Books I’m Reading

Today, it’s Nom De Plume by Carmela Ciuraru. This is a quirky, quick-read of a book that includes vignettes of writers who are known by their pseudonyms. For instance, did you know that Samuel Clemens was the first writer to register his pseudonym as a trademark? Or, that his most lucrative intellectual property was a self-pasting scrapbook?

Delightful little stories about authors and their pen names aside, the common thread that runs through Ciuraru’s book is that writers who adopted an alias were either not loved enough or loved too much by their mothers. As a result, they developed split personalities and invariably something to obfuscate, not least their birth names.

This motivation for pseudonyms and Ciuraru’s selection of writers, all fiction craftsmen, make me wonder if there are any writers who dwell exclusively in the nonfiction range and yet operate under noms de plume. On the one hand, nonfiction writers purport to tell us things-as-they-actually-happened. As such, they are implicitly claiming, “This is what transpired. No prevarication; no funny business; just a lot of research in dusty, musty archives.” Can we trust that promise if we don’t even know the actual names of these writers? If their names aren’t their names, then what are the chances that their words are as good as their bonds? Is the writers’ credibility at risk by adopting a nom de plume? On the other hand, nonfiction writers may well have reasons to separate their writings from their names for reasons that have nothing to do with pseudonyms shielding their wearers from criticism of shoddy research, flawed analysis, or generally being wrong on their subjects. That said,  excluding writers who adopt blatant and admitted false names when discoursing on sensitive subjects (e.g. Professor X), are there nonfiction writers who pull the wool over the readers’ eyes when it comes to the title page of their book?

(Note: I don’t actually think of archives as being either dusty or musty, but it is an awfully fitting for a scholar to be working in such a condition, at least in our collective imagination.)

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