‘Pseudonyms are rarely straightforward’


Fernando Pessoa, Almada Negreiros

From The New York Times:

When the venerable tradition of the pseudonym is discussed, it is often in reductive terms. The other day, someone said to me, “There are three reasons why authors use pen names, right?” and went on to cite them: Women writing as men. Writers with dirty secrets to hide. Highbrow writers slumming it in trashy genres. It’s true that each of those motives is historically common, but there are many others.

Once you scratch the surface, pseudonyms are rarely straightforward. Mark Twain is universally regarded as a genial, avuncular prankster, but his creator, Samuel Clemens, possessed a bifurcated identity whose ugly fissures became more prominent as he got older: Twain buried the vitriol and shame of the tormented Clemens. (In the Oxford English Dictionary, “twain” is defined as “forming a pair, twin.”)

Perhaps what’s most remarkable about the nom de plume, and rarely talked about, is its power to unlock creativity — and its capacity to withhold it. Even when its initial adoption is utilitarian, a pen name can assume a life of its own. Many writers have been surprised by the intimate and even disorienting relationships they have formed with their alter egos. The consequences can prove grievous and irrevocable.

There is no greater example of the shape-shifting force of a pen name than that of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, who took the notion of reticence to unparalleled, even pathological levels. In maintaining more than 70 literary identities he called “heteronyms,” he did not employ them as a mode of deception. Instead, he insisted that he was amanuensis to the multiple beings that dwelled within.

“The Rise and Fall of Pseudonyms”, Carmela Ciuraru, The New York Times