Where do book/movie/play titles come from?

I have no imagination when it comes to creating titles for the books I write. I titled my current one – out last year in hardback and now out as an e-book – Early’s Fall . . . Early, from the name of the principal character, James Early, and Fall, from the time of the year in which I had set the story.

The name Herman Melville gave the great white whale – Moby Dick – in his 1851 adventure novel became the novel’s title in the U.S. But the book was published a year earlier in England under the title The Whale. How unimaginative is that?

Everyone who has read Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird knows where that title comes from – a line in the book. Miss Maudie says to Scout, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but . . . sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

The title doesn’t have anything to do with the book’s plot, but there is general agreement among critics that the title carries symbolic weight – a lot of it. The mockingbird represents innocence, so if you kill a mockingbird, you kill, you destroy innocence. The characters Jem, Tom Robinson, Dill, Boo Radley, and Mr. Raymond all are innocents injured or destroyed by evil.

I never did know where the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1958 Broadway play, A Raisin in the Sun, came from, not until two weeks ago when I wrote about Hansberry being inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. After the piece ran, Facebook friend Esther Paul emailed me Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” . . .

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore –
And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

There it is. Hansberry knew the poem. Her play is about a black family and its members’ dreams being deferred, being left to dry up like raisins in the sun.

Tomorrow: Meet a master of description

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