We often think of writing as a form of self-expression, but how much do words truly reveal about their authors? This question is at the heart of Carmela Ciuraru’s Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, a fascinating investigation of why writers use pen names.
The book begins with a meditation on the power of naming. “Names are loaded, full of pitfalls and possibilities, and can prove obstacles to
writing...” Ciuraru explains. “A change of name, much like a change of scenery, provides a chance to begin again.”
With skilled research and palpable empathy, Ciuraru chronicles the lives of secretive storytellers - those who wished to communicate without being known. In our tell-all age, such shyness might seem strange, but there was a time when pseudonyms were common.
Through well-chosen quotes, Ciuraru lets the authors speak for themselves. By sampling extensively from letters and diaries, she shows the vast gulf that can exist between an author’s identity and his or her persona on the page.
Here is an example. A profile of Alice Sheldon – who wrote science fiction under a male pseudonym – includes Sheldon’s pathetic confession that “I’m fond of a hundred people who no more know ‘me’ than the landscape of Antarctica.” These kinds of quotes flesh out the historical figures Ciuraru describes and help readers understand their motivations.
Though the book overemphasizes scandals and includes some unwarranted speculation, it also includes illuminating details. This is particularly true in the chapter on O’Henry, which describes the incredible steps he took to prevent people from discovering his criminal past. According to Ciuraru, O’Henry wrote letters from jail where he claimed he was working abroad, and – after he was set free – he repeatedly lied during interviews with reporters. And he is not the only pseudonymous writer with something to hide. The Bronte sisters wrote under male names, because – as Charlotte Bronte put it - they “had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.” But – as Nom de Plume reveals – pseudonyms can also facilitate honesty. Without fear of retribution, authors like George Eliot felt empowered to express their controversial views on religion and politics. Such ethical complexities are treated thoughtfully by Ciuraru, whose nonjudgmental tone allows readers to come to their own conclusions.
Highly nuanced, Ciuraru recognizes the tension between lying and truth-telling in pseudonymous writing, and her most intelligent arguments regard that subject. She explains how – oftentimes – a person conveys their personality when they choose a pseudonym: Who we aspire to be is a significant part of who we are, Ciuraru explains, which is why even a Halloween costume can reveal a person’s character. Ciuraru cites the maxim of Fernando Pessoa, a poet with over seventy pseudonyms: “To pretend is to know oneself.” Yet she concedes the dangers of camouflage, when she describes the racist manifestos that authors have written under assumed names. Unwilling to sugarcoat or oversimplify, Ciuraru frankly describes the use and abuse of pseudonyms throughout history.
Hers is a compelling account, not only because of its innovative approach to an understudied subject, but also because of its amusing
anecdotes. Did you know, for example, that George Orwell pretended to be a hobo in order to understand “the common man”? Or that Mark Twain filed annoying letters he received in a folder labeled “From an Ass”? Readers will find many stories like these in Nom de Plume, which features intimate portraits of both famous and obscure writers, and they may even discover an author who intrigues them.
Ciuraru is adept at discussing books without spoiling them, and her anthology gives just enough information for readers to judge which authors are appealing. For example, her explanation of Henry Green’s psychological novels conveys what he has to offer without revealing too much about his characters. Ciuraru also provides titillating details about authors’ methods, such as the fact that Romain Gary would not start writing without sharpened pencils and rolled cigars on his desk.
With description that captures the imagination, Nom de Plume is what nonfiction should be – accessible, thought-provoking, and highly entertaining.
Ilana Kowarski is a Monitor contributor.