30 June 2011

The Autobiography of William Henry Donner, Chapter 23

The Autobiography of William Henry Donner has disappointed me in some ways, the main one being that it is largely impersonal. It mostly tells the stories of W.H.D.'s business successes (and a few failures). Of course, if that is what I had wanted, it would be great. Anyway, here is a chapter that is more personal and amusing, if you don't mind what might be considered some mild anti-Semitism. (Color not added, i.e. color in the original.)

Chapter 23. See Yourself as Others See You. Year 1895. When living in Anderson I left a pair of shoes with a cobbler to be repaired, but forgot to pick them up on the way home from work. I needed them that evening & asked my brother Fred, who was stopping with us & working in the mill, if he would go down to the cobbler near the post office and get them for me. I explained that Mrs. Donner and I were going out for dinner, that I needed them and was crowded for time. Fred replied, 'Certainly.' He started off, located the cobbler's shop as directed and asked for Mr. Donner's shoes. He was told 'I have no shoes for Mr. Donner.' Fred then asked if there was another cobbler nearby and was told there wasn't, but there was one two squares away. My brother concluded that the shoes must be in this shop and looked around. He discovered a pair which he thought were probably mine. He offered to pay for the repairs, take them home, and return them in the morning if they were not his brother's, to which the man agreed. When Fred brought them home and I said they were mine, he immediately began to roar with laughter & said that when he asked to whom they belonged the cobbler stated, 'I don't know the man's name, but he passes here frequently before seven o'clock in the morning, is always in a hurry, and looks like a Jew.' Fred thought it was a good joke and circulated the story among my friends.


  1. I'm not quite sure why this is anti-Semitic, unless the implication that people who are off to work early and in a hurry are somehow to be scorned? Or is the implication that he thought it ridiculous that he be mistaken for a Jew? Maybe I'm just not sensitive enough.

  2. It's probably the "looks like a Jew" part. It would have been interesting if the brother had probed further into that comment. I think the tone of the story may also hinge upon whether Donner actually was a Jew.

  3. Yeah, I personally don't find it Anti-Semitic. But I felt I should add that caveat/proviso to acknowledge that it could be interpreted as such. Perhaps it shows that we live in an over-sensitive age that I felt I needed to do so.

    Donner was raised a Presbyterian.

    I find it more often humorous than offensive when people attempt to identify Jews by appearance or demeanor since they are so often wrong and they are just displaying their silly over-confidence in stereotypes, not any deep-seated hatred. I've even known non-self-loathing Jews who had this over-confidence in their "jewdar."

    I agree with both of you that the question is, what is supposed to be funny about this story? Is funny that WHD was so consistently in a hurry and early to work that even a casual observer of the Columbus, Indiana "scene" would be able to identify him by it? And/or is it ridiculous to be mistaken for a Jew? If so, that is indeed pretty offensive since it may imply that being a Jew is inherently a bad thing, or at least ridiculous thing. Or is it just funny that the cobbler got two things so right about him and one thing so wrong?

    Also, what's up with a cobbler who doesn't keep track of which shoes belong to which customer? Was the technology of name tags on a string not invented yet?

    Also, what's up with being able to identify your brother's shoes, presumably among many similar ones? Fraternal shoe-dar? Am I the keeper of my brother's shoes?