03 April 2017

Titles in Literature

In this next installment of the origins of some book titles, we look at three classic pieces of literature.

Look Homeward, Angel is Thomas Wolfe's first novel.

Thomas' father, William Oliver Wolfe, use an angel statue as a porch advertisement at the family monument shop in Asheville, North Carolina. He sold the statue to a family who placed it in the Hendersonville Oakdale Cemetery. That statue, combined with a line from John Milton's poem "Lycidas" gave him his title.

"Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth:
And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth."

Wolfe's original title was The Building of a Wall, which he later changed to O Lost.  Good choice.


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the play by Edward Albee (and later a film) explained how he found his title in the bathroom of a saloon in Greenwich Village in 1954.

“I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf... who’s afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.”




John Steinbeck’s working title for a short novel was Something That Happened. But he changed his mind after reading Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse,” and latching onto the lines “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley” (“The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry”). The new title certainly gives us more about what Of Mice and Men is about.



James Joyce's Ulysses is one of those books you might be assigned to read, and it is on that list of "books you should read." And it is rarely read all the way through by most people who start it.

Books of 800 pages intimidated me as an English major and still do today. I struggle through it and wrote a paper about it. these many decades later, I recall very little of it. I do recall thinking "Why title it Ulysses?’" The name shows up a few times (once it is Ulysses Grant) but it hardly seems relevant.

Of course, I knew it might have something to do with that earlier un-Latinised Ulysses, Odysseus, the hero of Homer's Odyssey. I needed a professor to reveal that Joyce had used an intricate (and personal) allegory of the Odyssey to build his book in 18 episodes. Each had its own style and he gave them each an Odyssean name. But he didn't give readers the names in the text. The episodes are ‘Telemachus’, ‘Nestor’, ‘Proteus’, ‘Calypso’, ‘Lotus Eaters’ etc.  Joyce's Molly Bloom is like Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus is like Telemachus.

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