name. And yes, that is a stupid security question.

  128. And Alexander Bell begot Alexander Melville Bell, who begot Alexander Graham Bell, who was given his middle name for his eleventh birthday.

  129. List of presidents of the University of Chicago, a surprising number of whom used all three names or an MI. The current president is not listed there: he is Robert H. Zimmer.

    2013 LH discussion of naming practices including middle names.

  130. Alexander Graham Bell, who was given his middle name for his eleventh birthday.

    “Gee, thanks, Pop, but I really wanted a capacitor!”

  131. Trond Engen says:

    In Norway it’s become common that (all) children are given their mother’s maiden name as a middle name, to the point where many, parents included, are confused about what constitutes the surname, I know this from my capacity as maintainer of membership lists, where I as often as not get [mother’s surname] [father’s surname] in the surname slot on the registration form. It’s such a common misconception that I expect that law will eventually follow.

  132. So the reverse of the Hispanic situation, then.

  133. Michael Hendry says:

    The apparent European resistance to using initials in names helps explain why a couple of Spanish publishers offer translations of the “The Gift of the Magi” and other short stories by William Sidney Porter that give the author’s name (that is, his pseudonym) as O’Henry instead of O. Henry on the cover. I’ve deleted the link which was putting me in moderation, but if you want to see for yourself, just go to Amazon dot ES, search for ‘Cuentos de Nueva York’, and scroll down to the bright yellow one with a big K on the cover. (I have no idea what the K stands for.)
    Hmm. Still in moderation. Hope this appears some day.

  134. Trond Engen says:

    Yes. But counter to the Hispanic situation, it’s the final name that goes as surname for offical (and alpabetical) purposes. At least for now.

    And at the same time, it’s increasingly common to treat mother’s and father’s names as equal candidates for official surname, and parents may decide on one or the other for all sorts of reasons — because one name is rarer than the other, or one parent is more attached to the name, or the expectations are stronger on one side, or after tossing coins, or whatever. I’ve also seen [mother’s maiden name] [father’s mother’s maiden name] and similar.

  135. I’m another American eldest son with my mother’s maiden name for a middle name, so the custom was still alive in 1960s North Carolina. I went through a period when I used my full middle name, but mostly I’ve used the initial, and I don’t even do that as much anymore.

  136. I’ve undergone the same evolution, but I’ve progressed to using a nickname instead of the full first name except on official forms and the like.

  137. I yield to no one in my admiration for my grandfather or his name, but I refuse to lumber through life carrying “John Woldemar Cowan” on my back. I do use this name on my books, though, to prevent Enraged Librarians Everywhere from making my sleep hell. My Wikipedia article (the existence of which is embarrassing) is titled “John W. Cowan”.

  138. David Marjanović says:

    Not a fan of 18th-century music, eh?

    Passively so – I like it, but I do nothing to seek it out. (Or to seek out any other kind of music.) I was dimly aware that J. S. had sons that also became composers, but that’s all.

  139. Michael Hendry says:

    C.P.E. Bach is an excellent composer. A few even think him better than his father, J.S. Kingsley Amis claimed to like to annoy people by referring to J.S. as “you know, Bach’s father”.
    C.P.E. was very much a part of the transition from Baroque to Classical. My favorite of his works is the double concerto for harpsichord, fortepiano, and orchestra. The harpsichord dominates the first movement, the two soloists trade phrases back and forth in the slow movement, and the fortepiano wins in the end.

  140. Who is this DavidPKendal?

  141. “O’Henry” is a fairly common mistake in English too, though I’ve never seen it on a book cover.

  142. C.P.E. Bach is an excellent composer.

    He is indeed! Preferring him to his father is a tad eccentric, but I love the Kingsley Amis story.

  143. David P. Kendal is the programmer who was responsible for providing the Web interface to Green’s Dictionary of Slang. He’s also an up-and-coming historical linguist. Unsurprisingly, we hang out on some of the same IRC channels on Freenet, where he is dpk.

    He also likes trains. I only met him FTF once, here in New York. My grandson and I (who like trains too) picked him up at Penn Station, fed him lunch (no easy matter, the area around Penn Station is a culinary wasteland, so we walked down into the florist district), and took him by subway and AirTrain light rail to JFK. I didn’t realize the subway would be SRO at that hour on Saturday afternoon, but it was.

    But why do you ask, Man of the Cloak-like Garment?

  144. He is the one who started your Wikipedia page.

  145. Despite your demurral (“I don’t think I’m actually Wikipedia-notable”).

  146. I’m not a deletionist, and it’s not for me to meddle with my page.

  147. Maybe it’s time to start Wikipedia for unnotable people.

    Template for a typical article – name, middle name, nickname, surname, when and where born, family, occupation, where lived or lives currently and the standard last sentence – “not notable for anything”.

  148. IRC, dpk, FTF, JFK, SRO

    Is this an occupational hazard?

  149. @John Cowan:

    W. B. Yeats called himself “William Yeats”, as on the inscription at Thoor Ballylee…

    Yes – it is the last of the fifteen poems in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, published in 1921. It would also work as a prologue to Yeats’ next collection, The Tower (1928). Still, “the poet William Yeats” is no evidence he preferred to be addressed in this way. As R. F. (“Roy”) Foster explains in the preface to his W.B. Yeats: A Life, Book 1:

    …I have adopted this acronym [WBY] to refer to a man who hated his first name, ‘Willie’… Even his family referred to him as ‘WB’, and still do.

    Perhaps “George” required “William” rather than “W. B.” Or, perhaps, he forced “William” on himself to atone for renaming his young wife “George” from “Georgie.”

  150. Poets have done worse things for the sake of rhyme and metre.

  151. Bathrobe: No, it’s that even though I am back to nine-fingered typing, it still hurts. (It hurts even if I don’t type, but whatever.) Right now I’ll take shortcuts if I can, and leave the rest of you to ask Dr. Google.

  152. ktschwarz says:

    @Bathrobe eenamost enuf brass a bobbin up and down on his shoulders

    Eenamost! I’ve only ever encountered that word in Misty of Chincoteague, so a single word summons up a whole book for me. (That’s a major classic for horse-crazy little American girls, which I get the feeling no one else here ever was. It takes place in coastal Virginia in the 1940’s.) Speaking of overturning of literary tastes, I was coincidentally just reading a librarians’ blog covering Newbery Medals (for American children’s literature) of the 1920’s-1950’s, almost all of which are forgotten now except by “nerdbery” completists. The honors back then usually went to white authors writing for white children about exotic lands and times. It makes me wish the authors of the day had spoken from their own place and time; we’d find them more interesting today if they had. I think Misty of Chincoteague (1947) is one of the oldest Newbery books that can still find readers, second only to the Little House series (1930’s).

    @Bathrobe again: Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul

    I learned that from children’s literature, too: it’s a plot element in The Diamond in the Window (1962) by Jane Langton, who undoubtedly would have been taught the Fireside Poets in school. This is a story about an eccentric New England family obsessed with 19th-century literature; I re-read it as an adult and it still had its charm, but I’m not confident it would connect with a kid today.

    Middle names: my family is loaded with middle names that were maiden names of mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, both for boys and girls. My middle name was great-grandmother’s middle name, and her grandfather’s middle name before that.

    (nb: previously posting as ‘stedak’, don’t want to do a fake name anymore)

  153. That’s a major classic for horse-crazy little American girls, which I get the feeling no one else here ever was.

    I asked my wife, who was once a horse-crazy little American girl, “Did you ever read Misty of Chincoteague?” and she said “I sure did — it’s a wonderful book!” So there you go: evaluation confirmed.

  154. David Eddyshaw says:

    horse-crazy little American girls, which I get the feeling no one else here ever was

    Hmph. Hurtful stereotyping …

  155. Well, if you were a horse-crazy little American girl, just say so — we won’t judge you.

  156. @Trond

    My name is like that. My mother’s family name (which by the way is Dainichi) is my middle name, or – as per my Danish passport – my second given name.

    Once I applied for an ESTA to go to Guam. The application had a field called “middle initial”, in which I put “D”. But at the boarding gate at the airport I was told my ESTA was invalid because, as per my passport, I didn’t have a middle name, but two given names. So at the very last minute I had to find a computer connected to the internet and get a new ESTA in which Dainichi was properly put under my first name. (I think I had to append it to my first given name for it to work, no space)

    Anyway, so I’m guessing American citizens actually have a middle name (initial??) field in their passports?

  157. @dainichi: I cannot swear that the format has not changed, but I know that my first United States passport (issued 1993) had just two sections for my name: one for the surname, and the other for any and all given names.

  158. My mother’s family name (which by the way is Dainichi

    Great day?

  159. Trond Engen says:

    dainichi: My name is like that. My mother’s family name (which by the way is Dainichi) is my middle name, or – as per my Danish passport – my second given name.

    I have the impression that Danish naming conventions are similar to the Norwegian but more consistent, but I didn’t want to profess on the subject.

  160. I don’t think there are any Danish naming conventions that are strongly adhered to anymore, it’s more on the order of habits — but going back a few generations things were very conventional and it’s easy to recognize a ‘proper’ Danish name. Basically you got your father’s surname and a first name off the list from the Ministry of Church Affairs.

    The law, on the other hand, changes every few years, but mostly in details like which surnames are protected and which of your ancestors’ names you can adopt as your surname even though you don’t have permission from existing bearers. There was a large change back in the seventies that did away with legal middle names and changed other stuff that I used to know about.

  161. I happen to have a couple of my late father’s passports close at hand. The one issued in 1948 has, on p. 2, “…give all lawful aid and protection to _____________ a citizen of the United States.” The blank is filled in with a typed JOSEPH CURTIS DODSON. The 1983 one has:
    Surname/nom
    DODSON
    Given names/Prénoms
    JOSEPH CURTIS

    So no, no dedicated “middle name” field.

  162. Why French?

  163. International language of diplomacy.

  164. Why French?
    Because it used to be the language of diplomacy and generally of international relations?

  165. J.W. Brewer says:

    US Passports are now legended trilingually (English/French/Spanish) as this example shows: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_passport#/media/File:Pasaporte-eua.jpg. So your first+middle name(s) go into a slot legended “Given names/Prénoms/Nombres.” I think what fills in the blanks may be English-only, however, in the sense of excluding diacritics used in French/Spanish/anything else.

  166. J.W. Brewer says:

    FWIW, the current international passport standards as administered by the International Civil Aviation Organization (which makes some sense when you think about it …) recommend translating important info into any one of English/French/Spanish if the official/national language of the jurisdiction issuing the passport is not one of those three. I don’t know how many countries go above and beyond that minimum requirement the way the U.S. does. (In other words, the US is currently less Anglophonocentric in this area than it could get away with being.)

  167. Trond Engen says:

    I see that my current (issued 2015) Norwegian passport is trilingual in Bokmål, Nynorsk, and English. I thought it would be a couple more.

  168. (English/French/Spanish)

    Those were the three languages of the League of Nations too. Spanish didn’t have the diplomatic cachet of French, but I think it was included just on the strength of so many member states using it.

  169. J.W. Brewer says:

    Spanish seems an odd choice (other than on political grounds) just because with a few notable exceptions (including the U.S.) it does not tend to be one of the better-known foreign languages in countries where it is *not* the predominant language. When delegates from countries whose native languages are not widely understood abroad needed to talk to one another in the hallway at League of Nations HQ in a mutually comprehended L2 back in the day I doubt Spanish was a common choice and I doubt it was even in third place behind English/French. There were also of course political reasons associated with the circumstances of the foundation of the League of Nations why no special status was given to German even though it was especially in those days probably much more widely understood (outside of its set of “home” countries) than Spanish as an L2.

  170. Dainichi

    Great day?

    Mahāvairocana?

  171. Spanish seems an odd choice (other than on political grounds) just because with a few notable exceptions (including the U.S.) it does not tend to be one of the better-known foreign languages in countries where it is *not* the predominant language. When delegates from countries whose native languages are not widely understood abroad needed to talk to one another in the hallway at League of Nations HQ in a mutually comprehended L2 back in the day I doubt Spanish was a common choice and I doubt it was even in third place behind English/French.
    As during that period, much of the globe outside of Europe and the Americas consisted of colonies, I assume one reason Spanish was given such a prominent place is that the share of countries with Spanish as official languages among the total of the sovereign nations was nuch higher than today. (And Spanish is still one of the offical UN languages, of course).

  172. I think the purpose of Spanish on U.S. passports is to make things easier for (what is assumed to be) monoglot officialdom in hispanophone New World countries.

  173. J.W. Brewer says:

    @Hans. Sure, and it may be that “official language” in the particular context was more focused on “which languages will official League documents be published in” than “which languages will be most practically useful for conducting discussions in which both Ethiopians and Finns will be participating.”

  174. J.W. Brewer says:

    To go back to where we began, I was noticing that of the six “Our American Poets” the one whose middle name sounded *least* like a mother’s maiden name was R.W. Emerson, since in the current U.S. we tend to think of “Waldo” more as a first name (albeit a goofy/figure-of-fun one) than a surname. But although the poet’s mother’s maiden name was Haskins, his middle name seems to have come from a great-great-grandmother who was born Rebecca Waldo. Her father had brought the surname across the ocean to the Massachusetts Bay colony from Wiltshire.

    As to the other five’s middle names, Russell and Wendell both made the transition from surname to given name for boys and were in reasonably common use for most of the 20th century in the US (Russell always more common than Wendell, which peaked in 1940 presumably due to that year’s Republican nominee for President). They have both declined in favor in more recent decades, but Cullen has arisen from obscurity and come into a modest vogue beginning in the 1980’s. Greenleaf and Wadsworth have yet to have their moment as given names, however.

  175. J.W. Brewer says:

    According to a magazine article from the late 1870’s I found via google books, btw, the Massachusetts Waldos traditionally claimed (although I am dubious about the historical accuracy of the claim!) to be distantly but directly descended from the 12th century religious figure Peter Waldo, who gave his name (or, at least, whose name was given to…) to the Waldensians. Given that the Waldensians were often understood by later generations (whether or not accurately) as Protestants avant la lettre, that could have given that particular name some additional cachet or resonance and explain why it rather than the maiden name of a different great-great-grandmother was picked off the family tree when a middle name was needed.

  176. David Marjanović says:

    In EU passports, all fields are labeled in the national language(s) and English and have a number. Two pages later the numbers lead to translations in all other official languages of the EU.

    Once I applied for an ESTA to go to Guam. The application had a field called “middle initial”, in which I put “D”. But at the boarding gate at the airport I was told my ESTA was invalid because, as per my passport, I didn’t have a middle name, but two given names. So at the very last minute I had to find a computer connected to the internet and get a new ESTA in which Dainichi was properly put under my first name. (I think I had to append it to my first given name for it to work, no space)

    By that standard nobody in mainland Europe (and I don’t know about the UK or Ireland) has a middle name…

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