Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
I’ve been writing a book about the same man for almost ten years now and I still don’t know what to call him. There is one obvious reason for this: my subject is an elusive international trickster who changes names and stories almost at will. If you add the aliases he used as a gentleman crook to the pseudonyms he wrote under to the names under which he hid from public view towards the end of his life you end up some a number approaching forty. At least I think you do. After all, the most successful confidence man is the one we never see. Which one of these names do I go for?
My response to this question in the book is both pragmatic and polemic: I use whatever name he was going under when talking about a particular incident or period. That does justice to the way he lived his lives; it also carries a bigger argument about the multiple and indeterminate nature of identities in modern society. This is a decision I made almost at the beginning of the project and never felt that problematic.
The less obvious reason for not knowing what to call this man is both more compelling and more difficult. Over the past few months I’ve been struck by a nagging and uneasy dilemma. A few days ago I sought refuge in the collective wisdom of Twitter:
That was my question. Predictably I got some amazing thoughtful answers: you can read the discussion that unfolded here if you’re interested. Many of the responses raised issues that I had never even considered. The first name vs. surname dilemma is not one that medieval historians face, for example – instead they have to think carefully about the literal translation of a single name and the specific meanings it might have carried at the time. Identifying a subject by their first name might reflect privileges of class, gender, race and ethnicity, and age. In this sense, perhaps, it reflects the historian’s power to impose a name on subjects who are long dead. The decisions scholars make might be shaped by differences of genre. A first name might work better in biography than literary criticism or history. And, of course, there can be simple practical considerations: you can’t call them all “Bronte.”
My route to uncertainty over whether to call my subject by his first name(s) or surname(s) was much more predictable – and, I suspect, much less interesting than the issues raised by other people on Twitter. It seems an established convention among modern historians that in most circumstances we call those we write about by their surnames. There are some notable exceptions: oral testimonies are often identified by first name alone; in Queer London I decided that I would only identify men who appeared in police or court files, or in newspaper reports of trials, by their first name and initial. It did not seem my place to out them – and in the years since the book appeared I have been uneasy about those later scholars who have made those men’s identities public. Beyond this, however, historians have reached as much of a consensus as they ever can that surname only is the way forward.
As many people pointed out on Twitter, there are obvious reasons for this. Identifying someone by their surname preserves the illusion of our distance from them. This can never be more than an illusion, of course, but it is necessary to all those other fictions around which our professional identities take shape: we are dispassionate, objective, judicious, and rational creatures. Read in this context, calling a subject by their first name can easily be dismissed as the unreasoned behaviour of a fan – it betrays the fact that someone is letting their guard and their judgment down as they seek to render the past knowable.
Yet historians are not dispassionate and objective creatures – or, at least, I don’t think we should be. On Twitter and in a fantastic blog post that followed, Rachel Moss made this point explicit: “I am totally over objectivity tbh. Messy intimacy feels more authentic to me now.” Messy intimacy: it’s a great phrase and one that captures the path I’ve followed to now even consider calling my subject by his first names.
Intuitively this feels wrong – it doesn’t fit with the scholarly conventions in which I have been trained. It also feels instinctively right. After all, I have chased this man through countless archives and libraries over the past decade. It still doesn’t feel like I have come close to knowing him, but we have ended up with some kind of messy intimacy. I love him; I hate him; I swear at him – calling him by his first name – when he doesn’t play ball. My pursuit has been driven by a particular set of theoretical and historiographical interests, for sure. It has also drawn much of its energy through desire. It has been impassioned research through which the boundaries between then and now have proven insubstantial and within which I have over laboured under the delusion that I was coming into close proximity with the elusive Prince of Tricksters.
Are we on first name terms yet? I still don’t know. That I am tempted to make this move on him reflects my sense that I would like to explicitly collapse the illusion of objectivity that is still central to so much historical writing. More importantly, perhaps, it feels like a way of flagging my relationship to him. If we’re still calling each other by our surnames after ten years there isn’t much hope for our future together.