The Arty Semite

Looking Back at a History of Pseudonyms

By Daniella Wexler

  • Print
  • Share Share

Nom De Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms
By Carmela Ciuraru
Harper, 331 pages, $24.99

Writers are always looking for new ways to tell stories, and Carmela Ciuraru has found hers in “Nom De Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.” In her latest book, Ciuraru, editor of eight poetry anthologies, chronicles the role of the pseudonym in the last couple of centuries through sixteen literary figures, some more obscure (Fernando Pessoa, Henry Green, Anne Desclos), and some from the highest echelons of literary renown (Mark Twain, George Orwell, Sylvia Plath).

“Nom De Plume” never feels gimmicky, though, because pseudonyms reveal a lot about an author’s relationship to identity. As in the case of the Bronte sisters (who originally published as Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell), Aurore Dupin (George Sand) or Marian Evans (George Eliot), pseudonyms were a necessity for women who wanted their work to be taken seriously.

At other times, the decision to use a pseudonym derived from conflicted sexual identity (science-fiction writer Alice Sheldon wrote as James Tiptree, Jr. to explore her masculine side), aversion to celebrity (Oxford University professor Charles Dodgson didn’t want his students to know he was the children’s book writer Lewis Carroll) or a desire for reinvention (Sylvia Plath experienced intense bouts of self-doubt). Ciuraru writes of the young, cantankerous Plath:

What she seems to have craved most, in fact, was a chance at birth, at resurrection. Even though she was sometimes able to produce (or recover) what she deemed an “authentic” self, the success did not prove sustainable…in the end, the demon won.

Still, sometimes writers had lighter, more whimsical ambitions for their pseudonyms, as in the case of Samuel Clemens, who wrote as Mark Twain, “fooling the public simply because he could.”

Deepening her portraits, Ciuraru also shows us how these issues of identity and representation found their way into the author’s works (think, for example, of Alice’s refrain in Lewis Carroll’s famous tale: “Who in the world am I?”)

These fabricated identities yield immortality in the best case, or early death and canonical exclusion in the worst. Such was the fate of Romain Gary, the French-Jewish author best known for “The Life Before Us,” the story of an orphan Arab boy’s devotion to a dying Auschwitz survivor and former “lady of the night.” Gary, bred for vanity by an overbearing stage mother, kept inventing new pseudonyms so he could become famous over and over again through the work that his various identities produced. Ciuraru writes:

This new toast of the literary world, thirty-one years old in 1945, was on his way to become what he’d always wanted: rich and famous, and one of France’s most prominent authors. Ultimately, his success would kill him.

To maintain his proxies, Gary wove a tangled web of lies that eventually unraveled. Once outed, he was blacklisted by French literary society, and, after a year and a half of alienation, shot himself in the head.

Anecdotal throughout, “Nom De Plume” proceeds chronologically and occasionally refers to earlier characters to provide a sense of cohesion. A caveat to the reader, though: it’s best to read chapter by chapter, since each subject is self-contained and well-researched. If consumed in a single sitting, the book can feel like a stew of original and invented identities, biographical and fictional characters: Who was Alice Sheldon, again? What was O. Henry’s real name?

Writing in the cogent, swift-moving prose that good biography demands, Ciararu personalizes the book by weaving her own reactions — modern, emotional, snarky — into each chapter. Our curator is always having fun in “Nom De Plume”, and, as a result, so are we.

More than a catalog of pseudonymic authors, “Nom De Plume” implicitly suggests that desire for multiplicity is essential to human nature, a point best articulated in the chapter on Isak Dinesen (the pseudonym of Karen Blixen, Danish-Jewish author of “Out of Africa,” “Babette’s Feast” and “Seven Gothic Tales”). “Give up this game of being one,” one of Dinesen’s characters advises another. “You must, from now, be more than one, many people, as many as you can think of. I feel Marcus — I am sure — that all people in the world ought to be, each of them, more than one, and they would all, yes, all of them, be more easy at heart.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sylvia Plath, Samuel Clemens, Romain Gary, Mark Twain, Lewis CarrollMarian Evans, Karen Blixen, Jr., James Tiptree, Isak Dinesen, Henry Green, Georges Simenon, George Sand, George Orwell, George Eliot, Fernando Pessoa, Charles Dodgson, Emily Bronte, Carmela Ciuraru, Aurore Dupin, Alice Sheldon, Acton Bell

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.