Sunday, 8 January 2012

Pen Names

Over the years many authors have opted to use a nom de plume. Historically female writers have chosen to write under a male name - perhaps the most famous being the Bronte sisters, Anne became Acton Bell, Charlotte assumed the name Currer Bell, and Emily was Ellis Bell - and for good reason in a world dominated by men.

Whilst it is easy to see why some opt for pseudonyms, I was intrigued by why particular names were chosen.

Charles Dickens wrote his Sketches by Boz, he chose Boz as it was already well-known in the family. His youngest brother, Augustus Dickens, picked up the nickname 'Moses' from one of the brothers in the highly popular nineteenth century novel The Vicar of Wakefield. It became the norm to pronounce it nasally, hence 'Boses' which was eventually shortened to 'Boz'.

Daniel DeFoe was born Daniel Foe, he considered the addition made him sound more aristocratic. Later claimed to be descended from the family of De Beau Faux, thus saying he was simply replacing the lost 'De'.

Washington Irving wrote under a series of pseudonyms. In 1809 he completed his first major book and, in a clever publicity stunt, set about creating interest in his satirical examination of self-important local history and politics A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, written under the pen name of Diedrich Knickerbocker. He then placed a series of missing persons notices in all the New York newspapers. First he asked for the leads on the whereabouts of the 'crusty Dutch historian' and later, under the guise of the hotel proprietor, demanded that Knickerbocker return to settle his hotel bill or he would find the manuscript he had left behind quickly published in payment. Readers followed the story as closely as they would any serialised drama, especially when city officials were reportedly offering reward money! The fictional name of Diedrich Knickerbocker is still in use when referring to inhabitants of Manhattan.

Mary Ann Evnas never recorded why she chose George Eliot and yet her long-term relationship with critic George Henry Lewes must surely have been the only real factor. Lewes was a married man when they met in 1851, within three years they were living together and remained so for 20 years, with Eliot calling herself Mrs Lewes. Unlike the Brontes she never needed a masculine image, female authors were quite accepted in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Yet when she wrote her last piece for the Westminster Review entitled Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, she showed her desire not to be thought another female writing of trivial and ridiculous plots.

Eric Arthur Blair wrote what is now known as Down and Out in Paris and London and insisted it was published under an assumed name in order to protect his family from the embarrassment of his time as a tramp. He suggested four possible nom de plumes: P. S. Burton (the identity he had assumed on the streets), Kenneth Miles, George Orwell, and H Lewis Allways, leaving the choice up to the publisher. He later adopted George Orwell, inspired by the River Orwell, as it was "A good round English name".

John Wyndham, the nom de plume of a science fiction writer best remembered for The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos also wrote under other pen names - John Benyon and Lucas Parkes. It is easy to see where all three assumed names came from, he was named John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris by his parents.

That Lewis Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson will come as a surprise to few (if any). He chose the name as Lewis was the English form of Ludovicus, itself Latin for Lutwidge, while Carroll is an Irish surname not dissimilar to the Latin Carolus, which is the anncestor of the English Charles.

Why Samuel Longhorne Clemens adopted Mark Twain for his writings has been told many times, not least by Clemens himself who also credited his riverboat captain Isaiah Sellers as signing his reports on the ever-changing river conditions 'Mark Twain'. For those unaware, Clemens worked on Mississippi riverboats for some years, the river known for its moving banks of silt making navigation tricky and hence the depth was checked regularly on a sounding line. The line had a mark at two fathoms and as long as that mark reached the water level the river would allow safe passage. When found to be safe the cry went up of "Mark Twain", 'twain' being the archaic term for two and thus was two fathoms (12 feet) deep.

William Sydney Porter wrote under the name O. Henry, which he informed everyone was chosen when a friend suggested choosing a name from the society columns of a New Orleans newspaper. Hence they found the surname. He wanted something short for a first name and, when the same friend suggested an initial, opted for 'O' as it was "about the easiest letter written".
Despite this explanation it did not stop two others offering quite different explanations. William Trevor stating the inspiration was Ohio State Penitentiary prison guard Orrin Henry, while Guy Davenport wrote it was to be found in the name of OHio state pENitentiaRY.

Idries Shah wrote The Teachers of Gurdjieff under the pen name of Rafael Lefort, held to have been chosen as an anagram of "a real effort".

Stephen King's early career saw him penning more than the one book per year which publishers were willing to put out, considering it would flood the market and be effectively competing with other Stephen King works. The author approached the publisher and suggested releasing others under a pseudonym and, in an attempt to discover if his success was down to talent or luck, did as little as possible to market the writings of Richard Bachman. Originally opting for the name of his maternal grandfather, he chose Richard as a tribute to fellow author Donald Westlake's pen name Richard Stark, while Bachman honoured Bachman-Turner-Overdrive, a rock band Stephen King just happened to be listening to at that time.

Hector Hugh Monroe wrote under the name of Saki. While no explanation was offered as to where he derived this pen name, there are two quite plausible explanations as to the source. Saki is a character, the cup bearer, in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and is stated as 'fact' in the 1978 anthology by Emlyn Williams. The central character in Munro's work The Remoulding of Groby Lington is a monkey, described as 'a small, long-tailed monkey from the Western Hemisphere'. There is a monkey which fits this description, a native of South America known as a saki.

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