Ethnic ghosts in the closet
August 28, 1986
This was my contribution to the special issue of Illinois Times on the theme, “Growing up American.” My family had an “ethnic” surname but we were in every other way white-bread American with the crusts cut off. The experience left me alert to such contradictions in the wider world, as I tried to explain in this piece.
This is a memoir, really, and thus probably doesn’t belong here, but we were hardly the only Illinoisans of European descent who came late to a heritage Americanness had blinded them to.
Years ago, one of my high school teachers told me that I had a German head. She was referring not to my intellectual tendencies but to its shape, which she regarded as characteristic of that people—a head which is longer than it is wide. Had I been older, I could have made a joke about how the only German heads I'd seen were atop glasses of Dortmunder beer; had I been less ignorant, I might have suggested that a cranium so shaped would explain the Teutonic tendency toward scholarship that is narrow but deep. In any event, I saw no need to dispute her. Of course I had a German head. I had a German name, didn't I?
My sense of things ethnic, you see, was pretty primitive.
You would think that with a name like Krohe, the question of my family's ethnic origins would have some straightforward answers. Yet it would be hard to imagine a family in which the ties to the old country were more weak. It is customary for American families to hark back to those predecessor traditions, to self-consciously regain some of the distinctive ways— food, religion, dress, language, custom—that were lost in assimilation. We Krohes never sought to regain our heritage because we didn't know we'd lost it.
The neighborhood I grew up in on Springfield's east side in the 1950s was hardly a school for ethnic awareness. Today I listen enviously to stories from friends who grew up in ethnic enclaves of Chicago. Even on Springfield's north side (had I known where to find it) I could have attended mass in Lithuanian or lunched on homemade kielbasa or had an old man teach me the tarentella the way they danced in the old country. On my block, however, the families had names like Hanselman, Powers, Agee, Philpott, Skinner, Pletcher, Lewis, Turner, Erickson. On the north side the corner groceries were run by people named Sgro; the one on our block was run by Art McHenry. According to my crude understanding of the process, Columbus discovered America and then changed his name to Smith, probably for tax reasons.
I realize that I betray a bias common to us white-bread types by defining "ethnic" in terms of non-WASP peoples. But "ethnic" meant exotic to us. Like our neighbors, we were anything but exotic. We were white. We were middle class. Our patron saint was Betty Crocker. We learned our folk dances from American Bandstand; our connectedness to culture was commercial. Our old country was Beardstown, where my parents grew up. My German ancestors (I was to learn many years later) set out on their new lives with some apple trees and a chest filled with linen cloth; we started our American odyssey equipped with a can opener and a TV Guide.
We had realized the life which so many millions of immigrants came here to find, in short. I did not for many years realize how poor that life was. We were Americans, subspecies nuclear family, cut loose from history. Our identity was something we put on every morning—you are what you eat in a neighborhood like that, as well as what you wear, what car you drive. The stories we told around the table were the ones we'd heard on Milton Berle the night before. We hardly saw my father's family, and I think we regarded my mother's family, who then lived on a farm, as primitive versions of us.
The Krohes (I discovered years later) had been in the U.S. since the 1830s. Their German heritage had been preserved simply by having been lived by the subsequent four generations. It was not until World War I, when being German suddenly became awkward, that those ties began to ravel. Lutheran services began to be given in English, and (I believe) the family name began to be pronounced according to English phonetics. Germanness for the later Krohes thus had come to mean the farm, the old church; my father's father's generation, in contrast, were working in banks and living in town and going to Illini homecomings.
The result was that my father, growing up, was aware that the clan was German only in some vague way. He recalls that his grandmother spoke English with a German accent, even though she had been born and raised in Cass County. Beyond that there was little to distinguish his family.
Except the name. Our name always set us apart in Springfield. Apparently it is unusual even in Germany. During the war my father pored over telephone directories in the cities he found himself in, looking for Krohes. He never found one. Its differentness is its only virtue, it being ugly-looking and (given its Midwestern pronunciation) ugly-sounding. But it is German, and because I had it I always regarded myself as vaguely German as well. This had nothing to do with culture. Nor did it have much to do with blood. My father's mother was an Irish woman named McClure; my mother's background, while murky as to details, seems indisputably English and/or Irish.
These facts I have known for years. Why then did I insist on my Germanness? None of our branch of the family ever went to the Lutheran church. The only German my father speaks is the few words he picked up in the war. My friends persist in identifying German traits in my personality, but they do so only to make fun. (If I match any national stereotype it is that of the Irish, except when it comes to drinking: I have a Methodist stomach.) And no one who grew up as I did reading stories of the Holocaust would claim to be German out of pride.
As for adopting Germany as my putative homeland, well, one sniff of sauerkraut as a boy was enough to explain to me why the Germans invaded France. I admire their sense of civic order but deplore their conformism, their materialism, and their lack of humor. It is hard to say which I would miss more, Beethoven or German beer, but oompah bands and German poetry have always left me cold. The Germans don't even play the most attractive soccer in Europe.
My connections to the British are more numerous and binding, in fact, including that most profound connection of all, language. I value the landscape, literature, folk music, clothes, gardens, weather, drink, theater, humor (not comedy), and TV system shared imperfectly and uneasily by the Scots, English, Irish, and Welsh almost enough to cause me to forgive them their food and priggishness about class. Indeed, so industrious is my reading of British press and my listening to British radio and my watching of old British film and nearly-as-old British television programs that I have picked up a sort of British accent, to the extent that I unconsciously resort to British phrases in casual conversation. Yet I have never offered my grandmother's and mother's British blood as a credential for any claim of Britishness.
There is magic in a name, of course, that makes what appears on our driver's license more important than what flows through our veins. But would I choose differently, were I free to pick a surname from among the family's list of Krohe, Anderson, Beaver, and McClure? Probably not. I suppose that the reason is that the British, for all their odd ways, just aren't foreign enough. We tend to regard our ethnic forebears, I find, much as we might regard an insane relative—an embarrassment at the time, but years later we take a perverse pride in his determined eccentricities. As the second-largest ethnic group in the U.S. after the British, Germans are far from the most exotic thread in this country's ethnic tapestry. But they seem more exotic than a race of men and women named Jones and Green. A thousand novels record the struggle of immigrants to make themselves different, and thus the same as everyone else in America. Like their great-grandchildren, I was confronted with the same need. And what is more American than pretending to be someone you aren't? ●