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Issue #41, Spring 2011

Sidebar: On the Perils of Naming Characters

Robert Atwan

Sidebar: On the Perils of Naming Characters

When The Atlantic Monthly published “Death of a Pig” in January 1948—White had been invited to contribute to the magazine’s 90th-anniversary issue—the piece, which then appeared in four numbered parts, also contained the real names of some of the characters involved. The neighbor White first calls for advice about the sick pig is Charles Henderson, a lobster fisherman who appears occasionally as “Mr. Dameron” in White’s essays for Harper’s (later collected in “One Man’s Meat”). The gravedigger is Howard, not “Lennie.” The young veterinarian, “McFarland,” who visits the farm and assures White there is no cause to fear contagion from erysipelas is identified as McDonald.

The use of real names caused White some local grief. A Maine paper, The Ellsworth American, noticed the essay and on Jan. 7, 1948, printed an article suggesting White had been critical of the local veterinarian, E.J. McDonald. A week later, White wrote McDonald a letter of apology, saying he had “started out using fictitious names, instead of real ones, but my experience with the use of fictitious names in connection with real events is that the populace manages to hang the wrong name on the wrong character, and that, too, makes for bad feelings and misunderstanding.” He assured McDonald he was not “trying to take a quick punch at veterinary medicine in Hancock County.”

Still, when White included “Death of a Pig” in “The Second Tree from the Corner” in 1954, he restored the fictitious names.

Author Bio

Robert Atwan

Robert Atwan is the founder and series editor of “The Best American Essays.” He also publishes America Now: Short Readings from... read more

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