Major American Renaissance Writers Who Changed Their Names

by Damion Searls

Ralph Emerson: At eighteen decided to go by his middle name, Waldo.

Sarah Fuller: At nine decided to go by her middle name, Margaret.

David Henry Thoreau: At twenty graduated college, moved home to Concord, started keeping a journal, and began to call himself Henry David. Never changed his name legally or officially and many people in Concord continued to call him David Henry, Thoreau stubbornly correcting them.

James Cooper: Mother Elizabeth née Fenimore asked him to adopt the name Fenimore because there were no men of her family to continue it. He petitioned the legislature to change his name to James Cooper Fenimore, which was rejected; they allowed the change to “James Fenimore Cooper.”

Edgar Poe: After age two, when his mother died of consumption after his father abandoned the family, was raised by foster parents John and Frances Allan in Virginia and England. John later disowned him. Enlisted in the army under the name Edgar A. Perry; published his first book as by “A Bostonian.”

Nathaniel Hathorne: Added the “w” to return to the old English spelling, and to distance himself from his great-great-grandfather John Hathorne, a hanging judge at the Salem witch trials.

Herman Melvill: When father Allan Melvill, importer of French fashions and fantasizer of noble ancestry, died bankrupt and deranged, Allan’s widow Maria née Gansevoort and oldest son Gansevoort added the “e” to disclaim Allan’s fate and imply an aristocratic background. Herman wrote and published under this fictional name written by his mother and brother.

Walter Whitman, Jr.: Going for the working-class-hero thing. “Walt” is named for the first time within Leaves of Grass: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, / Disorderly fleshy and sensual…”—unless we count the author photo (i.e., etching) that shows Walt with no jacket or tie, his shirt partly unbuttoned, hand on hip, coming on.

Frederick Bailey: Bailey his mother’s name; father unknown. Adopted several fake names to throw pursuers off his track; took the name Douglass after Walter Scott’s hero from The Lady of the Lake: the hunted outlaw of an exiled race.

Harriet Beecher: Married Calvin Ellis Stowe.

MAJOR AMERICAN RENAISSANCE WRITERS
WHO DID NOT CHANGE THEIR NAMES

Emily Dickinson: But did say she was nobody! Who are you?

Damion Searls is a writer and translator from German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch. His most recent books include What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going (stories, Dalkey Archive Press) and an abridged edition of Thoreau’s Journal (NYRB Classics). More info and excerpts at damionsearls.com.

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