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In Defense of Anonymity

ISSUE:  Winter 1987

Recently, my little grandson gave me an Elvis Presley tape. I put it in the car tape deck and turned it on. “Yu-know,” Elvis drawled in the middle of a love song, “Someone said, ‘The World’s a stage.’” Grimacing, I turned it off. “What an illiterate man!” I exclaimed. “Not to know that Shakespeare said it and others before him!” And then I thought, “Maybe he isn’t so ignorant. Maybe he has enough wisdom of heart to see that what is said is the important thing, not who said it.”

And I thought of how often I had been pleased with the words, “Anonymous Donor.” I saw it not long ago when someone purchased the use of a movie house on a Saturday morning and had invitations sent to the children with cancer in the region, together with their families, to attend a private showing of The Empire Strikes Back, and stay on for treats afterward.

Right now, films are marred by tedious impositions of names during the first few minutes of the show: a long string of names appears superimposed on the action—producers, assistant producers, directors, designers, cameramen, and wardrobe mistresses. Even the newscasts run long lines of credits to everybody from the producers to those in charge of lighting—people who were presumably paid at least something for their efforts. Meanwhile, the viewers would rather see the show or the news. Besides, the names are flashed so rapidly that no one except someone with a photographic memory could possibly remember the names, and such a person could probably use the time better in some other way.

Whenever I see these unilluminating lists of credits, I am reminded of all the anonymous people, who, either through acts of kindness to me or through written works which benefit everybody, have truly enlightened me and who never got any credit from me or anyone else—unless, hopefully, they have stored up some credits in heaven. If I had known them, there would undoubtedly have been aspects of their personalities which I would not have liked, but because I do not know them, I can absorb the essence of their kindness, their wisdom, their humanity—unadulterated—and unforgettable.

Toward the end of June 1940, I was on an American ship sent over by the government to rescue Americans from the Nazis. The ship—the Washington—was greatly overcrowded. People were sleeping in the library, in the drained swimming pool—everywhere. Because I was pregnant, I was given a tiny stateroom five decks below. I remember that there were a large number of young Catholic priests aboard, returning from school in Rome. And also, though we had not seen them, there were many black entertainers on board, who were coming home from various countries in Europe.

The ship moved slowly from St. Jean de Luz, the harbor for Bordeaux, toward Lisbon, Portugal—slowly because the water was infested with Nazi submarines she was trying to avoid. We were not yet in the war. Many of the passengers were in a state of great despondency because they had lost everything they had, and they were frightened. In fact, the rear end of the train I had taken from Paris to Bordeaux had been bombed, and only the front end came in. I had lost my luggage. The Nazis had already taken over Paris, though they had not yet staged their formal march into the Place de la Concorde.

By the time we reached Lisbon, I was bleeding and the ship’s doctor wanted to send me and some other ill passengers ashore, but he could not, as there was a raging smallpox epidemic in the city. On top of that, most of us had been working in France and had only French francs, now worthless. In an effort to cheer us, the priests from Rome sent down their dollars on strings in exchange for bottles of port vended from Portuguese flatboats below the ship. The priests passed the bottles around and some of us were temporarily cheered. But human beings in the throes of agony and fear are never a pretty sight. Some ladies opposed to alcohol actually circulated a petition condemning the conduct of the priests.

From Lisbon, we started north toward Galway, Ireland. We were somewhere in the middle of the North Atlantic when one night, at 3 A.M., there were nine shrill whistles—an ominous sound. I was on my bunk, my mouth against a small pipe to get the sparse air that entered the room. I sprang up and read the sign on the back of my door: nine whistles: submarine. Taking a life preserver hanging there, I went outside and started up the stairs along with hundreds of other people. We had been well trained in American school fire drills. We followed each other, one by one, though some of us vomited along the way.

It was dark and windy at the surface. I was glad I had thrown my coat over my nightgown. The deck was filled with groups of shivering people. On the boat deck, the captain was shouting through a megaphone: “A Nazi submarine will sink this ship in ten minutes. Women and children first.” (As I said, we were not yet in the war. Later, we learned that the Washington had been mistaken for a British or a Greek ship.)

The crew loosened the lifeboats from the davits. Taking us one by one, by the head and feet, they threw us in. The wind was blowing hard and they waited each time until the boat slapped the side of the ship; it was like being thrown from the top of a building several stories high and one could hear screams as purses plummeted down between the ship and the boat. I looked down. The waves were so high that if the boats were ever lowered, I knew there was no chance for survival.

The Nazi submarine had surfaced—a long gray-black streak opposite me on the water. Darts of light were passing between the ship and the submarine. I kept thinking, “The torpedo will just go to the side of me but it won’t hit me.” (I wonder now if those before a firing squad think similarly— the bullet will pass just to the side.)

I looked toward the deck. Snatches of voices of the black entertainers could be heard. We had not seen the entertainers before, as they had been segregated, being black. (This was the 1940’s.) They were shouting something about being segregated in life and they would stay that way. Then they gathered in a group and sang spirituals. The priests, too, did not get in the lifeboats. They knelt on deck, their rosaries in their hands. Since there was no room in the boats for the sailors, some stood at attention, pale in the flashes of light, while others seemed to be running up the flag as an emergency measure, turning spotlights on it.

The captain shouted something and the message was passed around: “The Nazis understand this is an American ship. Back on deck.”

Back on deck, we rejoiced, but cautiously—the submarine was following us, sending a warning that if any wires were sent to reveal the ship’s position, she would be sunk immediately. Finally, the sub disappeared, and we proceeded, first to Galway briefly (though we could not go ashore), and then to New York City.

At sight of the Statue of Liberty, a wild cheer rose from the crowd on deck. All the river craft in the harbor had their whistles lashed down, blowing us a noisy welcome.

Jewish merchants met the ship. I am a Christian, but they did not ask anyone, “Are you Christian or Jewish?” They just said, “When you find a place to stay, phone” (and they gave the number of whatever place of business they had) “and we will give you whatever you need.”

The elegant bed and horsehair mattress I have parted with in my travels since then, but I still have a solid mahogany dresser and mirror.

And this is an instance of anonymity that I have personally experienced. I don’t know those Catholic priests who prayed for those who had not been particularly understanding or grateful to them; I don’t know those black entertainers who revealed to me that night in June 1940 how deeply scorn can hurt; I don’t know the Jewish merchants who came to the dock to help and asked nothing in return. But I do have a memory of a tremendous wave of warmth and love that swept over a ship-world. And it seems to me that those who create waves of hate are the ones to be known by name. The guards and medical experimenters who abused the prisoners in Nazi concentration camps should have every bit of credit they so richly deserve.


All our lives have been shaped to some extent by anonymous people. Even the folk tales have had a hand in shaping us through generations of nameless ancestors who were impelled to send their messages down to us in this form. Bruno Bettelheim, the famous Freudian, and James Hillman, the famous Jungian, have suggested that the old tales hearten us. Bettelheim finds they give “consolation and hope” and Hillman says they restore us by “re-storying” us.

Other great writings that have influenced many of us are as anonymous as the folktales. No one knows who wrote the long poetic account of how the hero, Beowulf, fought the monster Grendel and Grendel’s mother. It is generally regarded as the greatest poem of the Anglo-Saxon period, and it still moves all readers deeply by its account of courage in an uncertain world. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which trace English history from the fifth to the middle of the 12th century, consist of a series of seven manuscripts, none with a byline. Manuscript D, for instance, contains a firsthand account of the Norman Conquest—not trivia—and the Chronicle also contains a lusty epic poem about the Battle of Maldon (tenth century), which tells the story of a Britisher who would rather fight than bribe the Scandinavian enemy for peace. Some of these writings have not influenced us directly but indirectly through other writings descended from them.

In the Old English period, someone wrote The Pearl, a poem which has been praised for its beauty, restraint, and feeling. A pearl has slipped from the poet’s hands. In August, he falls asleep on a little mound among herbs and flowers. He dreams of a world of crystal cliffs and bright woods. Then he sees a child in white, her hair falling loosely about her shoulders, and she comforts him. She has lived “not two years in our land,” but she reassures him that there is another more beautiful world.

Perhaps Gawain and the Green Knight, considered the finest Arthurian romance in English, is by the same writer, but this can be only a conjecture from the style. The story carries no byline. That great work of human protest, Piers Plowman, has been attributed to at least five writers, but no one can be sure who wrote it.

Some of the translators of the Bible are well known, but not the authors of most of the ancient Books themselves. The beautiful Psalms are anonymous. Many of the writers of the lyric poetry contained in the miscellany, England’s Helicon, are not known. One is identified as Ignoto, and scholars continue to speculate as to who this might be. The late morality play (early 16th century), Everyman, still is performed, but the name of the author of this tremendous account of man’s destiny never appears on the marquee.

The collector of the 13th-century Ossianic lore, the tales and poems of Ireland, is unknown, as are most of the writers. Similarly, the writers of the Mabinogion, the early medieval Welsh tales, did not put their names on their work.

Writers are anonymous for various reasons, some because they write for the glory of God or the benefit of their fellow human beings or because bylines are not important to them or because they are afraid of reprisal for things they say about political figures. The Marprelate Tracts (1588—89), printed on a secret press, were Puritan attacks against the Church of England, and books have appeared discussing the possible authorship. “Junius” was the anonymous writer of 70 letters attacking the administration of George III, who was later the subject of attacks by writers during the American Revolution.

The same penchant for anonymity can be seen in continental writings. That intriguing story which defies sexual stereotypes—Aucassin and Nicolette—has an aggressive heroine, a passive, poetic hero, a king who goes to bed with imaginary birth pangs while his wife leads the army—and no known author. The Cid, the Spanish epic in which a son surpasses a father (an intriguing theme in many cultures) is anonymous. And people do not know who wrote many of the Italian commedia dell’arte but enjoy the comedies of Ben Jonson, Molière, and others who were influenced by them.

We are amused (sometimes through our familiarity with Chaucer) by the bawdy French fabliaux without knowing who wrote them. The same with the German fastnachtspiel, and the Icelandic sagas and some of the Latin hymns. The Gesta Romanorum are of unknown authorship, but the stories influenced many later writers, including Shakespeare. The Nibelungenlied, a medieval German heroic epic, held the imagination of Wagner.

Then there were the French mystery plays. And who was the author, by the way, of the marvelous cycle of miracle plays performed on village streets in England? He is called, for want of a name, “The Wakefield Master,” yet his Second Shepherd’s Play is a masterpiece of English religious drama. Professor Milla Riggio has pointed out the depth of this bright farce which shadows the nativity story—a babe in a manger who turns out to be a lamb, a burlesque which exalts the humble.

In Le Roman de Renart, the eye of the fox gleams through stories told by stone carvings, tapestries, drawings, and stained-glass windows. Kenneth Varty of the University of Leicester has traced the iconography of this mysterious epic. The great Chanson de Roland, especially the climactic moment when Roland, besieged by the Saracens, blows a horn in the face of death has given to all of us a model as to how to meet death courageously, an archetypal episode remembered by Shakespeare in Lear: “Childe Rowland to the dark tower came;” by Browning in his poem with that title; and by Edwin Arlington Robinson in “Mr. Flood’s Party,” in which old Flood, his friends all dead, climbs a hill above Tilbury-Town, and raises a jug in a toast, “Like Roland’s ghost winding a silent horn.”

Sometime in the late 12th century, monks in caves in Kiev wrote the important Russian Primary Chronicle—a valuable source history. And someone about the same time wrote the Slovo o Polku Igoreve—the lay of Igor’s army.

The authors of much Alexandrian poetry and of the Homeric Hymns (to go back still further) are unknown. Of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the eternal question is: Did Homer really exist or was he several people?

The authors of seminal Oriental literature also remain unknown. Everyone knows the Arabian Nights, but everyone is in the dark as to the authorship. Not only are the authors of the great Indian writings, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavadgita, unknown, but no one knows who wrote the Ramayana, or who wrote the influential versions of this work which form an important part of the classic literature of Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.

The Persian Avesta is also mainly anonymous, as are the Jataka and Panchatantra tales and the important religious writings, the Upanisad. Indeed, religious writings of any faith tend to be anonymous because the writers tend to concentrate on the words they wish to record and convey. The earliest Swahili poem is anonymous, as is much of the Quechuan literature, the literature of the Inca civilization.

Such an offhand listing as this is merely scratching the surface. Of course, we know about Plato and Aristotle, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, Catullus, Cicero, and so on. And we have no objection to bylines for Copernicus or Einstein. I merely wish to point out that many works considered classic are the combined work of many people, or of someone who put meaning above personal fame.

Through bylines, writers get “name value,” and thus can continue to increase their income. Some MC’s of talk shows on TV or famous actors or actresses (as well as some notorious criminals) already have name value and can use it to sell their sometimes shoddy, ghost-written books. Writers get “ego satisfaction.” But Shakespeare is reputed to have been well-heeled at the end of his life, and there is evidence that his reputation as a dramatist had gotten around among theatre men. This although he was quite careless about signing his name, so that arguments still persist as to whether he wrote the plays or wrote all of them. No doubt, the audience, young and old, who crowded into the pit were most interested in the plays themselves.

The contemporary ego is enormous, and suits for plagiarism are not uncommon. “I wrote this,” is the accusation. “You copied it.” How times have changed! Up through Shakespeare’s day, writers were more interested in basing their thoughts on older works than in writing something totally original. School children would compress the works of the classics or elaborate on them. They learned through imitation. Instead of having to guarantee to their professors that every word they uttered and every thought they conceived was theirs alone, they were expected to show that everything they said had been said before. Even Shakespeare’s plays were developed from histories and older plays and romances and stories, the authors of which are unknown in many cases.

Readers may say, “But if I know the name of the writer, I know what to expect.” Readers are fooling themselves. They know within the first paragraph what to expect. It is the content that is important.

One of the delights of travel is that one hears so many anonymous yarns on planes, or ships, or trains or—on the land—tales told by shopkeepers, or upcountry mountaineers, or ministories told by little children within the invisible world of the skipping rope. In some writing, to establish authority, a byline is necessary. But in many cases, if writers were anonymous, writing would be cut down to submissions by people who were impelled to write because they felt they had something important to say.

And an added dividend—anonymity would cut down on the number of heavy volumes dedicated to giving the biographies of nonentities, authors of mindless treatises better left unwritten.


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