Monday, October 28, 2013

Dead Man's Name Tag

I've been away at an academic conference for nearly a week, leaving blog posts unfinished, e-mail unanswered, and campus office untenanted. I had a wonderful time with a bunch of scholars and actors at the American Shakespeare Center's reproduction of Shakespeare's Blackfriars playhouse. (If you'd like to see some excellent theater, a trip to see the ASC's company in Staunton, Virginia, is a great idea.) But I also bumped up against a small problem that's began to follow me wherever I go professionally: the problem of my (real) name.

I am not the only Shakespeare scholar with my name. That's not surprising. My real name is quite common, not "John Smith" but a dirt-common first name with a vanilla-ethnic surname, so I bump into nominal doppelgangers all the time. I've gotten other people's phone calls and in one memorable case another person's subpoena. For years I went to a father-son barber shop, right across the street from my workplace, where both barbers shared my name and the younger barber, the one who cut my hair, even shared my middle name. So I wasn't surprised to discover that there was an older Shakespearean with my name, someone who began university teaching while I was still in grade school. And I knew what to do about it.

I have always been careful to use my middle initial in my academic byline, especially in my publications but also when registering for conferences, so that conference programs and name tags identify me as "Cosimo P. Cleveland." This is the simplest (and likely the only) way to differentiate myself from the earlier scholar who published as plain "Cosimo Cleveland" or, occasionally, "Cosimo T. Cleveland." Using the middle initial feels a little fussy and overly-formal, and it wouldn't be my preference in an ideal world. I certainly don't introduce myself with my middle initial when I'm shaking hands; in fact, I use a less formal nickname, equivalent to "Cozmo" or "Coz." But leaving the initial out of my byline would be sloppy and disrespectful. It would also verge on filial disrespect for my own father, a published spy novelist whom we can call "Cosimo C. Cleveland," but there's not much chance my work will be confused with Dad's; books by that Cosimo Cleveland tend to be about fearless Mossad agents and books by this one tend to be about Elizabethan actors marking up their scripts. In any case, the middle initial is on my book and on all my published articles so far, so there's no changing it. My byline is now my byline.

But when I go out in the professional world, that fussy little middle initial has been increasingly dropping away. The problem isn't that people confuse me with the other Cosimo Cleveland. The problem is that he's getting erased from history.

Cosimo T., who got his first job teaching college a quarter-century before I got mine, published much less than I have. This isn't a reflection on him, and certainly isn't a reflection on me, but an indication of how much our profession changed between his generation and mine. Professors hired in the seventies did not publish nearly as much as professors must today, because professors then were not expected to publish the way we are today. I published more articles before I got tenure than Cosimo T. published in his entire career, not because I am smarter or more industrious than Cosimo T. was, but because one of the requirements for me to get tenure in the 21st century was to publish more than Cosimo T., who taught at a somewhat better school than I, published over his three-decade career. If I hadn't out-published him by the end of year five, I would have been fired. This is true everywhere. All academics of my generation have to produce much more research than the older generation did. Those are just the facts of our business.

And, unlike Cosimo T., I have published a book.  That's partly about generational expectations as well. But it means, inevitably, that more people have heard of the younger Cosimo than of the elder. So they don't necessarily see the point of my fussy little middle initial, except as something pointlessly fussy. They don't see it as differentiating me from the other Cosimo Cleveland, because they don't know there ever was another Cosimo Cleveland.

So I unfailingly send in my conference registration paperwork as "Cosimo P.," but sometimes I show up and open my program to find "Cosimo Cleveland" on the schedule. Not always, of course, but twice in the last month.  And I get a name tag identifying me as simply "Cosimo," so that I have walked around a conference hotel for a long weekend wearing a retired man's name, and now, I have come to fear, a dead man's name. I googled the other Cosimo Cleveland this morning and saw an ambiguous reference to his death. But when I search "Cosimo Cleveland Shakespeare obituary" google just gives me a bunch of links that refer to myself. "You've totally eclipsed that guy," one of my conference friends told me six months ago when I explained this problem. "Everyone who talks about 'Cosimo Cleveland' means you." But being part of someone else's eclipse, even unintentionally, is not a good feeling.

And while I can usually insist on the middle initial in print, I can't make people remember it when they cite my work. It's very common to leave out middle initials by accident, or to misremember the initial, when writing footnotes. I've made both mistakes myself, meaning no disrespect to the scholars I was quoting; before I had any work of my own to footnote, I had not thought about why people might prefer a specific form of their names. (I apologize to those scholars here, and will happily do so again in person.) There's no great conspiracy at work, but the error is clearly related to the earlier Cosimo falling out of academic memory. If my name were Stephen X. Greenblatt, I would not be having this problem.

There's no way to insist on the middle initial or to make any kind of fuss when it gets dropped. That wouldn't revive Cosimo T.'s reputation, but would surely give Cosimo P. one. All I can do is to scrupulously use that initial myself, because the fact of that earlier career deserves to be acknowledged. History is part of my work. If I spend much of my time trying to retrieve lost details four centuries gone, I should not consent to forgetting the recent history of my own guild. And as someone who will die someday, I find it sad to see another person's life being forgotten. Devouring time may blunt the lion's jaws, but it is also devouring the memory of one Cosimo Cleveland, a dedicated teacher and scholar, and in due course it will come for me. There isn't even malice involved. People simply stop knowing. The name tag hanging around my neck in this or that hotel ballroom gives no testimony to that earlier Cosimo's work or life, but I have to read it as a reminder: memento mori.

cross-posted from Dagblog


Renaissance Girl said...

OMG I think I read one of your dad's books when I was a teenager.

Doctor Cleveland said...

RG: Did it have a big swastika on the cover?

(I should add for third parties that my father is firmly against people with swastikas.)

Renaissance Girl said...

Don't recall. But its initials were AS.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Yup. That's my old man.

Concord Fowling Pieces said...

I think there is only one solution: a tribute volume to the elder Dr. cosimo Cleveland, edited by you. At the very least, future generations will know there were two. And an historian of academia will someday get a dissertation out of it.

Renaissance Girl said...

And let me just say, as someone who has about 6000 nominal doppelgangers a mouseclick away...I think your respect for the life and distinct career of the older Cosimo Cleveland is admirable. Usually I just get irritated. But then, my doppelgangers are rarely Renaissance Girls; rather, I am blessed with a number of strippers, actresses, criminals, and real-estate agents.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Thanks, RG. I think it is the shared profession that makes this particular namesake different. The internet shows me lots of other namesakes, including a few scoundrels and a LOT of attorneys, but obviously it's the fellow scholar with whom I identify.