Writers’ Pen Names: A concise history

From Benjamin Franklin to Mark Twain to Salman Rushdie

By Rachel Lyon

I have long been interested in the origin and function of pen names.  A pseudonym can be a mask to hide behind, or a tool by which to play a sort of game. It can be a political statement, an aesthetic declaration, or an alternate identity that is grown into over time. Pseudonyms can give writers the freedom to argue a position they don’t quite believe, or the courage to say the otherwise unspeakable. And they can carry hidden homages to other names of other notable men and women. 

Benjamin FranklinLet’s begin in the eighteenth century, when free speech was not so much a given as it is now. Controversy magnet Benjamin Franklin used many a pseudonym to argue multiple sides of an argument in the press. His were not just names, however; he created a whole cast of fictional characters. When he felt that a former employer stole some of his ideas, he introduced Caelia Shortface and Martha Careful to write letters to the American Weekly Mercury exposing that employer’s crime. Later, Franklin spread more gossip and scandals through other characters: the unimaginatively named Busy Body, and Alice Addertongue. He created Polly Baker to explore sexist double standards that punished women for having illegitimate children, but not men; Anthony Afterwit to offer his two cents on the subject of married life; and, most famously, Richard Saunders to write Poor Richard’s Almanack.

Considering the popularity and longevity of that 1732 publication, one can’t help but wonder whether, by the time Franklin made up Richard Saunders, he was creating pseudonyms out of necessity, or if he had become a little addicted to the practice.

The Bronte sisters.  Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë had more of a reason to write under pen names: in their time women novelists were not generally respected. In retrospect, though, perhaps they would not have chosen the masculine pen names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell if they’d known that they would become three of the great novelists of all time. As it is, the Brontë sisters have shone on through the centuries, while the Bell brothers have been more or less forgotten.

George EliotThe success of the Brontës under their own names didn’t stop Mary Ann Evans from writing as George Eliot. (On the other hand, Eliot did write an essay in 1856 called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” so maybe their success was irrelevant to her.) While Eliot’s methods and opinions were staunch, even harsh, and her novel Middlemarch is arguably among the best of all time, her approach to creating a nom-de-plume may have been rather unfeminist. Some scholars believe the name was an homage to her partner, the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes. She took George for George, of course; and created Eliot as a phonetic code for “to L, I owe it.”

Mark Twain. Brothers Samuel and Henry Clemens, were apprenticing on a Mississippi riverboat when they first heard the phrase Mark Twain, the leadsman’s way of calling out that a river’s depth measured at least two fathoms, and so was safe for a steamboat. Samuel later traveled to Nevada to try his hand at mining; when mining didn’t work out, he took a job at a newspaper, and signed his humor pieces with the leadsman’s hollered phrase he remembered from his river days. and continued to use it in his writing.

Ford Madox FordYears later, Ford Francis Hueffer changed his name to Ford Madox Ford. He got rid of “Hueffer” because, in a post-WWI world, it sounded too Germanic. An aspiring novelist, he added Madox for the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, who was his grandfather.

Anton Chekhov. Meanwhile, in Russia, a young Anton Chekhov was forced to support his family after his bankrupt father fled town to avoid debtor’s prison. Before becoming a doctor he wrote prodigiously, not only under his own name but also under the name Antosha Chekhonte and the very strange epithet Man Without a Spleen.

Ayn RandChekhov set the stage for another Russian, Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum,—who, after the Russian Revolution, studied at Petrograd State University in St. Petersburg. When bourgeois students were purged from Petrograd, she spent a year studying at the State Technicum for Screen Arts in Leningrad—where, at the age of about 20, she published her first essay under the name Ayn Rand. Why, exactly, she chose that spiky, brazen name is not entirely clear, but there is speculation that Rand is a Cyrillic contraction of her birth surname, and that Ayn may come from the Hebrew word for eye.

Pablo Neruda. Rand‘s  approach was more original than that of Chilean poet and diplomat Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, who took his pen name Pablo Neruda from another, Czech poet, Jan Neruda, around the year 1920, when he was sixteen years old. That is an instance of the man becoming the name—of art becoming life: as an older man, he would change his legal name to match his pen name, becoming Pablo Neruda through and through.

Salman Rushdie. Which brings us to Salman Rushdie, and a grave lesson on the function of a name in political literature. In 2012 Rushdie published Joseph Anton: A Memoir, named for the pseudonym he used while he was in hiding during the fatwa issued against him by the Iranian Ayatollah after the 1988 publication of his book The Satanic Verses. Joseph Anton  is an homage to Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, and in some ways it seems to have become an alternate identity: in the memoir, he writes about Joseph Anton and the events of his life in the third person. 

Rachel Lyon is a writer from Brooklyn, NY. Her fiction has been published, or will appear, in McSweeney’s, Joyland, Bustle, The Toast, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Scribner. Visit her at www.rachellyon.work

What would you choose for your nom de plume?

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