Is a name destiny?
When I think about Matthew Arnold and myself, I can’t help but think about Mark Twain’s quote about lightning and lightning bugs. Mark Twain got to pick his name along with his writing career. The story about my name is more complicated. For starters, I wasn’t named after Matthew Arnold.
My first name came from my grandfather Maurice, who died before I was born. Following Jewish tradition, my name also had to begin with an M. Since I was born in the 1960s when parents still gave children normal-sounding names, my parents chose Matthew. As for the middle name, I guess my parents felt they had more leeway. Arnold was the last name of my father’s business partner. I don’t recall his first name, but from the way my father talked about him after the business broke up, I assumed that it was Benedict. My father had an English literature textbook with Matthew Arnold’s poems in it, but I don’t think it figured into their decision. Perhaps his teacher didn’t cover “Dover Beach” in class.
Regardless of how I got my name, I hated it as a child — especially my middle name. Kids will make fun of anything. If having glasses, good grades, and a lack of athleticism wasn’t enough, I also had that dorky middle name. Even worse, the popular TV series Green Acres had a character named Arnold the Pig. I hated that stupid pig as much as my stupid middle name.
As I entered adolescence, I thought about changing my middle name. We had precedents in our family: My mom also hated the middle name her parents gave her, and she changed it when she became an adult. As I prepared for my bar mitzvah, I got to choose my Hebrew name (because my father forgot about that part of Jewish tradition). So, I looked forward to the day when I could choose the identity I wanted.
And that’s what I did — by keeping my middle name.
Several things happened in high school that caused me to change my mind about Arnold. Green Acres went off the air. I decided to become a writer. And shortly after that, I took a class on English literature (which included you know who). I realized that Matthew Arnold Stern is a good name for a writer.
Arnold transformed from a source of embarrassment to a source of pride. I started including my middle name in my creative writing. I even tried to emulate Matthew Arnold’s awesome sideburns. (This was back in the 1970s when nobody cared how they looked.) Today, I consider it part of my branding. There are plenty of people named Matthew Stern, but Matthew Arnold Stern is an identity I can claim for myself.
We define our own identity, whether we take the name our parents give us or create our own, but our destiny is determined by what we do with that identity.