WHAT’S YOUR NAME?
(Lojze Adamich – Louis Adamic [Edemik])
In one of his books, entitled ‘What’s Your Name’ our fellow countryman explains to his American readers that, back in his Carinthian native land (Slovenia), a caron above the letter ‘c’ formed a part of his name, like so: Adamich. “It was pronounced,” the writer educates his readers, “Ah- dámitch, with long full ‘a’-s and an accented middle syllable – the word ending in a smacking: tch-ch-č. The name stands for little Adam or Adam’s son, it is the Slovenian equivalent of the American ‘Adamson’ or ‘Adams’.”
He said that he spent the first couple of years in the USA, a young and green man, wishing to be Americanised as soon as possible, which is why he wrote his name inthe same way most American’s pronounced it – ‘Adamitch’ or even ‘Adamage’. Still he was proud of his family name, a name that stood for a large and strong family back home. It reminded him of the noted composer of the same family name as well as of the young Ivan Adamich who was killed by the Austrian military during Slovenian national demonstrations in Ljubljana. The latter’s dramatic death had a strong impact on the young emigrant’s imagination. Later – he tells – when he was enlisting in the American army, he put his name on the enlistment sheet with a huge caron: ‘Adamič’ in the hero’s memory. But the letter ‘č’ could not penetrate the American armed forces; the military scribe simply ignored it or thought it an accidental jot of the pen. The armed forces transformed Adamich into Adamic; our fellow countryman received American citizenship under the same name and remained thereafter ‘Adamic’. As Americans pronounce it, it could be understood as ‘Adam-like’.
Through tell of a few funny and a few serious incidents the author continues the story of the change of his name. In the book this tale is paralleled with the problem of the often extremely painful immigrants’ merging with their Anglo-Saxon surroundings.
Hundreds of thousands of foreign family names endured the intolerance of English unchanged, no matter the direct and indirect pressure to change and in spite of personal and professional hardships that ensued as a result. Millions of immigrants and American-born sons and daughters still spell their names: Mikolajczik, Wohlgemut, Vojvodić, Bartolini, Kikuči etc., even though it would be easiest for them to change the spelling. In some American states a name can be changed by individuals themselves – no courts involved. Nevertheless the author goes on to enumerate several examples of people clinging to their old family names, even when that meant they would not receive employment or did not advance in their careers – all this in a land which, with its fantastic blend of population, would be the last to merit nationalism, yet it continues to flirt with Anglo-Saxon pure-bloodedness. His narrative includes the following anecdote – during World War II a Hitler served as a sergeant in the American armed forces. All the American papers wrote about him at the time. On account of his name he was a target of many evil tongues. When he was advised to change his name he replied: “Let that other Hitler change his!” There was another soldier serving in the armed forces who was Jewish. He said: “This is my name which I am fully entitled to use. Adolf doesn’t because his last name is Shicklgruber.”
To change or not change the name is nothing but a part of a psychological civil war that begun with the influx of immigrants and which is daily rekindled from the spastic feeling of insecurity towards the native population which pests the newcomer groups and individuals.
“What’s in a name?” asks the writer. The word in itself holds no meaning. But the proprietor deems it important for a number of reasons. These are mostly of an entirely personal nature and cannot always be explained in words.
“I am unable to explain why exactly the change of a name as a harmful effect,” writes Adamich, “but in the last three years of my research I came across this fact. It is intangible, removed, primitive, beneath the realm of intelligence... For many the issue of identity is intricately tied to the possibility of finding their natural place, their creative or productive place in the world of humans. The demands of the self are tough, the same goes for the demands of society; and in the end the process of civilisation is nothing but a search for equilibrium between the two extremes. Equation of the name and the self goes far back, beyond the family and nationality. Perhaps this equation is subject to the memory of the times when we were included in tribes. It is not a matter of actual details from a primitive society, but a general feeling of the importance of one’s own name – a shapeless content passed down through generations that perseveres. As anthropologists tell us, the name is very important to the primitive man.”
Whatever the case, the fact remains that many continue to cling on to their old names even thoug it cost them their existence and personal happiness; many who changed their names, after years of growing inner discontent, return to their old name; many do not, but something inside them is demolished and disintegrated, as though they, by discarding their name, discarded also their deepest self. The book contains many examples from everyday American life, documents of psychological meaning presented without literary pretensions even though individual stories are reworked into novelettes.
Even though in terms of culture and civilisation, the United States are adapting throughout to the Anglo-Saxon model, the human component of this land’s composition today cannot be said to appear Anglo-Saxon. In this it includes the whole of Europe and to a smaller extent also other continents that lended America their people. This state is what makes the views of some old immigrants and especially their leaders, who will not admit that their land and its inhabitants are nothing but a reflection of a large part of the world. As Adamich puts it, this is its greatest glory and deepest source of power. Any pressure exerted over non-Anglo-Saxon elements to anglicise more than absolutely necessary in order to adapt to the English language, or to hide behind Anglo-Saxon labels is therefore detrimental.
According to the author, as complex as the issue of names may be, it clearly reflects the immense yet hardly acknowledged cultural twitching in the USA. New generations are starting to become aware that the United States are inhabited by nations from across the globe. This ‘awakening’, as Adamich calls it, is new and hardly perceivable in the vast labyrinth of the collective and the individual consciousness. It may yet be entirely lacking in some groups of immigrants while others may feel it on an instinctive level as opposed to conscious awareness of it. But it is a source of great power. Adamich believes that it will at first remain focused on rebelling against the old demand for Anglicisation of ‘foreign native’ names, where not many reasonable arguments will be employed, but rather more primitive prejudice in terms of names.
People who like to judge prematurely and cannot distinguish between cause and effect may find this entire matter insignificant or even un-American. But it will be important. The power and importance of the new inclinations and new recognition serve as building blocks on which Adamich builds his belief in the constructive powers of the Amercian people which convince him that the United States will sooner or later embark on a journey of advancing progress.
Editor’s note: the article is a translation of a reprint from the Novi svet journal, 1949, no. 11, which the author signed with the acronym M.P. According to the biography department of the National University Library in Ljubljana the author was Miro Puc (later Mihelich).
Translated from Slovenian by Jaka Jarc