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.
Many literary giants have disguised their identities — including George Eliot, Lewis Carroll and O'Henry — and Nom de Plume gives us insight into the men and women behind the masks. 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 overemphasises 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 pseudonyms can also facilitate honesty. Without fear of retribution, authors such as George Eliot felt empowered to express their controversial views. Such ethical complexities are treated thoughtfully by Ciuraru, whose non-judgmental tone allows readers to come to their own conclusions.
Highly nuanced, Ciuraru recognises the tension between lying and truth-telling in pseudonymous writing, and her most intelligent arguments regard that subject. She explains how 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 more than 70 pseudonyms: "To pretend is to know oneself."
Yet she concedes the dangers of camouflage, when she describes the racist manifestos 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 to understand "the common man"? Or that Mark Twain filed annoying letters he received in a folder labelled "From an Ass"?
With description that captures the imagination, Nom de Plume is what non-fiction should be — accessible, thought-provoking and highly entertaining.
Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms By Carmela Ciuraru, Harper, 366 pages, $24.99