Pen names speckle literary history and our modern bookshelves. If you own anything by George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, or George Eliot, you own a piece of the epic chronicle of pseudonyms. Authors change their names for many reasons, but historically, one of the strongest reasons to use a pen name was to hide your lady bits. Back in the day, women writers were forced to use male pseudonyms. Despite much more equality between the sexes in present day, the tradition remains in the use of initials instead of first names, which immediately alert the male reader to “cooties”—something boys avoid at all costs. But gender isn’t the only guiding force when picking your pen name. We’ve collected ten strange stories behind famous writers’ nom de plumes for your consideration, so check them out after the jump, and write your own nom de plume in the comments!
After he threw a raging party, breaking Dartmouth and federal law during Prohibition, Dr. Seuss, born Theodor Geisel, was fired from his job as editor-in-chief of the college’s Jack-O-Lantern magazine. However, Theodor, that rapscallion, kept writing for the humor mag by signing his work under his middle name — Seuss. Years later, when his first book was published, Suess added the “Dr.” as a joke at the expense of his father, who always wanted him to pursue a medical career.
Stephen King, the epitome of prolific (sorry, James Franco), created the nom de plume “Richard Bachmann” to publish more frequently than a single name would allow. After the connection was made public, in 1985, way before being self-aware was hip, King declared Bachmann dead of “cancer of the pseudonym, a rare form of schizonomia.”
A lot of writers choose to represent themselves with initials instead of given names. e.e. cummings. T.S. Eliot. J.K. Rowling. In the case of the Potter scribe, however, the “K” doesn’t really stand for anything. Joanna Rowling has no middle name, but her publisher thought Harry Potter would sell better if she disguised her gender. Thus, the mysterious “K” was born, which Rowling attributes to “Kathleen,” her grandmother.
Jonathan Swift used the pseudonym “Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.” to essentially punk/War of the Worlds John Partridge, who was a then-famous astrologist and Almanac-maker. Swift loved April Fool’s Day, so “Bickerstaff” published “Predictions for the Year 1708,” prophesying the astrologist’s death by “raging fever.” Two months later, Swift used a different pen name to proclaim that Partridge did, in fact, die—an event so many people believed that it pestered Partridge until his actual death. His mourning followers cried outside his window at night, disrupting his sleep. After an undertaker arrived, an elegy was published, and a gravestone was inscribed, Partridge finally published a statement declaring himself alive.
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë wrote under many names, but the ones that stuck were Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell — each pseudonym sharing the same first and last initial as the real writer. When their writing gained fame, some critics and publishers mistakenly thought Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and Jane Eyre were all penned by the same author. Charlotte and Anne were so upset by this that they traveled through a snowstorm to Smith, Elder, & Co. in London. The publishers had never met their author, “Currer Bell,” in person, and were startled to find Charlotte instead! Afterward, the truth spread, and the three sisters became famous.
Ricardo Neftalí Reyes Basoalto started writing young, and his poetry was published by the tender age of fourteen! Although most parents would be proud, Ricardo’s father literally lit his son’s poetry on fire when he found out. After that, Ricardo used the pseudonym “Pablo Neruda,” Pablo for Paul Verlaine and Neruda for Jan Neruda, both writers. Later in life, Pablo Neruda became his legal name.
William Makepeace Thackeray, whose hilarious satire still rings true today, wrote under many silly pen names, such as George Savage Fitz-Boodle, Michael Angelo Titmarsh, Théophile Wagstaff, and C.J. Yellowplush, Esq, each one chosen only for its abject ridiculousness.
When Charles Dickens started writing, he used the pen name of Boz, one word, which simultaneously reminds us of the Muppets and Madonna. He once explained, writing that ‘Boz’ was “the nickname of a pet child, a younger brother, whom I had dubbed Moses, in honour of Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, which, being pronounced Bozes, got shortened into Boz.” Fair enough. His early writing was so popular that Sketches by Boz was actually published in 1836.
From the age of sixteen, Benjamin Franklin didn’t just use pen names: he created entire personas, often quite different from himself. For example, his first nom de plume, Silence Dogood, was a widowed woman several decades older than then-teenage Ben. He used these characters to many ends, from the frivolous to the serious. Through names like Anthony Afterwit and Alice Addertongue, Franklin humorously examined society, spread gossip, or exposed the flaws in conventional thought. Polly Baker, for example, was an alter-ego Franklin used to show that women were discriminated against by the law. Baker was the former mistress of several important men, raised their illegitimate children, and was punished while the fathers got off, scot-free.
William Sydney Porter may have immortalized an Ohio State Penitentiary guard with his famous nom de plume, O. Henry. While in jail for embezzlement, Porter published his first story under that pseudonym, though why he’d want to celebrate his guard, we don’t know. The guard’s name was reportedly Orrin Henry.