Monday, March 2, 2009

What's in a name?

I've noticed that bloggers--and others who have a presence on the Internet--often go by pseudonyms. Sometimes they're clever (a friend of mine who started a blog on English usage chose the moniker "Kitty Literate"). Sometimes they're just puzzling to the uninitiated (several people have asked me why my son blogs as "Vicente" -- it's a long story). And, as with so many things, this phenomenon puts me in mind of the 18th and early 19th century, when it was virtually de rigueur to write under an assumed name.

Perhaps the most famous example is the Federalist Papers--written in defense of the proposed U.S. Constitution--which were first published under the name "Publius," but were in fact the combined effort of John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. The Federalist Papers were themselves a response to two pseudonymous anti-Federalist writers, "Cato" and "Brutus." Who these guys were may still be a mystery.

As you can see, Roman names were big -- this was in keeping with the general feeling that the infant American republic harked back to the Roman one. But there were also lots of whimsical names, more on the order of "Kitty Literate." In 1797, a Richmond newspaper printed an open letter to a Virginia congressman that was signed "Timothy Tickle." And "Mr. Tickle" appended to his own letter another (fictitious) letter, signed "Simon Simple."

Lately I've been reading two magazines published in Baltimore in 1806 and 1807 that abound with these sorts of pen names: Edward Easy, Nathan Scruple, Biddy Fidget, Benjamin Bickerstaff (apparently an allusion to a now forgotten writer named Isaac Bickerstaff).

Why do people, then and now, feel the need to hide behind these inventions? I suppose the obvious answer is that anonymity is liberating -- for better or for worse. But the fact is that many of these names haven't actually guaranteed anonymity. Most of the people who read my son's blog, or my friend's, are friends or acquaintances and aware of the blogger's true identity. And it seems the same was true, in many cases, for the pseudonymous writers of the past. We may not have figured out who Cato and Brutus were, but it's possible many of their contemporaries were able to. The world was smaller then, and the world of people who mattered even smaller.

But for the historian, these playful subterfuges can be a real pain--for example, the authorship of 12 of the 85 different Federalist essays is still uncertain (were they written by Jay, Hamilton, or Madison?) And I've encountered this problem myself: one of the women I'm currently writing about edited a magazine in Baltimore in 1807 under the name of "Beatrice Ironside." (Her explanation for the name was that criticism wouldn't bother her, because she had "iron sides;" as it turned out, she was plenty bothered -- a more appropriate name would have been something like "Beatrice Marshmallow.") But it's clear that her contemporaries soon figured out who she really was (her name was Eliza Anderson). What's not so clear is what else she wrote, and when she started writing.

The magazine that "Beatrice Ironside" edited was called the "Observer," and it was a successor to the "Companion," whose ostensible editor was Edward Easy. The prospectus for the "Observer" says that a new editor is now taking over -- but the prospectus is unsigned, and there's no indication of the editor's gender. Was this "Beatrice," whose name doesn't actually begin appearing until some weeks later? Or did she take over from someone else?

To make things murkier, just before the "Companion" ceased publication in 1806, the editor suddenly starts referring to herself as "she." (In the ancient bound volume I was perusing, some earlier reader had underlined this pronoun and put an exclamation point in the margin -- it was highly unusual, of course, for a woman to be editing anything during this period.) So was this Beatrice/Eliza? There were pieces in the "Companion" published under female names -- even one published under "Eliza" -- but given the predilection for pseudonyms, sometimes of the opposite gender, this doesn't really tell us anything. In fact, it seems unlikely that anything signed "Eliza" would actually have been written by someone named Eliza.

Virtually unsolvable mysteries like this make me glad I'm writing fiction rather than history; I can just decide whether or not I want Beatrice/Eliza to edit the "Companion" and then go on to found the "Observer" -- I don't have to decide whether that really happened. But, in an effort to make the jobs of future historians somewhat easier, I've resolved to continue blogging under my own name -- boring as that may be.

No comments:

Post a Comment