Many know the short stories of O. Henry, most notably “The Gift of the Magi” or, one of my favorites, “The Last Leaf”. If not recognized for his short stories, then likely the O. Henry name brings to mind the Random House annual anthology that catalogs the year’s best short stories culled from literary magazines. Readers, however, may not realize that the man behind the O. Henry name, who lived 1862 to 1910, was not simply a literary genius but also a convicted felon named William Sydney Porter. He spent 39 months in the Ohio Penitentiary and, upon release, assumed O. Henry as his literary nom de plume to hide from his past.
William Sydney Porter’s secret life is one of 16 profiled in Carmela Ciuraru’s fascinating Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms. This is a book you’ll not easily put down because of its highly entertaining, colorful and engrossing biographies. Ciuraru delightfully pulls back the curtain on literary eccentrics whose complicated lives drove them to publish under pseudonyms and — with unusual biographical details that bring the writers to life on the page — divulges the effects that rippled through their careers and personal lives.
These are the stories of aliases assumed for essential reasons, such as the need to avoid gender prejudice or to overcome shyness; to freely publish radical or erotic prose; or to allow one’s otherwise inhibited imagination to run free. What Ciuraru’s authorial imposters, who lived between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, all have in common, though, is their need to escape the burden of selfhood and, in some cases, take risks to publish.
Consider Lewis Carroll, a pen name for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, “a shy, eminent Oxford mathematician and lecturer” whose Alice fantasies could diminish the value of his more scholarly works; or George Eliot, a pen name for Marian Evans, whose controversial novels depicting the lives of clergymen would’ve been rejected simply because she was a woman. Also, Marian Evans was a social outcast, living openly with a married man.
What makes Nom de Plume a stand-out from mere encyclopedic rendering is Ciuraru’s enjoyment of her material, which resonates in each biography – delightful energy spiced with Ciuraru’s wit, her amusing asides and clever presentations. Each author is introduced by a page on which is scribbled a provocative, stand-alone statement. “She kept snails as pets” introduces mystery writer Patricia Highsmith, best known for her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley; and “His mother didn’t love him but he was in love with himself” introduces the prolific Georges Simenon, best known for his Inspector Maigret crime novels.
Speaking of Simenon, who in 1928 wrote an astounding 44 novels, Ciuraru describes him as a “pulp fiction factory” with “an ego the size of a small nation.” She also writes, in this marvelous gathering of literary lives, “[Simenon] makes Joyce Carol Oates look like Harper Lee.”