I've Kept My Name

A forthright rebuttal to “I Changed My Name,” an anonymous article published in the February 1948 Atlantic

In April 1949, students demonstrate against alleged anti-Semitic remarks by two professors at the City College of New York.  (AP Photo)

Name changing, as H. L. Mencken has exhaustively shown, is a widespread phenomenon among members of all the racial stocks who compose our population, including the AngloSaxon. The most frequent reason for name-changing among Jews is to get jobs in areas where there is marked economic discrimination against them. Others change their names as a prop to their teetering little souls: because they are socially insecure or are ashamed of their birthright. It is not for me to pass judgment upon them. One remembers, in this context, that during the nineteenth century several European travelers succeeded in penetrating to the sacred Moslem city of Mecca disguised as Moslems. Yet Doughty traveled for two years as a Christian in the Arabian peninsula, every moment in peril of his life, as he records; for to slit the throat of an infidel is to store up merit for oneself in the Moslem heaven. But Doughty's Arabia Deserta is the greatest of all travel books in the English language, for the reason, perhaps, that Doughty was personally the greatest of all among travelers.

I find that keeping my name, far from complicating my life, simplifies it. I was born an American and a Jew, as you were born an American and a Gentile. I am what I am, as you are what you are. "Jews," wrote Mark Twain, "are members of the human race. Worse than that I cannot say of them." But it would not be wholly admirable if I should, by changing my name, reject the fifty centuries' history and tradition of my people in order to gain a hotel room at Newport.

Nor is this all. Bearing an unmistakably Jewish name, I am spared the crude comments of virulent anti-Semites, for even they retain a modicum of manners in my presence; and, there being no possibility of mistake, I am not asked to join groups that do not "take" Jews. I am accepted by my fellows as a human being, or I am rejected as a Jew, and while I have no apparatus for measuring hatred and love as they move the hearts of millions of non-Jews, I do know this: that Gentiles, knowing me to be a Jew, have all my life taken me into their hearts and homes, with no self-consciousness on their part or mine, with no abrogation of dignity on either side, without condescension by them and without obsequiousness by me.

The fact that I have been free of most of the blatant prejudices that often run against so many of my coreligionists does not make me insensitive to their plight, nor do I detach myself from them as though I lived upon a private planet of my own. The war between good and evil never ceases. It was once suggested to Luigi Luzzatti, a Prime Minister of Italy and a Jew, that he change his faith. "I do not think of myself as a Jew or a Gentile," he replied, "but only as an Italian. But when Jews are attacked, then the voice of Isaiah rises in my soul" Here it would seem meet to do battle under true colors rather than false.

If I should resort to the plastic surgery of the courts, it would be only because I should like to pass myself off on the community as a synthetic Plantagnet. This, conceivably, could bring me certain dubious "advantages," such as eligibility for clubs that reject me because I am a Jew, or admission to hotels in "restricted" resorts that refuse me for the same reason. With a new name – preferably one suggesting kinship with a high-church bishop – I might even be asked to dine with some newly minted family that, having gouged the government during the First World War, is now almost as pedigreed as a grand champion bull. These considerations leave me cold.

We already have an overproduction of social climbers in this country; folks who, in the telling and contemptuous rural Negro phrase, have "got above their raisin'." There is no reason why I should add to their number; I can derive a sufficient knowledge of their obscene antics, without closer relationship, by reading the considerable Americas literature that deals with them.

Yet it is not surprising that there should be so many of them among us – Gentile and Jew – seeing that, paradoxically, snobbery reaches its ultimate in a shirt-sleeve democracy such as ours. For snobbery, generally speaking, flows from social insecurity and only two groups are free of it. The one is the tiny group of aristocrats at the top who feel that no matter what they do, they cannot lose their social position. The other is the group of men it the bottom who have no social position to lose. One finds, therefore, few snobs among true aristocrats and truck drivers. The place to look for them is among large numbers of the American middle class – especially its women. Corroded by a sense of social insecurity, they are almost pathologically concerned with the "right thing" – the right friends, schools, resorts, clothes, clubs, addresses. Nothing stops them in their search for social position.

Socially insecure Gentiles do not automatically rule out all Jews. Among them, the social penalty of being a Jew is not Jewishness. What is unforgivable is to be a poor and obscure Jew – or, even, a rich end obscure Jew. Consequently, a Lehman, a Schiff, a Warburg, a Baruch, who are neither poor nor obscure, are forgiven their lack of prenatal wisdom. The welcome extended to men of this kind is of fascinating interest to the cultural anthropologist – revealing, as it does, some of the magnificently absurd taboos of our society. While they may be "good" enough to marry a man's daughter, they are often not good enough for membership in his clubs, nor can they be permitted to swim in the miraculous waters of exclusive beaches.

So, too, socially insecure Gentiles may welcome Jews who are Famous Names –  distinguished artists, musicians, playwrights, actors, movie producers. But the Names, by a tacit conspiracy of manners, are expected to sing for their supper while their hosts, whether or no they are bemused by the singing, enjoy the pleasures of vicarious association with the famous.

One also finds in this country "pet Jews" and their Gentile keepers. The latter derive from the association an exotic touch of the fashionable, as certain English families of the eighteenth century found it exotically fashionable to adorn their households with a liveried blackamoor or two. The former derive from the association, one assumes, a certain masochistic pleasure, knowing that the attitude of their keepers toward Jews in general is that of the Duke of Dorset (in Beerbohm's Ztdeika Dobson) toward Americans. The Duke granted that Americans had a right to live, but he wished that it had not been made so easy for them to live at Oxford.

These are worlds to which I might presumably gain access by changing my name. Do you blame me if I reject them?


There are, happily other worlds in this kindliest of countries. I was born and raised in a good world. It was far more Gentile than Jewish, but I never felt alien there, nor was any attempt made to make me feel alien. I have found that being a Jew has been no deterrent either to my happiness or to my career whether, as formerly, in business or, as latterly, in writing. My rewards, or lack of them, have been, I feel, in proportion to my merits except, embarrassingly, that I have been dowered with kindness quite beyond my deserts.

Shortly after the Civil War my relatives, European immigrants, became cotton planters in the Mississippi Delta, and my parents soon followed them to the then tiny pioneer town of Greenville. There they met with unaffected kindness in an atmosphere hostile to bigotry. There I was born and raised. For as long as I can remember, the Roman Catholic Church, the First Baptist Church, and the Synagogue have stood within a stone's throw of one another. Over them all was the benison of God and the grateful shade, in summer, of leafy oaks and magnolias. Living, their communicants got on well together. Dead, they were buried in adjoining grounds where weeping willows flow and mockingbirds make mimic song.

In that town there walked saints. Whiskey-drinking, poker-playing, quail-hunting, pleasure-loving saints. Sinners hate. Saints hate, too. But they hate injustice. Greenville has always had men who were saints in this respect. Let me tell you about one of them.

In the early 1920's, the Ku Klux Klan came to the town as it came to so many communities of the South and the Middle West. But it did not go far. There were two reasons, among others, for this. First, Leroy Percy, a virile aristocrat and the county's most eminent citizen, together with his son Will, called upon the district attorney, who was a lifelong friend and an eminent Klansman. The Percys quietly told him that if the Klan touched the hair of a single person in the community whether Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Negro they would kill him since the burden of responsibility rested with the district attorney. He knew they were as good as their word, and under the circumstances it may be believed that his influence was not incendiary.

Second, Leroy Percy singlehandedly chased an imported Klan organizer out of town. A "Colonel" Camp was speaking in the Washington County courthouse for the purpose of forming a local branch of the Klan. At this meeting, writes William Alexander Percy in Lanterns on the Levee, "the Klan organizer made an artful speech to a tense crowd that packed every cranny of the room; and every man was armed . . . . Who had recently bought a huge tract of land opposite West Point and another overlooking Washington? The Pope. Convents were brothels, the confessional a place of seduction, the basement of every Catholic church an arsenal. The Pope was about to seize the government. To the rescue, Klansmen! . . . It was an example of Nazi propaganda before the Nazis. The very enormity and insolence of the lie carried conviction to the simple and the credulous .

(Similar ties about Jews have been told, and believed, for centuries. They range from the canard that Jews drink the blood of Christian children in religious rituals to stories now current here that Jews – and this is a most extraordinary feet "own" the country and are also communist.)

When the speaker sat down, Leroy Percy, hated, uninvited, and hating, arose. Shaking his finger at Camp, his first words were: "Who is this itinerant scoundrel that comes here to set brother against brother?" He told how Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and Negro had struggled together against floods of the great river; against yellow fever, malaria, and all the ills of a struggling pioneer area. He said that together they had conquered wilderness and swamps; had built homes, schools, roads, railroads, levees, courthouses, and cotton gins. They had helped one another in hard times and had managed to live on amicable terms. And now this "itinerant scoundrel" had come to set them apart. He asked upon what field of honor "Colonel" Camp had won his spurs. Whence did he come? Who had besought his presence?

As his anger mounted, ridicule and invective poured from his mouth searing and burning all that they touched. He spoke to a hostile, sullen crowd, but when Leroy Percy sat down, a wildly cheering throng passed a resolution condemning the Klan, while a badly frightened "Colonel" Camp scuttled out of a side door.

In Greenville neither I nor any of my coreligionists, to my knowledge, suffered any indignity or lack of opportunity because of being Jewish. Gentiles and Jews rejoiced together in happiness and mourned together in sorrow. There were bigots in the town, it is true – Jews as well as Gentiles – but they were a tiny minority looked upon commiseratingly by the majority as unhappy aberrants.

There were affectionate relations between many Gentile and Jewish families in Greenville. I shall content myself with one example. My brother Joel, never wealthy, was in the latter part of his life poor. He and his wife lived in a little house in a street of little houses. Once they went out of town, and upon their return were amazed to find that the frayed curtains of their living room had been replaced by new ones. It was not until much later, and then by chance, that they learned how this had happened. Their next-door Gentile neighbors, themselves of small means, had taken down their own curtains and hung them in my brother's house.

The good-neighbor tradition of the town lives on. In 1940 Hodding Carter, publisher and editor of the Greenville Democrat-Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for editorials on racial and religious tolerance.

Last year he published an editorial saying that he had had five crises in his life, and on each occasion he had been rescued by a Jew. A few days later, Gentile leaders of the community quietly collected a considerable sum of money for the relief of distressed Jews overseas.

There are many American Jews who could bear testimony to Gentile kindness, as Carter has borne it with respect to Jewish kindness. My own gratitude to the Gentile friends, neighbors, and teacher, of the formative years of my youth is immense. I am deeply and especially indebted to William Alexander Percy, cultivated and compassionate; a cosmopolitan and an enlightened provincial; writer, soldier, lawyer, and planter, this fallow townsman, older than I, befriended me in my youth. It was a relationship, richly fruitful for me, that endured until his death.

I remember with photographic vividness a present he made me when I was about fourteen years old; a raw country youth filled with furious, inchoate longings. The gift was a number of volumes of translations by Gilbert Murray of Greek plays. They made a profound and lasting impression upon me, for from them I got my first glimpses of truth and beauty; so profound an impression indeed that, years later, I found myself making a sudden decision to retire from business as I stood one day upon the hill of the Parthenon looking down upon the golden structure of the Temple of Theseus.

Long afterward when I returned to Greenville to write my first book, my parents were dead and my brother had no room for me in his house. William Alexander Percy took me into his own home, where I remained for over two years, as much at ease in his hospitable house teeming with friends and relatives as I could ever have been underneath my own roof, while he gave me, a frightened beginner at writing, his counsel and encouragement. Nor was this the end of my good fortune. For when Percy, shortly before his death, sat down to write his superb autobiographical Lanterns on the Levee, he who had hitherto written only verse had small faith in his ability to write prose. Then it was my privilege to do a little for him in the field where he had done so much for me.

I have, for all these reasons, kept my name. The United States is, I repeat, the kindliest of countries; how kindly only those can know whose history is nearly all somber tragedy. But if, unhappily, the United States should ever change, my course would remain unchanged. It is not only that I can do no other. It is also that the, upright posture of man, though it is a biological disadvantage, is a great psychological triumph. Speaking for myself alone, it would be too high a price for survival to abdicate that posture which raises man toward the rising sun.

Read “I Changed My Name” in the February 1948 Atlantic.