[Marxism] Re.: Gilles d'Aymery --> Noms de

Chris Brady cdbrady at sbcglobal.net
Sun Feb 8 00:32:38 MST 2004

Well, yes, harrumph, anonymity is another thing, quite.

          Then there is the need in active socialist revolution for
protection AND propaganda.  Early on in the 1950s Paul Baran wrote for
Monthly Review under the pseudonym Sagittarius.  That was during the Red
Witch Hunt when he was an untenured professor.  Most Marxists might
understand why the foreign-born Pole Baran didn’t put all of his faith
in the safeguards of the First Amendment.

          Many others wrote for MR with the aegis of a nom de plume to
parry the sword of state.  (If I had to, I might chose Mr. Mixed
Metaphor, okay?)  If you go to the stacks of a library that’s carried MR
over the years, or to your own collection if you’re a collector of MRs,
just scan the covers from the Fifties and you’re bound to come across
several pen names before too long.  Examples range from Baran’s obvious
(also used in a prior period of ferment) to proper names that you’d
never suss, to blanket descriptive identifications such as “A
Socialist”, or “A Socialist from [a country, e.g. Japan]”, or “A
Socialist Student from ____”.

          Leo Huberman’s sister-in-law Elizabeth Huberman was a labor
analyst in her own right, as well as being married to a professor of
English at Rutgers.  Based on her studies in Mexico in the early Forties
and on developments later, Elizabeth wrote an article on the backsliding
of Mexican labor under Fidel Valasquez.  Paul Sweezy and his fellow
editor Leo Huberman were happy to get it into print.  To protect Ed as
well as Elizabeth, as Elizabeth tells it, “Leo insisted I use another
name.  So we picked Dick Lyle.  Lyle was my maiden name, and Dick was my
nickname then.”

          Nicknames are a whole other kettle of fish.  In New York in
the early part of the 20th century, many kids grew up with nicknames
that stuck.  Young workers who moved through various jobs also took up,
or grudgingly accepted, nicknames from their fellow workers.  Some were
plays on words.  Others were nicked, others simply shortened or
familiarized surnames.

          I’m working on the memoirs of a man who was in The War in
Spain (a.k.a., The Spanish Civil War), Carl Geiser.  Carl had gone to
the Conference Against War and Fascism in Montevideo and on the boat met
a guy who was also going.  That guy worked his passage down as a
merchant seaman.  His name was Paul Anderson.  During the War, everyone
knew him as Andy.

          Going through my elderly comrade’s correspondence home from
the front, I came across the nickname “Pretty.”  Pretty is mentioned
several times, and in terms of fond familiarity.  Of course, that was
seven decades ago, and my nonagenarian could only remember his friend by
the name everyone called him in their neighborhood back in the Bronx.
After a while I gave up giving the old man the third degree.  I tried
all sorts of jogs at his memory.  He did recall that Pretty wasn’t ugly,
anyway, so it wasn’t one of those sarcastic, hurtful nicknames, like
calling a fat guy Flaco.  But he wasn’t particularly drop-dead handsome,
either.  I figured it couldn’t hurt to leave that character as simply
Pretty.  Except it bugged me.

          Especially when I put together a book of Carl’s collected
letters from the front.  We called it “Letters to Impy.”  Impy was
Carl’s nickname for his wife Sylvia –a short, slight, vivacious,
precocious, outspoken, Jewish communist.  I guess you could call it a
pet name in the case of lovers, but they were both a couple of tough red
organizers in the Thirties, so “no pets” allowed.

Here’s Carls’ first mention of Pretty in his letters:

[Handwritten on blank paper, 8.5 x 11’’]
July 14th, 1937
Dear Impy -

Your letter of the 24th of June came at a most opportune time, when I
was dead-weary after 7 days of steady fighting, usually in the front
line. Imp, you must write me every two or three days this summer, for
your letters lighten me very much.
           “I haven’t written you since the 4th because we have been at
battle in the big offensive since then, and I have been much to[o]
weary, tired & dirty, not to say lacking paper and equipment to write
           “As you know, our offensive has been victorious, and is still
continuing.  But believe me, Imp, war means suffering, horrible and
nerve wracking.  I have never been so exhausted in all my life.  Our
machine gun company lost 3 commanders and 4 section political leaders,
all wounded.  As you know, this kind of fighting means much greater
casualties than ordinary trench warfare.
           “Just now we are in a reserve position, which means we are
ready to move into the trenches, or to the front lines, in a few minutes
notice.  But it gives us a chance to sleep, to rest and my first shave
and bath since the 4th.  And just now it looks like we are going up
again after 8 hours here.
           “You read about 700 soldiers deserting en masse to us 2 or 3
days ago.  This is the kind of action that helps us very much and we
hope it will increase during the next few weeks.  Opening of the French
border will help us greatly for while we have great sources of arms,
there are many things we could use, such as field glasses.  The fascists
use them to spot our positions, while we try to locate them with our
naked eye.
           “You ought to see how brave our boys are when they lie shot
on the stretchers.  As long as they are conscious, they speak firmly and
think only of the battle.  By the way, Paul is well, but Andy is dead.
A sniper must have got him when he sat down to rest for a moment.
Anyway he was found sitting down with his head nodding forward a bit.
He did very well here.  Pretty & Irving are in the 3rd American
Battalion which did not take part in the offensive yet.
           “As you probably read, our Battalion was in the thick of it
from the beginning, and we took part in the taking of Villaneauva de
Cañada, and now are about Mosquito Hill, the highest point between here
and Madrid.  As soon as it is taken the going should be much easier.
           “But, Imp, I hope to get back to tell you many more things of
our fighting here.  As for myself, it is doing much to steel me
physically & mentally.
           “Only one thing, write me every two or three days, for when
one is out in that terrifically hot sun, oftentimes without food &
water, with bullets flying all about, and you are exhausted to the bone,
a letter from you means very much to me.
           “The best of luck for your trip to Cal. this summer!
           “With all my love,

The next mention of Pretty comes from a letter dated Aug. 9, 1937.
Here’s the relevant bit:
           “A number of Americans joined us recently, including Pretty.
You should see him, actually looks like a soldier.  Irving is remaining
with the McKenzie Papineau Battalion.  I must write him, for according
to Pretty, rumor had it I was dead, in fact Pretty was very much
surprised to see me.”

Aug. 22, 1937:
           “At present I am Company Observer, for the Machine-Gun
Company.  My work is to watch the enemy lines, their movement,
fortifications and firing points, and the relation of our position to
these, whether we are properly placed.  It is a really interesting work
& one which calls for plenty of initiative and careful work
          “I haven’t seen Irving, and I don’t know exactly where his
Battalion is.  I sent him a letter officially denying the rumor that I
was dead which was circulating in his camp.
          “Pretty is a Battalion runner, where he enjoys himself
immensely running around all over delivering orders from the Battalion

Aug. 26, 1937:
          “We’re in the midst of our second offensive as you may have
guessed from the papers.  Am writing you on fascist paper and using a
fascist envelope, which I obtained from a powerful fortification we
captured this morning.
          “This offensive is much better organized in every way than the
last.  We rode right up to the line a few days ago in trucks, and by
evening in a beautifully coordinated aerial, artillery, tanks,
machine-gun and Infantry attack, we took a very powerful system of
trucks & block-houses.  From my position as observer, I saw the whole
attack clearly.  The dust & smoke was so thick from the shelling &
bombing when our infantry advanced behind the tanks and stormed the
enemy trenches I could hardly see them only 800 meters away.  Pretty was
wounded seriously in this action.
          “Within the next hour, the fascists had withdrawn into the
church, from which they killed 2 & wounded 4 of our men as they advanced
into town.  And that evening we ate well on fascist food.  I also
obtained the symbol of the Flamas Negras, crack Italian troops & the
fascist symbol.”

Aug. 31, 1937 (remember these are only portions from the letters):
          “Haven’t received any news from Pretty as yet about the
seriousness of his wound.  And as far as I know Irving is still in
training.  And Paul went for treatment for stomach troubles to a
hospital.  I doubt whether he will be back, for a number of members of
the I.B. after serving four to six months are transferred to other tasks
than fighting in the front line.  Which reminds me, I will have been
here 4 months tomorrow.  I hope to take part in at least one more
offensive after this one, and let us hope it will be the one that will
break the back of fascism.”

Sept. 15, 1937:
          “The movie “Spanish Earth” ought to be interesting.   And I
know that if Joris Ivens could have filmed all the moving sights I have
seen, it would be a most powerful piece of propaganda, and for its sheer
realism & life & blood content, could only be a work of art.  There are
many scenes in Spain I shall always remember.  I wish I could have
filmed the fifteen minutes of action in which we took the main
fortifications before Quinto.  In these 15 minutes we could have shown
concentrated artillery fire, an aerial bombardment, airplanes strafing,
machine gun fire from 9 or 10 guns, tank action smashing barbed wire
defenses, and an advance of infantry behind tanks, climaxed by a bayonet
charge—all in 15 minutes.  From my position as observer I was able to
clearly witness the entire thing.
          “Or if we could have filmed that last morning in Belchite.
Just at dawn, the last garrison surrendered, and some 160 soldiers and
over a hundred old men, women & children marched out.  Every third
soldier had a bandage around his head from a head wound.  Many were
trying to sing the “Internationale” and the majority greeting us with
raised fists.  Or for scenes of horror, the roads next to the hospital
piled four deep with fascist dead, or the last street we took, littered
with the carcasses of dead cats, dogs, sheep, goats, mules, horses, and
men, only we couldn’t have photographed the awful stench.  And there are
many pleasant scenes, as for instance when we gave food to an old
grandmother, her daughter & grand daughter, at dusk one evening, in the
shadow of a huge church surrounded by the usual wall & moats.  Their
gratitude mixed with hysteria from their recent fear we would mistreat
them and their horror at the recent execution of the male members of
their family by the fascists, for they were suspected of republican
sympathies.  Nevertheless I want to see “Spanish Earth” when I return.
          “But to get back to your letters. True, I lost a good deal of
weight at Brunete, but today I am heavier than I ever have been.
          “Irving is here with us now, not in the same Battalion, but in
the same Brigade.  So I see him every now and then.  His rank is
Sergeant and he’s doing quite well.  He will have a lot to tell you.
Paul [Wendorf] is still at a rest home as far as I know, though I
wouldn’t be surprised if you met him one of these days.  Pretty, by the
way, died shortly after reaching the hospital.  It was only a few days
ago that I learned of his death from the one who took him in.”

Oct. 27, 1937 [Carl was hit by shrapnel from a mortar explosion.  Here
he writes from hospital]:
          “I got ahold of a copy of the Daily for Sept 24, and there I
saw the 2 ads, one for a mass meeting Friday night at De Witt Clinton on
Spain, and a Dance Saturday evening at American Peoples School, both
under the auspices of the Nathan Hale Branch.  I could have shouted for
joy, and it made me very proud of my Branch.  And it is especially
fitting that the Branch members should exert themselves on behalf of
Spain in response to the sacrifice Pretty made.  Each time we suffer a
loss, it is necessary that we strike back so much the harder and in view
of Pretty’s popularity in the neighborhood, this should be possible.”

          So Pretty was popular with the people.  A lot of people knew
who he was, once.  And I could tell by his eyes that Carl still missed
him years and years later.

          Last time I was visiting with Carl I came to town for a few
days.  He had just gotten a new computer that talked.  It could take
rudimentary verbal commands, too.  Good technology for a shaky old guy.
But when I worked on it, though, I turned the voice off.  It was always
reacting to my conversations with Carl --which are somewhat louder than
the normal speaking voice in my case so Carl can hear me.  Anyways, it
was getting late after a day of sorting through files and typing, but
before I left I had to reset the voice command function for him.  I
tested it by asking it the time.  I didn’t realize that I had the volume
on so high, so that when it answered it was very loud: “THE TIME IS
TEN-THIRTY!”  Carl had been dozing but the VOICE brought him to quick.
He blinked blearily, and then smiled:  “Mel Purdy!  Did he say Mel

          I leapt:  “Who’s Mel Purdy, Carl?”

          I felt like a cop detective in a 1940s murder thriller.  I
licked my lips like Bogart:  “Was Purdy a friend of yours?  Was he in
Spain?  Who was Mel Purdy?”

           “Why, we called him Pretty.  He was a good guy.  He was from
the Bronx

          Goldurn, Purdy!  “Pretty” was Purdy—a play on words.  A
nickname from a place and a time when people had an ear for accents and
loved wordplay.  I could just hear those Depression-era wiseguys from
the neighborhood: "Wadja say yer name was, pal? Purdy? Djoo mean
Pretty?  Don act stupid!  C'mon, say it properly!  Is dat yer name,
Pretty?  Okay, dat's yer name.  Yer with us, Pretty."

Bye, any other name...

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