If you're a Harry Potter fan, the symbolic significance of Mortimer Cropper's name should be pretty clear. Just as Lord Voldemort's name suggests that the clammy, no-nosed wizard has stolen something from death—namely, his own ability to die—Mortimer Cropper's first name brings death (mort) to mind, and his surname suggests the action of cutting, or "cropping."
Right away, we should get a pretty good sense that we're dealing with a dude who's kind of nasty.
Cropper is a "thin," "sinewy" man who bears "a faint resemblance to the film Virginians, poised like cats in corrals, ready to jump this way or that, or to draw" (18.125). He's an American (already kind of a suspicious thing in a British novel), and he's also the world's best-known and best-funded scholar of Randolph Henry Ash. As the narrator tells us, "[h]is body was long and lean and trim; he had American hips, ready for a neat belt and the faraway ghost of a gunbelt" (6.3). He's an archetypal but modern American "cowboy," and Byatt stereotypes him with glee.
Mortimer Cropper is Possession's primary villain, and he's villainous because he's a corrupt scholar. Cropper isn't passionate about literature itself—instead, he's obsessed by a greedy desire to own or possess his literary subjects. Over the course of his career, Cropper has slowly amassed an enormous collection of literary memorabilia, and although some of it has been acquired through the proper legal channels, much of it has been stolen. As the novel draws to a close, he sinks to new lows when he tries to rob Randolph Henry Ash's grave.
Mortimer Cropper's rival, James Blackadder, hits the nail on the head when he finally realizes that "Cropper is the Ankou" (23.119). What's the Ankou, you ask? We'll let Christabel LaMotte answer that one. Here's how she describes the mythical figure in one of her letters to Randolph Henry Ash:
And of the Ankou—who drove a terrible chariot,—a creaking, groaning grinding sort of a conveyance anyone might hear behind him on a lonely heath on a dark night—full of dead bones, it might be, heaped and dangling. And the Driver was a Man of Bones—under his huge hat you saw only his hollow Orbits—he was not, you must know, Death, but Death's Servitor—come with his Scythe—whose blade faced not inward for harvesting but outward—but for what? (10.114)
We already know that Mortimer Cropper's name suggests both "death" and "cropping," and once we factor in his black "chariot" of a Mercedes—with a license plate that says ANK 666, no less (18.112)—it should be clear that Blackadder has pegged him perfectly.
Just in case you're not convinced, try this one on for size: not only is Cropper connected to the Ankou through his obsessive desire to possess the relics and remains of dead poets, but Maud Bailey also discerns another kind of "cutting" instinct in his work. After reading a little bit of Cropper's biography of Ash, we're told this: "Maud decided she intuited something terrible about Cropper's imagination from all this. He had a peculiarly vicious version of reverse hagiography; the desire to cut his subject down to size" (13.28).
Yeah, this is a dude who wants to cut everyone else down to his level. We're sure you've met this type before. This isn't the kind of guy you'd want hanging over your shoulder, Shmoopers. Just imagine what he must be like in the classroom.