BOOK REVIEW: 'Nom de Plume': Authors Use Pen Names for Many Reasons

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Nom de Plume': Authors Use Pen Names for Many Reasons
If you're headed to the beach this summer with some light reading, leave room in your tote bag for Carmela Ciuraru's "Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms (Harper, 366 pages, $24.99, also available in eBook format, with a good bibliography and other end-of-book features.) 

You'll be entertained and enlighted by the author's mini biographies of authors like Patricia Highsmith (the "Ripley" novels, "Strangers on a Train"); the Bronte sisters; Mark Twain; a couple of lady "Georges" (Sand and Eliot); O. Henry and many more. 

Among the "many more" is Charles L. Dodgson, better known to readers of "Alice In Wonderland" as Lewis Carroll, a man who probably would be imprisoned as a pedophile if he lived in California or Florida or just about anywhere. One of his hobbies was photography and he loved to take pictures of nude pre-pubescent girls. Ciuraru writes that he gave up photography when new methods and techniques came along. I wonder if there was another reason....

Along with easy-to-digest literary history and biography, Ciuraru examines identity, creativity, and self-creation and why authors need to hide behind pen names, in some cases, several pen names.
One author mentioned in the book was a man who wrote romances, so it was logical when he chose a feminine pen name, because many book buyers associate romance novels with women writers. It was just as logical for Charlotte Bronte to choose the name Currer Bell for her books at a time when women's achievements were often derided. Her sisters Emily and Anne used the names Ellis and Acton Bell, respectively.  

I have a review copy, yet unread, of a book on how to become famous. I'm not making this up! Do people still want to be famous? You betcha! People hire publicists to make sure they're in the public eye, although just as many hire publicists to keep their private lives out of the media.

Ciuraru reminds us with "Nom de Plume" that this was not always the case, that once upon a time privacy was paramount and books were published under pseudonyms to maintain that privacy. 
Ciuraru writes that "Biographies have chronicled the lives of pseudonymous authors such as Mark Twain, Isak Dinesen, and George Eliot" and makes the claim "that never before have the stories behind many noms de plume been collected into a single volume". Ciuraru: "These are narratives of secrecy, obsession, modesty, scandal, defiance, and shame: Only through the protective guise of Lewis Carroll could a shy, half-deaf Victorian mathematician at Oxford feel free to let his imagination run wild." 

The "three weird sisters" (as they were called by the poet Ted Hughes -- his wife Sylvia Plath used the nom de plume Victoria Lucas and her story is in the book) from Yorkshire—the Brontes—lived in an era when the literary efforts of women writers were routinely dismissed, so it's logical, Ciuraru writes, that they would adopt male noms de plume. 
BOOK REVIEW: 'Nom de Plume': Authors Use Pen Names for Many Reasons
"Nom de Plume" is a delightful book, although I wish the author had insisted on an index...all nonfiction books need one...and maybe pictures of the authors. Searching the Web, I found a painting of  Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë  by their brother Branwell (c. 1834). He painted himself among his sisters, but later removed it so as not to clutter the picture. 

About the author

Carmela Ciuraru is not a pseudonym. Her anthologies include "First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems That Captivated and Inspired Them" and "Solitude Poems". She is a graduate of Columbia University's School of Journalism and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She has written for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston GlobeThe Wall Street Journal, NewsdayElle DecorARTNews, O, The Oprah Magazine, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn. Her website is
Comments powered by Disqus