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We are honored to have as today’s guest bloggers Don and Alleen Nilsen, recent co-chairmen of the prestigious American Name Society, writing about the clever use of literary allusions in the thirteen Lemony Snicket books.

As long-distance grandparents, we are constantly on the lookout for books that we can enjoy listening to on CDs while we commute to work and can then forward to our children to enjoy with their children while they make their own commutes.  Daniel Handler’s thirteen Lemony Snicket books have been the all-time winners in this category, and one of the reasons is Handler’s skill in recycling the names of literary or pop culture figures to make playful allusions.

Humor scholars use the term Wabbit literacy (from “that wascally wabbit” in the Bugs Bunny cartoons) to describe the flip-flop process in which children become acquainted with the names of classical figures through pop culture allusions prior to meeting the  same names in “the original.”  The Lemony Snicket books are a superb illustration of this process as children meet Dr. Georgina Orwell, an eye doctor who hangs an ever-watchful eye over her door; Uncle Monty, who as a herpetologist cares for a huge python; a villainous couple named Esmé and Jerome Squalor who live at 667 Dark Avenue, c.f. J. D. Salinger‘s short story “To Esmé with Love and Squalor,” and Mr. Poe, who has a son named Edgar and is the appointed guardian of the children’s inheritance which is placed in the Mulctuary Money Management Bank.

One of his fullest allusions is to the author Herman Melville.   In The Wide Window, Aunt Josephine‘s house is destroyed by Hurricane Herman; in The Grim Grotto, the orphans are brought aboard a submarine named The Queequeg; and in The Austere Academy, half the students play on the Herman Melville team while the other half play on the Edgar A. Guest team.  Our favorite dark allusion occurs in The Miserable Mill, where poor Phil gets his leg mangled in a stamping machine and another employee gives him a coupon offering “fifty percent off a cast at the Ahab Memorial Hospital.”

Handler’s allusions are always made at a slant so that readers can move on with the story whether or not they understand the allusion.  Readers can choose how deeply they want to dig into Handler’s names.  For example, his naming of a couple Isadora and Duncan Quagmire, reminded us of the bizarre story of Isadora Duncan, a pop culture figure of the roaring twenties who was tragically killed when her long, fashionable scarf got caught in the spokes of the open-air roadster in which she was riding.   In a similar way, his pairing of the names of the two orphans, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire, made us think of the most sensational news story of the 1980s about Claus and Sunny von Bulow.   Because diabetes runs in our family, we had paid extra attention to this gruesome story in which Claus was accused of injecting his wealthy, diabetic wife with an overdose of insulin.  Because of this almost subconscious connection in our minds, the line probably meant more to us than to some readers when Klaus says in a melodramatic moment in The Hostile Hospital, “It doesn’t take courage to kill someone. . . It takes a severe lack of moral stamina.”

With such allusions as these, we wondered if Handler might be hinting to his readers that the bizarre and melodramatic twists and turns of his plot were really not so far off from real life.

Don and Alleen Nilsen are Professors of English at Arizona State University and the authors of a fascinating book that further explores this subject, Names and Naming in Young Adult Literature, (The Scarecrow Press, 2007).

We’re wondering…did you have any favorite storybook characters that affected your naming preferences–or even the name you chose for your child?

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