Monday, November 19, 2012
Edgar Allan Poe on America’s Name
[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on November 9, 2008 ]
Among the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the "Marginalia" are all but forgotten. These straightforward non-fiction prose pieces present Poe's thoughts on various books that he has read. The "Marginalia" are much more readable than the sketches in his "Literati," mostly commentary on contemporary authors long ago forgotten. Not infrequently, the "Marginalia" address questions that are still unanswered today.
One of the latter is what should be the name of the United States of America. While the United States of Mexico refers to Mexico, and the United States of Brazil to Brazil, does it make sense to say that the United States of America refers to America? Poe points out that "America" refers to the entirety of the Western Hemisphere. It lacks specificity, although most of us sensed that we knew to what Sarah Palin referred when she expressed her delight in visiting the "pro-America" areas of the USA. For Palin, "America" is something much less in its extent than the USA, a kind of counter-expression to "America" as an entire hemisphere.
What is fascinating today is Poe's election of Appalachia as a name for the USA. Appalachia has accrued all sorts of negative connotations since Poe wrote more than 160 years ago. Today it is the region of the USA which proved to be most opposed to the election of Barack Obama. It is also the one region which is ridiculed in the mass media. Does anyone still recall the name of the young woman who was blamed for the irregularities which occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in USA-occupied Iraq? She was characterized as a trailer-dweller from Appalachia.
The following is Poe's argument for Appalachia as the true name of the USA:
It is a thousand pities that the puny witticisms of a few professional objectors should have power to prevent, even for a year, the adoption of a name for our country. At present we have, clearly, none. There should be no hesitation about "Appalachia." In the first place, it is distinctive. "America"* is not, and can never be made so. We may legislate as much as we please, and assume for our country whatever name we think right--but to us it will be no name, to any purpose for which a name is needed, unless we can take it away from the regions which employ it at present. South America is "America," and will insist upon remaining so. In the second place, "Appalachia" is indigenous, springing from one of the most magnificent and distinctive features of the country itself. Thirdly, in employing this word we do honor to the Aborigines, whom, hitherto, we have at all points unmercifully despoiled, assassinated and dishonored. Fourthly, the name is the suggestion of, perhaps, the most deservedly eminent among all the pioneers of American literature. It is but just that Mr. Irving should name the land for which, in letters, he first established a name. The last, and by far the most truly important consideration of all, however, is the music of"Appalachia" itself; nothing could be more sonorous, more liquid, or of fuller volume, while its length is just sufficient for dignity. How the guttural "Alleghania" could ever have been preferred for a moment is difficult to conceive. I yet hope to find "Appalachia" assumed.
* Mr. Field, in a meeting of "The New York Historical Society," proposed that we take the name of "America," and bestow "Columbia" upon the continent.