I’m currently reading a novel by the famous writer Marie-Henri Beyle. Who is that, you might ask? Well, literature lovers know him as Stendhal.
Beyle — author of The Charterhouse of Parma (the 1839 book I’m reading) and The Red and the Black — is one of many writers who have used what are variously described as pen names, aliases, pseudonyms, noms de plume, and “don’t you dare call me Marion Morrison, pilgrim, because I’m John Wayne.”
Authors change their names for all sorts of reasons, ranging from wanting to disguise their identity to desiring a catchier or less-clunky moniker. Beyle is said to have chosen Stendhal because the Frenchman admired archaeologist/art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann from the German city of…Stendal.
Perhaps the most famous authorial pen name is Mark Twain, which Samuel Clemens adopted in 1863 after his pre-Civil War experience as a riverboat pilot. The pseudonym refers to marking water depth — with the depth of two fathoms (“twain” being the archaic word for two) considered safe for ships to pass over.
Another famous alias is O. Henry, which William Sydney Porter took to shrink the odds of his stories being rejected because of his incarceration for embezzlement. One theory for how Porter chose his pen name involved the existence of a prison guard named Orrin Henry, and another theory has O. Henry as a combination of Ohio (where Porter was jailed) and penitentiary.
There was also Voltaire. To come up with that name, Francoise-Marie Arouet might have combined an anagram of the Latin spelling of his last name with the initial letters of the French phrase le jeune (the young). In Arouet’s case, he adopted the Voltaire name after imprisonment.
One of the most famous living authors using an alias is Lee Child, whose real name is Jim Grant. The author of the wildly popular Jack Reacher thrillers chose Child because he wanted his novels on bookstore shelves between the works of Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie.
Another living author, Toni Morrison, was born Chloe Wofford — but the change in her first name was more a matter of people having trouble pronouncing “Chloe” than for literary reasons. Her last name became Morrison by marriage.
Various female authors have used pseudonyms to disguise their gender — more often before the 20th century, when women writers were especially frowned upon and/or not taken seriously. So we had the Bronte sisters taking the names of Currer Bell (Charlotte), Ellis Bell (Emily), and Acton Bell (Anne) — though they were of course later published under their real identities. Then there was George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin), etc. And Jane Austen’s novels were published anonymously during her lifetime.
Austen’s male contemporary — Sir Walter Scott — also published many of his novels anonymously, with a big reason being that he was first a renowned poet at a time when novels were not considered as respectable as verse.
Other female authors have masked their gender by using initials — witness J.K. (Joanne Kathleen) Rowling, A.S. (Antonia Susan) Byatt, M.L. (Margot) Stedman, P.D. (Phyllis Dorothy) James, and various others. Initials also have a “cool,” sophisticated vibe, and not just for women. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, D.H. Lawrence, H.P. Lovecraft, and W.E.B. Du Bois certainly roll smoother off the tongue and please the eye more than John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Clive Staples Lewis, David Herbert Lawrence, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. (While his nonfiction writing is much better known, Du Bois also wrote several novels.)
For her crime novels, Rowling writes as Robert Galbraith. J.K. was outed as Robert against her wishes — illustrating how hard it is to keep an identity secret in today’s 24/7 media and social-media environment. But Rowling, because of her previous Harry Potter superstardom, got a huge spike in Galbraith sales. If Jane Austen were alive today, she probably wouldn’t remain anonymous for long (especially since she would be 239 years old, but that’s another story).
“Anonymous” was also the authorial byline used by columnist Joe Klein for his political novel Primary Colors. It allowed Klein to be more candid about things (his book includes real-life aspects of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign), and the mystery of who wrote the novel increased interest and sales.
Some authors — such as Charles Dickens as Boz — wrote under pseudonyms for a while and then dropped them. In certain cases, writers use pen names to cover the embarrassment of penning trashy novels as they struggle early in their careers, as Honore de Balzac did under aliases such as Horace de Saint-Aubin.
Other authors use both a real name and an alias because they write in more than one genre or are so prolific they don’t want to oversaturate their “brand” by churning out too many books under their birth name. The latter reason was why Stephen King wrote several novels as Richard Bachman.
One reason why some novelists seem so prolific is that they have assistants helping them, with books published under the name of the “head author.” James Patterson is a current example of that phenomenon.
Another guy who had a “factory” approach was Henry Gauthier-Villars (aka “Willy”), the first husband of Colette. Her debut novel Claudine at School was initially published under his name, as were books by other writers.
It’s also well known that some young-adult series containing many books have been penned by various authors even as one name — real or fake — appears on all the covers.
Then there are writers who mostly keep their own name for their authorial identity, but streamline it or jazz it up. Examples include Wole Soyinka (Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka) and Erich Maria Remarque (Erich Paul Remark).
Of course, nonfiction writers also hide their names — with one of the most famous cases being Thomas Paine’s anonymous publishing of the 1776 revolutionary pamphlet “Common Sense.” If the British knew who penned that “treasonous” treatise, Paine’s life would have obviously been in danger.
For fun, I thought I’d also name a few of the many notables who changed names while making their names outside of literature: Elvis Costello (Declan McManus), Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman), Judy Garland (Frances Gumm), Whoopi Goldberg (Caryn Johnson), Cary Grant (Archibald Leach), Elton John (Reginald Dwight), Ben Kingsley (Krishna Pandit Bhanji), Ann Landers (Eppie Lederer), Spike Lee (Shelton Lee), Bruno Mars (Peter Hernandez), “Brenda Starr” cartoonist Dale Messick (Dalia Messick), Julianne Moore (Julie Smith), Katy Perry (Katy Hudson), Pink (Alecia Moore), Sting (Gordon Sumner), The Clash’s Joe Strummer (John Mellor), and Stevie Wonder (Stevland Morris).
Who are some name-changing authors (or non-authors) you’d like to mention? Also, your thoughts on the idea of aliases?
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