Volume 81, Number 1 | June 2 - 8, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms
BY CARMELA CIURARU
June 14, 2011
For Twitter: twitter.com/CarmelaTheTwit
Treading through a sea of identities
A deeper look at pseudonymous authors, from Twain to Tiptree
BY SAM SPOKONY
Readers are sometimes too quick to assume that writers of contemporary literature focus more heavily on themes of identity than their predecessors did. It’s far from the truth, but it’s an understandable mistake because it’s actually the readers — and our expectations of the stories and experiences we take in — that have changed. As technology and high-speed communication shrink the world, we no longer have time to question the identities of our colleagues, our heroes or, most of all, ourselves; they need to be packaged and presented in ways that are immediately and precisely understood. That’s what society requires of us — and of our authors. It’s why Oprah yelled at James Frey, and it’s what David Shields calls “reality hunger.” As Carmela Ciuraru puts it so nicely in her introduction to “Nom de Plume,” reticence isn’t what it used to be.
Now, Ciuraru has chosen to place that identity-obsessed lens of contemporary culture squarely over some of literature’s best-loved pseudonymous icons (all of whom never had to worry about being Googled). “Nom de Plume” is broken up into 16 chapters — each of which focuses on a different author — that act as mini-biographies, introducing us not only to the writers’ various personae but also to the unique life stories behind them, especially with regard to their choices to use one or more pseudonyms to find or protect those ever-fragile artistic voices.
Some of the personal backgrounds are rather shocking — like that of Lewis Carroll, who, aside from writing the über-trippy classic “Alice in Wonderland,” was an ordained deacon who wrote numerous mathematical texts under his given name, Charles Dodgson. Some make a lot of sense — like that of Sylvia Plath, who, in order to finally allow herself to publish the novel that dug so deeply into the strained relationship between her and her mother, had to do it under the name Victoria Lucas. But all of them are exceedingly engaging, and Ciuraru’s treatments of her subjects sparkle with rich, well-arranged detail and the sly wit of literary hindsight.
With a central focus that remains urgent and appealing for 21st century readers even as it dissects the personal lives of authors long past, “Nom de Plume” is surely an important book — not because it breaks any new ground biographically, but because it helps place the development of authorial, social, psychological and sexual identity into a greater context. Ciuraru’s essays, the first of their kind, introduce a sense of “meta-identification” to the sources from which she’s pulled her facts; the pseudonymous artists’ personae are revealed and explained, but equally so are the public reactions, both positive and negative, that became so entwined with those mysterious personalities. Her sharp storytelling and her great eye for what was truly at work within the lives of these authors draw out a powerful message: that so much of how we decode and interpret our cultural narratives is based not on the “true” identities of their creators, but on the perceptions of them that we, as readers, create. As one of Ciuraru’s subjects, Isak Dinesen (or Karen Blixen) wrote: “By thy mask I shall know thee.”
Carmela Ciuraru will sit down with Sadie Stein from The Paris Review to discuss “Nom de Plume” on Tue., June 14, 7pm at 192 Books (192 10th Ave., btw. 21st & 22nd Sts.). For more info, visit 192books.com or call 212-255-4022.