Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A prayer for “Owen Meany”

Starting with Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and expanding exponentially for my upcoming book on Bill Finger, my research often involves extensive people-hunting.

Sometimes I know the name of a person I’m hunting for. Other times I’m looking for a person fitting a description (Finger’s second wife/nephew/nutty aunt/etc.). And simultaneously, at all times, I am looking for any relevant others whom I don’t even yet know about.

There is a shivery moment between learning of a person I should look for (specifically someone in the “description” category above) and learning that person’s name. It is a mix of exhilaration and panic.

The exhilaration part is obvious—you may have just learned of a Missing Link. The panic part: how easy or hard it will be to find him may come down to the name itself.

That’s why I virtually pray for a name that is unusual.

John Smith? Here come the waterworks. You’re in for a mental workout. With such an everyday name, even knowing the middle name is probably not enough to narrow it down.

John Smithbergstein? Common first name but that last name is an oddsend—and one I just made up. (Incidentally, it was not the first last name I made up for this post. But I abandoned that name—Smithbergson—because a Google revealed that it already exists.)

The reverse is equally true: Threepio Smith ought not take long to track down.

Best case scenario, of course, are atypical first and last names. Threepio Smithbergstein is a researcher’s dream.

But no matter how distinct the name, people-hunting remains unpredictable. To wit:

The title of this post is a takeoff on the title A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving’s 1989 bestseller.

Because the novel became so well-known, I would presume that most people who had the surname “Meany” and had a son after the novel came out would not name him Owen. (Yes, even people who loved the book. It’d just be begging for a comment. Every. Single. Time.)

Further, I presumed “Meany” was rare to begin with.

So my guess was that there’d be, at most, only a couple of living people in the U.S. named “Owen Meany,” all born before 1989.

However, according to the public records accessed at Intelius, there are currently as many as sixteen (though some are probably duplicates and all probably were born pre-1989).

So, as I wrote, unpredictable.

Another case in point: In early 2007, after months of researching Bill Finger’s side of the family (all the while surprised that the name “Finger” was much more common than I anticipated), I changed focus to his first wife’s family. To access them, I needed her maiden name. It took some maneuvering, but eventually I did close in on it, hoping for a Smithbergstein…

…but instead getting an Epstein.

Not a dead end but rather the opposite—a road with too many forks. Therefore, to wend my way to this particular branch of the Epstein clan, I had to try methods other than cold-contacting random Epsteins. Because if I had started doing that then, I could very well still be doing it now.


J. L. Bell said...

I run into this problem a lot in researching colonial New England.

There was a thinner ethnic mix then, and the dominant English culture used far fewer given names. So even names I suspect are rare, such as “Ammi Cutter,” turn out to be held by four or five different men.

Fortunately, there were far fewer people, and they didn’t move around as much. I’ve even been able to find the right “Joseph Smith,” with enough luck.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Yes, J.L., that's another level to this I didn't touch upon. Most of the people I've looked for are 20th century, which means my first strategy is trying to find people who know my subject (or his kids) personally. Yet combining our experiences emphasizes that a Joseph Smith born 1950 can be harder to find than a Joseph Smith born 1650...