The anonymous author of O: A Presidential Novel was recently outed as former John McCain aide Mark Salter, a claim that has yet to be confirmed or denied by the author in question. Although there are many stories whose writers have been forgotten by history, countless political pamphlets whose authors declined to be identified, and many more that were safely published behind a pen name, there’s an unrivaled level of intrigue that accompanies deliberately anonymous novels and poetry. Here are ten more works of anonymously published fiction that ignited cultural curiosity and social reaction.
Published in 1465, this medieval French farce was an immediate success for its criticism of social manipulation and dishonesty within the newly emerging state structure. Widely performed as a play, the story’s absurdist elements include false insanity, unaccredited lawyers, and a disastrous court case that brings all five players together. Though the author of this extremely popular story remains unknown, it proved to be a huge influence on French theater, most notably in the works of Francois Rebelais.
The enduring tradition of Rome’s “talking statues” began in the early 16th century when a cardinal put a beat up Hellenistic-style statue on public display and adorned it with a toga and Latin epigrams. The act was met with anonymous satirical poems posted to the statue, which was subsequently renamed Pasquino. The tradition of posting lampooning poetry and verse on Rome’s public statues still continues as a means of leveraging dissatisfaction and public disapproval of the church.
Without Lazarillo de Tormes, there would be no Don Quixote, Huck Finn, or The Catcher in the Rye. The prototype for all subsequent picaresque novels, this story chronicles a boy’s coming of age in 16th century Spain as he encounters and escapes various corrupt levels of society. Published simultaneously in Spain and Flanders but swiftly banned by the Spanish Inquisition, the manuscript’s anonymous author has never been revealed but his or her obvious disdain for the church and crown gave voice to widespread dissent of the day.
Attributed to writer Cao Xueqin since the 20th century, Dream of the Red Chamber has been a continuous success since its first handwritten manuscripts began circulating in China in 1759. A semi-autobiographical novel about the rise and fall of an aristocratic family, the story features an engrossing love triangle, a vast cast of characters (nearly 30 of which are considered major players), and detailed descriptions of Chinese society. Considered one of China’s “Four Great Classical Novels,” Dream of the Red Chamber also has an entire field of scholarship devoted to its study called “Redology.”
“The Sorrows of Yamba,” a widely reprinted anti-slavery poem throughout the 19th century, was originally published anonymously in 1795. Appearing in Hannah More’s Cheap Repository Tracts series, the substance of the poem was consistent with More’s social and moral philosophies but its accreditation was deliberately unstated. Subsequent studies of surviving drafts show that it was actually written by Eaglesfield Smith, but More’s heavy-handed edits and additions deserve shared authorship.
Immensely popular upon publication in 1880, Democracy: An American Novel parodies the acquisition and abuse of political power through the story of a fictionalized US administration. Henry Adams, a prominent journalist, historian, and member of the Adams political family, was identified as the novel’s author following his death in 1918.
Published anonymously in 1887 by pornography publisher Edward Avery, The Autobiography of a Flea is an erotic novel of bizarre and creepy proportions. Fantastically narrated by a flea, the story also features sexual experimentation, blackmail, mistaken identity, incest, and a host of randy clergymen, all of which successfully comments upon the hypocrisies and corruption of the day. Later research has revealed that Stanislas de Rhodes, a London-based lawyer, wrote this peculiar story.
Though poorly received upon anonymous publication in 1912, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was a breakthrough work of fiction on the subject of biracial identity in America. Focusing on the life of the unnamed protagonist, the novel is set in the post-Reconstruction period and comments on identity and self-expression. Republished in 1927 with James Weldon Johnson credited as its outed author, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man found a more effective cultural framework within the Harlem Renaissance.
Purported to be the diary of an anonymous teenager, the authorship of Go Ask Alice has remained as disputed and discussed as the book’s discussion of adolescent drug addiction. Still in print after 40 years, the “diary” is now generally housed in the fiction section and most evidence points to Beatrice Sparks, the book’s supposed editor, as its true author. Whatever the case may be, Go Ask Alice still makes for one terrifying reading trip.
A critical success and the subject of a much-publicized author-hunt, Primary Colors is a roman a clef set amid the thinly veiled events of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Controversy surrounding the book’s authorship was immediate and intense, with reviewers identifying the writer’s anonymity as a publicity strategy and other public figures eagerly pointing fingers at potential candidates. The most popular pick, Joe Klein, vehemently denied claims that he was the author by speechwriters, professors, and journalists until a handwriting analysis made it impossible for him to pretend any longer.