George Who?

As editor for J. B. Lippincott Company, GEORGE STEVENS divides his time between Philadelphia and New York and has made several contributions to Accent on Living.

My wife and I once spent an evening in New Canaan, Connecticut, with our friends Mr. and Mrs. Simeon Strunsky. In the course of conversation, Simeon remarked that he objected to the custom then not universal but in an advanced stage of development whereby young men of thirty-five addressed their elders — men of sixty, more or less — by their first names. I was abashed, because I had been calling him Simeon, and I was exactly thirty-five.

This form of address had been arrived at, I recall definitely, owing to the warmth and spontaneity of Manya — that is to say, Mrs. Strunsky. Somewhere in the course of the relationship we had been invited to call her Manya; we had extended the first-name basis to include Simeon, but without his authorization.

It was too late to change, and we let Simeon’s remark go by as if it had been altogether without personal application. (I may call him Simeon in retrospect, being now approximately the same age as he was then.) But his opinion has stuck in my memory, and I have come to the conclusion that he was right. Everywhere I go, I meet people who immediately call me George. My friends introduce me not as Mr. Stevens but as George Stevens, or they say, “This is Mr. Stevens, George Stevens.” At once I am addressed as George, and if I respond by saying, “Yes, Mr. Arbuthnot" or “No, Mrs. Dalrymple,” I am considered standoffish if not downright unfriendly.

It is universally considered that to call an acquaintance by anything but his first name is at best a bizarre and obsolete ceremony, at worst a form of churlishness. To a contemporary the Mr. and Mrs. indicate a holding at arm’s length; to an older person, a pointed reference to the seniority of his citizenship. I should have no objection to this if the presumption of friendship carried in the first-name address had any basis in reality. The trouble is that we all want to seem friendly without committing ourselves. I do not take it as a degradation of my dignity to be called George by a stranger, even by a young man of thirty-five. I just want it to mean something.

Literature is following close behind life in this respect. A generation ago any middle-aged character in fiction would as a matter of course be called Mr. Britling or Mrs. Dalloway. Now Mr. is reserved for those whose authors wish to hold them up to ridicule: Mr. Blandings builds his dream house, Mr. Banks suffers as father of the bride. In this light, neither the first name alone nor the surname will quite do. Throughout the length of By Love Possessed, James Gould Cozzens straddles the problem by referring to his central character invariably as Arthur Winner.

In England, men address one another by their surnames even when they are on terms of friendship. To be called Stevens by an Englishman I take as a sign of relaxation, an indication that the shield and the lance have been laid upon the ground. But if I call an American Smith, he thinks I am addressing him as a menial. When the British reach a first-name basis, it means that they are close friends; remember the emotional charge in Iolanthe when Lords Tololler and Mountararat, deciding that their mutual regard is too important to he sacrificed in their rivalry for the hand of Phyllis, call each other Thomas and George?

When I was a young man, I lived for a while in Paris. A group of us Americans were good friends with a young Frenchman who indulged the eccentricity of Americanophilia. He really, genuinely, without reserve or arrière-pensée, liked Americans: all Americans, male and female, old and young. Even so, and well bred as he was, he could not altogether conceal his consternation when he found himself being addressed by all of us as tu. We thought it would have been rude not to tutoyer him, but we observed under his excellent manners and his immediate willingness to reciprocate that we had misunderstood the French system. Even there, where old friends call each other Duval and Dupont, they can reach the stage of Jacques and Pierre and still say vous.

In Russia, I gather, the equivalent of first-name address is to leave off the patronymic — to say not Serge Pavlovitch but Serge tout court. It may have been the lack of Russian equivalents for Mr. and Mrs. that prompted Mrs. Strunsky to invite us to call her Manya. But that is beside the point, and the point is merely this: I propose that anybody who calls me George the first time we meet should be prepared to recognize me the next time. I do not want to be introduced all over again, even if our next meeting takes place years later. This possibility should be foreseen; if the circumstances of our first encounter are so casual as to indicate that we may well never meet again, let us by all means call each other Mr., literally once and for all.

I have determined upon a course of action, which I recommend in the hope that it will become general. Anyone who calls me George on first meeting, and does not recognize me on second meeting. I will call by his last name, as for instance Jenkins. Not Ed, not Mr. Jenkins, just Jenkins. That is, of course, if the friend who originally introduced us happened to mention our last names.