Thursday, June 30, 2011

Difficulties in Naming Babies

Rebecca delighted in the happy marriage of her brother Benjamin and Maria Cecil Gist. After the couple's first visit to Philadelphia from their home in Kentucky, she wrote:

"[I]ndeed, Maria, separation from him [Ben] is a severe conflict -- which the conviction that he is happy, would alone reconcile me to -- and that you, dearest, make him so is a source of never failing gratitude to your sister's heart -- may you long enjoy every felicity together."

But even the happiest of couples do not agree on everything, and after their second visit to Philadelphia in 1823 with a 2-year-old and a new baby in tow, Rebecca records a serious disagreement: Maria and Ben had not yet settled on a given name for either of their two sons. In her usual diplomatic fashion, Rebecca comments on the situation:

"I like your idea of combining an agreeable association with the denomination of a child and that is the reason family names are so constantly perpetuated from one generation to another -- but then fashion and fancy are so various and our children not feeling the dignity of bearing a title down to posterity which sounded well to antedeluvean ears and in ancient tongues may not sympathize with our taste...hence the difficulty I have witnessed in other parents before you though I must confess it has continued longer with you than most others --....pray seek out from among your or our relations some well sounding as well as good name or else let the dear little fellows be the first of the Gratzes to bring a handsome name into the family for their grandchildren to carry forward."

So what was going on here? because two years is an excessive wait for a given name. If we look at what the final name choices are, it is possible to make an educated guess as to what was at the root of the problem. The older boy would shortly become officially "Benjamin Gratz," the second son "Michael Bernard Gratz," and this suggests a difference over what was an appropriate name for the first son.

If you have read Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hackett Fischer's study of customs brought by colonists from four different sections of Britain, you know that naming traditions can vary even within one ethnic group. But by 1820, many of the older English naming customs were weakening. The Gist's had no tradition of naming an eldest son for his father, nor was it usual among the old Virginia families from which Maria's mother came. The choice of "Benjamin" must have been Maria's own, an instance of American individualism, a token of her love for her husband, and perhaps an unconscious effort to bind him more closely to her and her child. We can be sure it was Maria's choice, and not Ben's, because it goes counter to the Gratz family's naming traditions.

To be continued.

(The quotations are from Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson.)

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