Pen names (also called pseudonyms or noms de plume) are the fake names that authors use to sell their books, and they are as old as the books themselves. One of the first novels in the history of English literature, Robinson Crusoe was presented as an autobiography of the titular character (the actual author, Daniel Defoe, had a long history of writing stuff that ticked off the powers that be, so he did his best to hide his true author identity when he published). Pen names remain, for various reasons, very popular – even today. One of my favourite writers, Elena Ferrante, is the most-famous living pseudonymous writer; no one knows who she “actually” is. Here are some other authors you might not know had pen names all along…
(No, I’m not including J.K. Rowling. We all know she used initials because of gender bias in the children’s books market, and lately she’s proven that she kinda sucks. Let’s move on…)
Real name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson
The award for “most convoluted evolution of a pen name” definitely has to go to Lewis Carroll (i.e., Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). According to Wikipedia, the pseudonym was a play on his real name: Lewis was the Anglicised form of Ludovicus (which was the Latin for Lutwidge) and Carroll was an Irish surname similar to the Latin name Carolus (the origin of the name Charles). So, basically, he translated “Charles Lutwidge” into Latin, which gave him “Carolus Ludovicus”, then translated it back into English as “Carroll Lewis”, and then he reversed to make “Lewis Carroll”. Why, Charles, WHY?
Bonus fun fact: Charles didn’t even choose this pen name for himself. He sent a whole list to his first editor, Edmund Yates, who picked Lewis Carroll. Apparently, Charles was an intensely private person, and he simply wanted to shield himself from the public, even though his stories were (at the time) relatively uncontroversial. Read my full review of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland here.
Real name: Mary Ann Evans
George Eliot (i.e., Mary Ann Evans, or Marian Evans, depending who you ask) was a bad-ass. There’s no bones about it! She adopted a masculinised pen name because (a) all the women writers she knew had written only “lighthearted romances”, and she wanted her work to be taken seriously, and (b) she wanted to establish her novels independently of her already-extensive editorial and critical work under her given name. George was the name of her lover, George Henry Lewis, who was in an “open marriage” (that’s what they all say) with another woman when they met. Here’s the best part: she ended up outing herself very quickly, because some other dude was trying to take credit for her work. (If you want to hear a really awesome summary of fun facts about George Eliot, check out this episode of The To Read List podcast). Read my full review of Middlemarch here.
Real name: Samuel Langhorne Clemens
Mark Twain (i.e., Samuel Langhorne Clemens) borrowed his pen name from the most random of places. It wasn’t his mother’s maiden name or anything like that: it was “the leadsman’s cry for a measured river depth of two fathoms (12 feet), which was safe water for a steamboat”, as he learned when he got his boating pilot’s license. He first used the nom de plume for his travel writing – generally considered to be “humorous” – in the 1860s. It didn’t stick, though. There’s actually a chance we’ve overlooked a whole bunch of Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens writing, because he used so many damn pseudonyms over the course of his career. Read my full review of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn here.
Real name: Eric Blair
George Orwell wasn’t Eric Blair’s first outing under a pseudonym. For a while in the early days, he wanted to experience “real” life – beyond middle class comfort and social mores – so he set about “going native” (not as bad as it sounds, I swear), living as a tramp in England under the name P.S. Burton. Those experiences inspired a number of his works (including The Spike and Down And Out In Paris And London). He initially considered publishing under his “tramp” name, but decided that George Orwell would lend the work a middle-class respectability that would appeal to a wider readership. That was, of course, the name he went on to use for his fiction as well, including Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Adopting a pseudonym to cloak your class privilege is probably not a very Woke thing to do, but had Orwell stayed in his lane, we probably wouldn’t have one of the best dystopian dissections of totalitarian regimes in English literature. Win some, lose some.
Real name: Chloe Ardelia Wofford
Toni Morrison (i.e., Chloe Ardelia Wofford) is so pervasively known by her pen name that few readers realise it was not actually the name she was given at birth. She adopted the name of her saint – Anthony – at the age of 12, after converting to Catholicism, but that was quickly shortened to “Toni”, which (clearly) stuck. Her adopted surname she took from her first husband, whom she married in 1958 and divorced six years later. Sadly, she came to regret using a pen name. She worried that it made her sound “like a teenager” and it she felt “ruined” by it. Still, her closest friends and family continued to call her Chloe until her death, and the pseudonym allowed her to keep her professional and personal lives separate. Read my full review of Beloved here.
Real name: Anne Desclos
If you’re wondering why Anne Desclos chose to write under a pen name, you clearly haven’t read Story Of O. In her “real” life, Anne/Pauline (or any of the other pen names she went by) had a very respectable career, translating works between French and English (she was raised in a bilingual family) and by all accounts appearing to be a “lady”. Unbeknownst to many, she was secretly writing erotica – well, that’s what we call it now, but back in the day it was straight up porn – and she had to do so in a way that would earn her money without tarnishing her good name. She wrote one of the most literary accounts of S&M relationships that the world has ever seen (good on her!), and managed to keep her true identity under wraps for far longer than anyone would expect.
Real name: Erica Leonard
E.L. James (i.e., Erica Leonard, née Mitchell) is the British author best known for her best-selling-series-cum-punchline 50 Shades Of Grey… but did you know that name wasn’t the first one she used? When she first began writing her erotic fan fiction (loosely based on Stephanie Myers’ young adult series Twilight), she used the alias Snowqueens IceDragon in the online forums where she posted her work. I guess that wouldn’t have fit on the cover? Or maybe she was just worried that her online pseudonym wouldn’t be taken seriously in the literary world (ha!). I’m not sure she gives it much thought anymore, though, because the banks will probably accept the (many, large) cheques in any name.
Real name: John Burgess Wilson
Anthony Burgess had more pen names than you could poke a stick at. “Anthony” was one of his middle names, but even that wasn’t added until his confirmation as a toddler. As a child, he went by “Jack”, “Little Jack”, and “Johnny Eagle”. Then, when he tried his hand at the writing game as a grown-up, he didn’t stop at one: Anthony Burgess (borrowing his mother’s maiden name) was the name he used for his best-known novel, A Clockwork Orange, but he also published a couple of books as Joseph Kell, and a volume of literary history under his given name. There’s even some records that suggest he wanted to use a feminised pseudonym – Josephine Kell – for another one of his books. Would the real Anthony Burgess please stand up? Read my full review of A Clockwork Orange here.
Real name: Marguerite Annie Johnson
If there’s one thing we can say with certainty about Maya Angelou (i.e., Marguerite Annie Johnson), it’s this: she knew how the game was played. Her given name worked just fine for her for a while, but she needed something more flashy, more memorable, when she was working as a calypso dancer (and, later, as a writer). She had briefly married a Greek sailor (Tosh Angelos) in the ’50s. After they divorced, she borrowed (most of) his name and merged it with her childhood nickname, to create a pseudonym no one could forget. It just rolls off the tongue so beautifully, doesn’t it? Read my full review of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings here.
Real name: Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum
I’ll admit, I saved this one ’til last because it tickles me the most (I’m not proud of it, but it’s the truth). Ayn Rand, beloved by neoliberal blowhards everywhere to this day, was the pen name adopted by one Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum. She was born with that name in Saint Petersburg in 1905, and kept it until the mid ’20s, when she was granted a visa to immigrate to the United States. Now, as best I can understand (and I make room for the possibility that I could be wrong, of course), she adopted Ayn Rand as a “professional name” because it sounded less “ethnic” and more palatable to her primarily Anglophone audience. She claimed that “Rand” was an abbreviation of “Rosenbaum” (seems a stretch, but okay) and that “Ayn” was taken from a Finnish writer (whom she then declined to identify). If I’m being generous, I can concede that she was simply living her truth and pulling herself up by her bootstraps, as she wanted us all to do. Still… lol.
August 26, 2020 at 5:10 PM
In this time where if you say you value privacy people break down in laughter or look at you suspiciously. (Privacy? What is he doing plotting with some terrorist group?) The idea that you could just change your name and become a new person, untraceable by the likes of Facebook and Twitter (or any nation state who would like to persuade you to vote for their preferred politician), is a rather refreshing idea. In addition it would allow me to choose something far more interesting – something like Ragnar for example. That sounds suitably raffish.
August 26, 2020 at 9:34 PM
Well, Elena Ferrante has managed it! It’s (technically, at least) possible!