Cover To Cover is the anchor program for GPB’s literary coverage. Cover To Cover features a collection of distinctive Southern voices interviewing Georgia writers, Southern writers, and writers dealing with the South. The GPB Southern Lit Cadre will provide you with a varied, weekly glimpse at fiction, non-fiction, history, poetry, and even the occasional ‘old school’ nod to Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner.

Monday, July 23, 2007

What's In a Name?

As you can imagine, with a name like St.John my life has at times been tough (that's an example of litotes). Constantly having to explain that it's pronounced [SIN-jun] not "Saint John" at places like Starbucks, where they apparently can only deliver your drink if it has your name on it, can be draining, humiliating, annoying etc.

St.John as a name can be linguistically compared to Sinclair. Both are vestiges of the French language. Sinclair is a corruption, both orthographically and phonetically, of the French "St. Clair," pronounced [SAN-clair] which passed into English at "Sinclair," the [SIN] being an anglicized equivalent of the French [SAN].

For St.John the process was essentially the same, although the orthography was anglicized while phonetically the name remained closer to the French. Thus, French "Saint Jean" [SAN-zhon] became [SIN-jun] phonetically while adopting a thoroughly anglicized orthography.

Everybody got that? Good. Test on Friday!

From the day I learned that there is a character in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre called St.John Rivers (pictured above from the BBC/WGBH Masterpiece Theatre production of Jane Eyre), I liked to think that I had a literary pedigree. However, upon reading Miss Bronte's book, I came to discover that Mr. Rivers is perhaps not someone I would want to claim as a namesake. The Jane Eyre edition of Cliffs Notes describes St.John Rivers like this:

While Rochester is a prototype of the fiery, passionate man, St. John Rivers is his opposite: cold, hard-hearted, and repressed. His handsome appearance indicates moral and intellectual superiority—he has “a straight, classic nose; quite an Athenian mouth and chin”—and contrasts with Rochester’s more rugged features. Although St. John initially appears perfect, Jane soon detects a restlessness or hardness under his seemingly placid features; he is “no longer flesh, but marble” and his heart seems made of “stone or metal.”
Anyone who knows me knows that this is certainly not me (I hope!).

Truth to tell, my parents named me St.John because they couldn't name me Mark.

When they were considering names for their first born, and this was back in the days before ultrasound scans could let you know if you were having a boy or a girl, my parents decided they wanted to give their children names that couldn't be shortened. Their rationale was that they were choosing particular names because they liked those names and not any diminutives thereof. So, James, Richard, David, Peter, Samuel, Thomas, Steven, all the usual names, were out.

My parents liked the name Mark, but made the mistake of mentioning it as a possible choice were I to be a boy (and I am). My mother's sister then implored them not to name me Mark if I turned out to be a boy as that was her favorite boy's name and she wanted to name her son, when she eventually had one, Mark.

My parents, kind souls that they are, went back to the drawing board and somehow, God alone only knows how, came up with St.John. Their thinking was impeccable: there's no generally-acknowledged diminutive of St.John.

My mother had a friend at school whose brother was called St.John and that's where Mr and Mrs Flynn got the name from (not from Charlotte Bronte, thank goodness!).

So, on that fateful day in September of 1962, I became St.John Edward Flynn. (My maternal grandfather, upon learning what his first grandchild was to be named replied gruffly, "I'm going to call him Ted." He never did; it was always St.John.)

Imagine my surprise when, about 12 years later, my aunt gave birth to a healthy, bouncing boy whom she named...Adam!

I tell myself all things happen for a reason and I just haven't yet worked out what that might be in the case of my given name!

There is a Cover to Cover related purpose for all of the preceding.

Over the decade or so that I've been interviewing authors for GPB, several have made a point of commenting on my name.

Most recently was Joyce Carol Oates (see the Monday, July 9 blog entry). When the interview was over and I asked Ms Oates to sign my copy of The Gravedigger's Daughter, she commented that she'd never met a St.John before.

I was flattered and wondered to myself if, in the future, a character named St.John would turn up as the protagonist in one of her novels which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, and would finally convince the Nobel Committee that Ms Oates deserved the Nobel Prize! I could then boast that I was the inspiration for a real literary hero and not have to make do with St.John Rivers.

Way back in 1998 I interviewed Southern humorist, and Decatur, Ga., native, Roy Blount Jr. when his memoir Be Sweet: A Conditional Love Story came out. Anyone who listens to such public radio programs as A Prairie Home Companion and Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me knows how funny he is.

After the interview was over I asked Roy to sign my copy of Be Sweet, and here's what he wrote in the book:

To St.John --

Be saintly (or, more phonetically, be sinful)

Roy Blount Jr.
I still think it's incredibly smart and funny, and every so often I take the book down from the shelf in my library at home just to reread it.

Finally, in June 2000, James Martin Rhodes of Homerville, Ga., was my guest on Cover to Cover when we talked and took calls about his wonderful South Georgia novel In My Father's Generation (iUniverse, 1999).

After the show, James presented me with something very special. It seems he has a talent for writing limericks and had written one just for me. Here it is:

To St. John
(In case I turn out to be someone you want to claim you know)
There was a young bloke name of Flynn
Whose primary sin was gin.
When he had a good snout full,
He was often quite doubtful,
If his moniker was St. John or Flynn.

Brilliant! Thank you, James.

I guess being called St.John isn't all bad after all!