Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What's in a name? Keeping up with the Joneses

When I heard that Terry Jones was planning a churchyard barbeque of Korans, my reaction was probably pretty standard for my socio-economic group. I was shocked, appalled, revolted, outraged—you name it. I didn’t telephone him the way Secretary Gates did. I didn’t broadcast a public display of my political frustration with him, as the President did. And I certainly didn’t rush to Florida with my video camera to abet him as half the so-called journalists in the country did.

I was nonetheless mightily concerned, because it just didn’t sound like the Terry Jones I know. We actually overlapped slightly at Oxford. He was at Teddy Hall, where he must have worked with my old friend Del Kolve. Anyway, I last saw Jones a few years ago at Kolve’s splendid retirement bash at UCLA. Of course Jones and I have had our disagreements before. I strenuously disagree with his interpretation of Chaucer’s knight, for instance. It’s always a mistake, in my view, to confuse ideal literary stereotypes with historical documents. But who could fail to applaud the genius of the inventor of “Monty Python”?
Sure, he’s had some embarrassing press in the past. But just at the moment I am overwhelmed with compassionate good feelings for anyone suffering the misfortune of being named Terry Jones. Nothing ought to be more personal than our personal names, but they are constantly being highjacked by others, and seldom with pleasing results. I learned this early, as no doubt anyone named John must do. To her dying day my grandmother told me that the biblical meaning of John is “God’s grace”. Why, I subsequently wondered, is Merriam-Webster silent about God’s grace but quite vocal about (1) a toilet, and (2) a prostitute’s customer? As I walk down the street beautiful women shout out my name, then register offense when I respond. Wrong John.

Last week I mentioned how difficult it is for historians to figure out who the right Simon de Montfort is. But the de Montfort clan is a piece of cake when compared with the East Anglian Paston family of the fifteenth century, famously documented in the Paston Letters. The Pastons really loved the name John. There seem usually to have been two or three living brothers of that name. We are all familiar with the little “disambiguation” tables at the head of Wikipedia articles. With the Pastons it was the dinner table itself that needed “disambiguation”. In the case of the Joneses, the necessary disambiguation would be between the medieval Jones and the medievalist Jones.

Naturally, the problem of too many people chasing too few names has only become more acute with the huge population increases of modernity. I have personally come to terms with being merely the eighth or tenth most notorious of contemporary John Flemings, especially since, at least as yet, no dangerously demented evangelist is among our number. (There is a Louisiana politician, however, and that’s getting a bit too close for comfort.)

Being the wrong John Fleming has not been without its dividends. I am not, for example, nor ever have been, John Fleming (1919-2001) the self-made art historian, expert on the Adam brothers, and author or co-author of numerous well-received books concerning the art of many times and places. Nor, alas, have I ever owned his Italian villa. This man’s books frequently swelled my bibliography as confidently recited by people introducing me as a lecturer, and I once came close to a nice job offer on his account.

But since my field was English literature, the John Fleming who haunted my career was John Fleming (1910-1987), the prominent New York bibliophile, connoisseur, and book dealer to the rich and famous. It will not surprise you that we never met. This guy was very classy and obviously loaded. Half of the lengthy New York Times obituary was devoted to his amazing apartment. He used to take out full-page ads in The New Yorker in which a single, central, dolphin of type—JOHN FLEMING—swam in a sea of white at approximately $500 per square inch. You just had to know who John Fleming was and what he did; and if you had to ask, you couldn’t really know. In 2001 Sotheby’s auctioned off a superb first folio of Shakespeare for a tidy $6,166,000. Mr. Fleming was gone by then, but he had been the last dealer to flog it, and for quite a pretty penny I have to guess.

Fear of litigation from the tomb forbids my recital of some of my tales concerning this namesake, but one of the publishable ones is probably safe. Soon after I joined the Princeton English department one of my senior colleagues, Charles Ryskamp, left to become the Director of the Pierpont Morgan Library. After a distinguished tenure in that position he became the head of the Frick Collection. His was, in short, an absolutely amazing career in the world of private cultural institutions in New York, and he spent much of it in his dinner jacket, tirelessly pursuing new acquisitions and the funds to purchase and maintain them. Charles Ryskamp died quite recently, and Verlyn Klinkenborg, one of our former graduate students who is now a regular contributor to the Times editorial page, wrote a lovely memorial of him.

Charles Ryskamp (1928-2010), amid objets

The Morgan Library used to be very sniffy about allowing mere graduate students to work there. I know that for a fact, because in 1962 I studied a couple of their manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose for my doctoral dissertation. The reading room gorgons did all they could to make me feel like Jude the Obscure contemplating from afar the dreaming spires of Christminster. About 1970 a very bright undergraduate student in our department was writing a senior thesis on a subject concerning which the Morgan possessed unique materials. Urged on by naiveté and the rashness of youth, I decided to try to push the envelope with a direct approach to my old buddy and former colleague, Director Charles Ryskamp.

I phoned the Morgan, and the conversation(s) went something like this.
Secretary I: “How may I direct your call?”
JVF: “May I speak with Mr. Ryskamp, please?” Followed by a significant pause, as though I had in peremptory fashion demanded an audience with the Pope. Secretary I forwarded me to Secretary II.
Secretary II: “How may we help you.”
JVF: “Well, I’d like to speak with Mr. Ryskamp, please”
Secretary II: “Concerning…”
JVF: “Well, it’s a professional matter…[Silent pause] I am a former colleague at Princeton.”
Secretary II: “I am afraid Mr. Ryskamp is out of town…perhaps you’d like to leave a message with his assistant, Ms. X.”
JVF: “Yes, thank you.”
Another long pause, followed by
Assistant X: “I am afraid Mr. Ryskamp is not available. Perhaps I can help you?...”
JVF: “Thank you, but I probably need to speak with him personally…[long pause]…Perhaps you could just tell him that John Fleming is trying to reach him.”
Assistant X: “Uhhhh” [followed by a really long pause, followed by]
Charles Ryskamp: “Johhhhn!” I heard my name purred with a kind of breathless excitement midway between Bing Crosby telling me that I was as welcome as the flowers of May to dear old Donegal and Mae West inviting me to come up and see her sometime.
JVF: “Charles, you’ve got the wrong John Fleming, but as I have you on the line, I have a favor I’d like to ask you….”
I knew I was home free. By special easement my undergraduate friend was allowed to use precious Milton materials in the Pierpont Morgan Library.