In response to:
Pain and Laughter from the June 14, 1979 issue
To the Editors:
I am afraid the editing has been faulty on V.S. Pritchett’s review of The Best of Sholom Aleichem. Not that Pritchett is in any way weak in critical acuity; the review is excellent. But, Oh! how could you have permitted him the gaffe of discussing Sholom Aleichem as though his last name were Aleichem? Examples: “…it is certainly true of Aleichem’s work…” “Aleichem has the style of…” “Nearly all of Aleichem’s people…” and other such choice howlers.
Does anyone not know that “Sholom Aleichem” is a pseudonym (of Sholom Rabinovitch)? Well, perhaps not everyone. But the point which no speaker of Yiddish or Hebrew could miss is that it is no ordinary pseudonym but a pseudonym à clef. Let me explain:
Regarding pseudonyms, in general, it is perfectly in order to use surnames alone. Thus, one speaks of Twain’s Weltan-schauung, Stendhal’s Einbildungskraft, Voltaire’s Entfremdung—but never Aleichem’s…. You cannot use the name “Aleichem” tout court. (A check of a ready reference work such as the Penguin Encyclopedia of European Literature will show that he is listed under the S’s, not under the A’s.) The reason is that the pseudonym is actually an ordinary phrase of greeting amongst Jews. Its literal meaning is “Peace be with you,” and it performs the function of “How are you?” (Does anyone not know what “shalom” means?) Apparently Rabinovitch wanted his name to become a household word, and the humor is that with that pseudonym he had it ready-made. This was a fine bit of self-mockery.
Analogously, it is as though an English-speaking writer of folksy stories had taken the pseudonym “How are you”—and then a Japanese reviewer (say) were to speak of “Are you’s” work and style. Enough. Next time, just remember.
Department of Philosophy
The University of Texas, Austin, Texas
V.S Pritchett replies:
As one who has had lifelong trouble with his name, so that he now endures anything that comes to him—even the association of his initials with a well-known brand of toilet tissue—I have every sympathy with my critics. I can only plead, with Dr. Johnson, that my fault was a matter of “pure ignorance” and that the result has been an addition to human gaiety. But I do not think that ignorance of a form of address prevents a critic from appreciating the merits of a writer who belongs to a culture other than his own. I shall still admire Aleichem How-d’you do slightly more than Aleichem Peace-be-with-you, which like Praise-God Barebones has overtones of spiritual superiority.
August 16, 1979