Normal Bean: A Case Of Identity

April 8, 2011

 

Normal Bean:  A Case Of Identity

by

R.E. Prindle

Originally published in the Summer 20o2

Issue of the Burroughs Bulletin

A certain selection and direction must be used in producing a realistic effect and this is wanting…when more stress is laid perhaps upon the platitudes…than upon the details, which to an observer contain the vital essence of the whole matter.

–  Arthur Conan Doyle

          What’s in a name?

     A rose might smell as sweet by any other name but would it be as desirable if it were called a Smudge Pot?  There is in a name what there is not in a scent. Sherlock Holmes by Artie Doyle?  Allan Quatermain by Hank  Haggard? The island of Dr. Moreau by Herb Wells?  Or, even the The Island of Sid Jones by Herbie Wells?

     No, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lends a dignity to the fantasy of Sherlock Holmes.  Even Arthur Doyle is not enough.  It’s the ‘Conan’ that makes it, and later the ‘Sir’ that adds final legitimization.

     Even Henry Haggard is pale stuff compared to H. Rider Haggard.  How about Herb Wells? George Wells?  Herbert George Wells?  Nah.  ‘H.G.’, although more anonymous, carries weight, even though he never won the recognition of society by gaining a Sir.

     The Island Of Dr. Moreau?  Sinister.  The Island Of Sid Jones? Not only banal but laughable.  The Abominable Dr. Phibes, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari.  There is something in the betrayal of the calling of doctor that raises the short hairs.  What’s a good book without a good title?  Gone with the wind.

     A good pseudonym is important.  I don’t know how disappointed ERB was when his editor changed the l to an n and attributed the story to Norman Bean but that one small detail may have changed literary history.

     There is a playful humorous promise in the pseudonym Normal Bean but, at the same time, it promises a certain clownishness which, in the end. would have turned Burroughs’ precarious premises into burlesque.

      Perhaps the editor said to himself:  ‘Oh, he made a typo; it should be Norman not Normal.’  Or perhaps he said; ‘Nah, that’s just stupid; I’m changing it to Norman.’ Whatever the case, it prevented Burroughs from using the pseudonym again.  Who wants to be known as Norman Bean. (My apologies to the lost list of Norman Beans on the internet.  I didn’t have a computer when I wrote this.)

     His joke over, he wisely chose a more somber approach along the modes of H. Rider, Arthur Conan or H.G.  Altough he professed to dislike the name of Edgar, it was, after all, the first name of his idol, Eddie Poe.  Ed Poe also wisely went for dignity by calling himself Edgar Allan Poe.  Ed Burroughs, whose mother or father had given him very nearly a perfect literary middle name,chose to use it in Edgar Rice Burroughs.

     Now there’s a nice wedding of names.  There’s magic in the Rice.  Edgar James or Edgar William Burroughs?  I don’t think so.  But Edgar Rice?  That’s the ticket.

     The dignity of the name Edgar Rice Burroughs also balanced off the daring imaginative nature of the literary creation of his life, Tarzan.  It had the necessary weight to counterbalance the impossibility of Tarzan, or the spectacular flights of fancy of the Moons of Mars, or the timelessness of Pellucidar.  The name added credulity to his themes and variations:  evolution, dinosaurs, the Theory of Relativity, Marxism, Freudianism and speculative science, among others.

     Burroughs might have been distressed when he picked up his copy of The All Story to see his novel attributed to plain old Norman, but his editor may very well have made his reputation down to today and into the foreseeable future.  Somehow I can’t envision Buroughs’ oeuvre surviving as well under the name of Norman Bean.

     On the other hand, if an editor had changed M. Francois Marie Arouet back from the pseudonym Voltaire, the writer would probably be unknown today.

Finis

     The above was written in response to my editor, George McWhorter, deciding on his own that I didn’t need a pseudonym.  George is a very good guy and I’m within a decade or two of forgiving him.  In recognition of his guilt George appended the following postscript to my essay.

An Editorial Postscript

       “Rice” was a family name traced through the Burroughs family tree to Dean Edmund Rice who was born in England in 1594 and settled in the American colonies in 1639 at Sudbury,Massachusetts.  Six generations later, his descendent, Mary Rice, Married Abner Tyler Burroughs and became ERB’s grandmother.

     Surnames seem to carry more dignity and historic recognition than Christian names, probably because they are less used today and are patently more interesting.  Familiar middle names such as Makepeace, Wadsworth, Fenimore and Orne, make fine literary middle names, and Rice fits right into the pattern.  Could this be why the British are fond of omitting the Christian names when citing famous authors such as ‘Bernard Shaw’ and ‘Rice Burroughs?’  Only this year (2002), a British paperback was published referring to ‘Rice Burroughs’.  The middle name is the clincher.

     Burroughs enjoyed creating fictional names and often spoke them out loud, with variations, before deciding which name sounded best for his purposes.  ‘Vomer’ comes to mind; it’s a name he gave to his Myposan fish-man in Escape on Venus, and I was delighted to see it listed in a standard dictionary as the name of the common moon fish.

    ‘Anoroc’ is also an interesting island name in At The Earth’s Core, but the casual reader probably wouldn’t recognize it as the name of ERB’s typewriter spelled backward.  Burroughs had fun spelling words backwords.  He created ‘sak’ to mean ‘jump’ on Mars…and then spelled it backwards to mean the same thing in his Ape-English Dictionary: ‘kas.’  The ‘O-220’ which carried Tazan and Jason Gridley to Pellucidar happens to have been ERB’s phone number, Owensmouth 220.  He liked to create gutteral names for his villains (Skruk), soft palatal names for his ladies (Dejah), and noble sounding names for his heroes (Valthor).

     The sum total of a man’s accomplishments validates and immortalizes his name.  It becomes a unique label.  Shakespeare was right on target when he wrote:  ‘That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.’  If Burroughs had kept the name Norman Bean after his first story was published, I would probably regard it today with reverence.  But he didn’t and his three names are a unique symbol of many happy hours of reading his imaginative tales.  I’m glad he dropped the Bean.    …Ye Editor.

     Thank you for publishing me, George,  but I think I have the better idea of who I am. 

2 Responses to “Normal Bean: A Case Of Identity”

  1. Ronald Ryan Says:

    I am familiar with much of the above, having read much about E. R. B. in the past. I know about the name change fron Normal to Norman but understand that “Normal” was supposed to indicate that Edgar was using it to indicate that he was “Normal”. I am also aware fo the “Anorac” and the O220.
    I too sometimes wonder if Burroughs would be as popular with a different name, I can only speak for myself when I sat that the name Edgar Rice Burriughs sort of rolls off ones tougue much more easlier than Norman Bean.

  2. reprindle Says:

    Ronald: Sure, someone with a name like Edgar Rice Burroughs is entitled to write stuff like Tarzan but it’s the Rice that really does it.

    To put Normal Bean into context, it wasn’t a name he invented for Princess Of Mars. He had already begun using it for humerous submissions to Chicago newspapers hence more appropriate.

    The play on Normal and Bean, of course, is in the sense of referring to one’s head as ‘the old bean’, ‘the melon’ or a gourd as in being out of one’s gourd. So as a writer of goofy humorous poems and pieces for the press Normal Bean was a good joke. Also, ERB’s behavior was affected by the bashing he took in Toronto in 1899 so that he was regarded as somewhat peculiar or ‘off his bean’ so the Normal may have been compensatory.

    ERB was a great admirer of the fabulous Chicago tradition of light humorists such as Eugene Field and George Ade. He wanted to be part of that tradition so he wrote humorous poems and pieces for the press beginning slightly before he wrote Princess.

    He was probably fortunate the editor edited his pseudonym from Normal to Norman Bean. While a good joke for newspaper banter Normal Bean wouldn’t have been much for a serious or, at least, major writer. So his editor did him a favor in forcing to him to use his own name.

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