"Unto the Fourth Generation"
Updated: Sep 23, 2019
I’m waiting for my 1952 book to arrive in the mail. Therefore this week, I’m writing about the names of Korea, Jewish science fiction and “Unto the Fourth Generation” by Isaac Asimov.
How the Koreas got their names
The Koreas have many names: Korea, Chosŏn, Daehan Minguk, Hanguk and Uri nara. Each name has its own unique meaning; a meaning that is intertwined into the history of the Korean people.
The modern English name Korea is derived from Goryeo (also spelled as Koryŏ), an ancient Korean kingdom. This is the name both countries use in international contexts. In the Korean language, each country has its own name for what should have been a unified nation.
When Japan annexed Korea in 1910, they named their new colony Joseon (Chōsen in Japanese pronunciation), after the previous Korean dynasty and the ancient kingdom it referenced. This name had previously been translated by English tourists as “Land of the morning calm”.
During this period, many different groups outside of Korea fought for independence, the most notable being the Daehan Minguk Imsi Jeongbu, or in English: “The Provisional Government of the Great Han People's Nation". Han referenced “Samhan”, the nickname for the three kingdoms of Korea before they were united under a single dynasty.
When Korea was partitioned after World War II, each country chose a name that referenced this period in the nation’s history.
North Korea chose the name Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk (The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), or Chosŏn for short. Each component in the name was selected carefully. Chosŏn was the name used throughout Japan’s colonial period, and everyone was familiar with it. “Democratic People’s” referred to two short-lived communist states: the Finnish Democratic Republic and the Ukrainian People's Republic of Soviets. Finally, konghwaguk was used for “republic” because the word had leftist connotations.
South Korea, on the other hand, adopted for itself the name Daehan Minguk after the resistance group which fought against Japanese colonial rule. Informally, the South Koreans refer to their country as Hanguk in reference to the three kingdoms or Uri Nara, “our nation”.
When it comes to national identity, North Korea and South Korea are a good example of how names help shape and instill a national identity. In the publishing industry, on the other hand, names are often a business decision used to sell books. What happens though when a writer is born with a name that won’t sell books? Or worse, embarrass their Jewish mother?
The first Jewish name in science fiction
In his introduction to Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov relates the difficulties early Jewish science fiction writers faced. It was perfectly okay for Jewish boys to write great novels, play the violin, play chess and become doctors or lawyers. Guitars, saxophones, poker, pool and careers as baseball player were all taboo.
This resulted in a large amount of American novels that deal with Jewish themes, and a large absence of Jewish writers in science fiction and fantasy. These stories were published in cheap magazines, which were no place for a proper Jewish boys, unless they used a pen name – and many did.
Using a pen-name wasn’t just a social necessity for many early Jewish science fiction and fantasy writers, it was also good business sense. A story with the title “War-gods of the Oyster-Men of Deneb”, just didn’t carry conviction if it was written by a Chaim Itzkowitz, and it is probably the reason why Philip Klass changed his name to William Tenn.
Isaac Asimov (as far as he knows) was the first science fiction to retain his Jewish name. Why? He was young and didn’t know any better. Also, he liked his name and wanted to see it in print. Asimov still didn’t write about Jewish themes as he was more interested in robots, strange worlds and galactic empires, but a Jewish name in science fiction was there.
This all changed after World War II. Nazis were no longer around; there was a United Nations; racism was out of fashion; and ethnic identities were popular. Suddenly, Jewish science fiction was possible, and Asimov caught up in the new spirit wrote his first, and only, Jewish fantasy short story, “Unto the Fourth Generation”.
Lewkowitz, Levkowich, Lefkovitz, or Levkovich?
When the Children of Israel were slaves in Egypt, they retained three distinct cultural markings: their language, their garb, and their names. These established a connection which allowed them to maintain a hold on their identity, while the Egyptians were busy using them as a cheap source of labor. Asimov explores one of these connections, Jewish names, in “Unto the Fourth Generation”, and shows how they help connect us to our heritage.
Samuel Marten is a nervous junior executive on the way to meet a potential client when he sees a passing truck with the name Lewkowitz and sons, Wholesale Clothiers. The name seems wrong to him, it should be Levkovich. Why? He doesn’t know, and this leaves him profoundly disturbed. There is something in the name Levkovich that needs to discover, some personal knowledge that he needs to reveal. Whatever it is though will end up being important.
This story is Asimov’s only Jewish short story, and it unconsciously explores the author’s connection to his heritage. Asimov had a Jewish mother and a Jewish grandmother on his father’s side. However, he wasn’t raised in a religious setting, never felt the need to observe any of the holidays or rituals, and his god was the god of Aristotle, Newton and Einstein, yet he still retained his name, -- something that many other, more observant, American Jews had abandoned in order to integrate.
Each of us has many names that make up our identity. We’ve got our national names (Jew, Israeli); our ethnic names (Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Yemenite, Russian); our tribal names (secular, religious, atheist, ultra-orthodox, traditional, humanist); and our personal and family names. Each of these names connects us to a larger whole and helps forge the personal bonds and group bonds that shape our existence. The Koreans knew this when they chose the names for their national identities, Asimov knew this when he retained his Jewish name, and we know this when we carefully choose the names we give our children. It is one of the greatest gifts parents can give, and one that their descendants will cherish even “Unto the fourth generation” and beyond.