"Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.”
- Judy Garland, born Frances Ethel Gumm
Idiosyncratic people and plain people alike choose pseudonyms for a wide variety of reasons. You don’t have to be in the midst of an identity crisis or in a family fight to desire a pen name.
The last post discussed some business ramifications one may consider when deciding whether to use pen names or file "doing business as" (DBA) status.
Pen names can help someone create separation in daily life, maintain an ounce of privacy, and tap into the powerful psychological benefits of alter-egos. Not surprisingly, the topic of identity navigation comes up a lot in modern blogging.
- Why does a pen name unleash creative power?
- Why do modern major news outlets want writer’s real names?
- And why did Edgar Allen Poe publish The Raven in 1845 while referring to himself as Quarles? (I don’t think Poe was thinking about how it would impact his taxes.)
Pen Name Power!
A lot of creatives battle with the name their parents bestowed upon them. Others struggle with the name they married into. Others don’t struggle with the name itself, but with the idea of being known in daily life.
Several brilliant women in the past hid their gender by fabricating a dorky man’s name. This assisted them with navigating a misogynistic world and "half garnering" the respect they deserved. Even a bad male name was better than a woman’s name in several industries in the 1800s. Take a look at number one.
The Logic of 20 People Who Changed Their Names
- George Eliot - Mary Ann Evans was a Victorian lady wanting little to do with the traditional gender expectations of her time. She also wanted nothing to do with the cheesy romance novels expected of many women writers in her day. Therefore, she took her partner’s first name (flattering) and decided Eliot was a “good mouth-filling” easily pronounceable word.
- Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Brontë first wrote under the names Ellis, Currer, and Acton Bell. They were published while pretending to be men in 1846. By 1848 they tore up the lie and were celebrated for what they were - brilliant women.
- Silence Dogood - Benjamin Franklin’s writing pitches were ignored several times by his brother (who happened to be the founder and publisher of the New-England Courant). In one of several acts of genius, he shed his 16-year-old boy persona and took on the alter-ego of a middle-aged woman. Take that brother!
- Elizabeth Arden - After a partnership with a fellow beautician went south, Florence Nightingale Graham changed her name and created a new business under it. Elizabeth happened to be her old business partner’s first name. She took it and added Arden (inspired by a Tennyson poem). The Tennyson poem Enoch Arden is built around an old law where a person could be declared dead after seven years for legal purposes involving inheritance or remarriage. Hmmm… not sure if she got along with that first Elizabeth or not.
- Madam CJ Walker - Sarah Breedlove, born to former slaves and orphaned at the age of seven, went on to become the first black woman millionaire in America. She sold hair care products tailored to African American women after suffering from a scalp condition. Her husband helped her with advertising the products. He suggested the name change when she started her company. Breedlove balm? No thanks.
- Mark Twain - Samuel Langhorne Clemens heard “mark twain” shouted several times before he claimed the pen name. This is because “mark twain” meant “two fathoms” - how deep it needed to be for a riverboat to safely travel at the time. His first pseudonym was “Josh.” I'm not sure if I would have wanted to read an 1884 novel by Josh. (BTW, it’s also interesting to learn about Mark Twain’s investing mistakes.)
- Olivia Wilde - Just when you thought you couldn’t love Olivia Wilde more, you find out she’s a fan of Oscar Wilde. While performing in a play written by the famous playwright, she felt at home on stage (and at home with her intense emotions). Therefore, she made the fateful decision to become an actress. She realized her last name (Cockburn) wasn’t going to cut it, so she took on Wilde instead.
- Flea - Michael Peter Balzary’s friend Anthony Kiedis noticed that Michael was small and he liked to jump around a lot. Somehow Michael managed to make fantastic bass and trumpet sounds while also jumping around. The nickname stuck.
- St. Vincent - Here’s another modern gem. Annie Clark admired a Nick Cave song that mentioned the hospital where Dylan Thomas died. (Dylan Thomas may also have something to do with Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan.) St. Vincent itself comes from St. Vincent de Paul - the patron saint of charity. I still think of thrift stores when I hear Annie Clark’s beautiful music.
- Dear Abby - Pauline Phillips used the name Abigail Van Buren as a combination of the Biblical name “Abigail” and the U.S. President “Martin Van Buren.” Pauline once had the nick-name Popo. I think we can all agree that “Dear Popo” wouldn’t have had quite the same ring to it.
- Dr. Suess - Theodor Seuss Geisel’s dad wanted him to be a doctor. Instead, he got The Cat in the Hat. His dad may have been disappointed, but children across the world have been delighted ever since. (Besides, Theodor did obtain an honorary doctorate… eventually.)
- Voltaire - Francois-Marie Arouet was the epitome of "independent thinker." He changed his name to reject his father’s blind societal values (and the fatherly pressure to be a lawyer). His dad was probably offended. Maybe he should have been thankful? Being related to Voltaire was risky business. Radical criticism of religion and witty criticism of French tradition is just what could kill someone off in those days.
- Publius - Publius is what you get when Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay mix their wild heads together in the 1780s. They used this three-person pseudonym while writing The Federalist Papers. The name was created in homage to the Roman Republic founder Publius Valerius Poplicola, who helped overthrow the old-school monarchy.
- O. Henry - William Sydney Porter was put in prison for embezzlement. He told fantastic stories while in the slammer and was encouraged by other inmates to write his stories down in a more official way. Before being published, however, he browsed through the obituaries in order to put together a very simple name. Because his stories became so well-loved, his three years in prison were forgiven.
- Lewis Caroll - Charles Lutwidge Dodgson gave his publisher several names to choose from when he started taking writing seriously. He started using his now-famous pen name in 1856, after playing around with whether “Lewis” or “Caroll” should be the first name. He valued privacy and humility so much, he would even refuse to open letters addressed to “Carroll” if they arrived at his Oxford office.
- Quarles, Barry Littleton, Edward Gray - Edgar Poe had many names. He added Allan when he was taken in by John and Frances Allan (who never went on to officially adopt him). When he enlisted in the army, he was “Edgar A. Perry”. “A Bostonian” was the byline in his first book. When he wrote scathing reviews, he became known as “The Tomahawk man” in literary circles.
- Mel Brooks - Melvin James Kaminsky was afraid his name sounded like the trumpet player Max Kaminsky. Melvin was also a musician at the time (playing drums) so he took part of his mother’s maiden name (Brooman) and became Mel Brooks.
- Dean Martin - When Dino Paul Crocetti first started working in show business, he went by Dino Martini. Then, fearing confusion with a popular singer named Nino Martini, he changed his name a second time. (He was mostly known as "The King of Cool" in my husband’s house.)
- Richard Bachman - Stephen King was thought to be in hypothetical danger of oversaturating his own market (isn’t that simply known as being prolific?), so he decided to do one book a year at the beginning of his career as Stephen and any other books as this guy. (One book a year per author was a common golden rule for publishers at this time.) One of “Richard’s” books sold ten times as many copies once everyone knew it was Stephen King.
- 70 random pen names - Lawrence Kerfman Duby Jr., mostly known as Lauran Paine, wrote about everything from witchcraft to romance to military history. With such a variety of interests and wacky genres to tackle (from science fiction to mystery) and over 1,000 books to his persona, his publishers couldn’t handle the output… so he turned himself into 70+ people.
The Savvy History Pen Name
Since most freelance clients won’t accept Savvy History as my name, meet Michelle VanCura.
VanCura was my great grandma’s long lost maiden name.
Mrs. VanCura read to illiterate farmers on Friday nights in the late 1800s. Her Oberlin alumni dad balked at a stable life of business with the Ohio relatives, so he packed up his family to buy some fine land out west.
Her tiny little township was mind-expanding because of books. Throughout her life, she attracted crowds far and wide on Fridays with her baked goods, stories, music, and uncanny supernatural ability to... read.
She read everything from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to The Authentic Visitor’s Guide to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
I inherited her books when my great aunt (shout out to one of the first weather women) passed away.
Because I decorate with these books, the essence of this old family name is spread throughout our house.
Do you have a pen name brewing? What do you think of Michelle VanCura? Did I create a tax headache for myself?