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Op-Ed

Anonymous was a writer

Some of the most famous authors in history preferred to keep their names off the title page.

December 27, 2011|Robert Folkenflik | Robert Folkenflik, emeritus professor of English at UC Irvine, specializes in 18th century literature and Samuel Johnson

You can't keep Anonymous down. This ubiquitous author most recently appeared as the title of a film that's already faded, but only after kicking up debate about a band of Shakespeare "birthers' " claims that the real author of the most famous plays in the world was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. The film should have been called "Pseudonymous," since Shakespeare's name appeared on many printed versions of his plays during his lifetime. Filled with errors about Shakespeare and Oxford, the film got something right about authorship: It's sometimes convenient to avoid signing your name to your work.

Anonymity and pseudonymity have a long history. We think of medieval authors laboring anonymously, but even the first age of literary celebrities, the 18th century, was paradoxically an age of anonymity. Book historian James Raven estimates that "over 80 percent of all novels published in Britain between 1750 and 1790 were published anonymously." Because the only major 18th century novelist to put his name on the title page was Henry Fielding (best known for "Tom Jones"), we ought to think of anonymity as the default position for the novel, thought to be a low form.

Satirists such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope published anonymously, often for legal and political reasons. Anonymity protected Swift from arrest when a reward was offered for the author of his "Drapier's Letters," pamphlets advising the Irish not to take copper half-pence from England. The novels of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Laurence Sterne, Tobias Smollett and Fanny Burney were all anonymous. Defoe's fictions were even putatively authored by their main characters: Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Roxana. (He was probably writing counterfeit autobiographies, not novels.)

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, December 29, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 17 Editorial Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Literature: In a Dec. 27 Op-Ed about anonymous writers, Jane Austen's village in England was wrongly identified as Clawton. It was Chawton.

Oliver Goldsmith comically presented some of the anonymous author's problems in the preface to his "Essays" (1765): "I have seen some of my labours sixteen times reprinted, and claimed by different parents.... These gentlemen have kindly stood sponsors to my productions, and to flatter me more, have always past them as their own."

Journalism too was generally anonymous. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele were "Mr. Spectator" with an initial at the end of each daily Spectator essay providing a clue to the author's identity.

The subject of the world's most famous literary biography, Samuel Johnson, is far from unknown to literary history, yet until he was nearly 40, his name only appeared on a handful of his writings. And even after his "Dictionary of the English Language" was published under his name in 1755, he often remained anonymous. Johnson wrote to the printer of "Rasselas," his only long fiction, "I will not print my name, but expect it to be known." Printers and booksellers would be in the know; readers familiar with his style would guess.

Johnson once responded in his "Rambler" essays to a correspondent seeking his identity with "the answer of a philosopher to a man, who, meeting him in the street, desired to see what he carried under his cloak; 'I carry it there,' says he, 'that you may not see it.' "

Samuel Richardson wrote to Edward Cave, the publisher of the "Rambler" essays, "The author I can only guess at. There is but one man, I think, that could write them; I desire not to know his name; but I should rejoice to hear that they succeed." Cave wrote back, "Mr. Johnson is the Great Rambler, being, as you observe, the only man who can furnish two such papers in a week, besides his other great business."

Making slow progress on his dictionary, worried about the discrepancy between his own morality and his advice to readers, Johnson had his reasons for anonymity.

Among the Romantics, Sir Walter Scott was called the Great Unknown in reviews of his novels. In fact, assigning a range of his copyrights to Archibald Constable in 1820, Scott insisted on a clause stipulating that if the publisher divulged his name as the author of the Waverley novels, he would pay Scott £2,000.

Six years earlier, writing from the village of Clawton to a relative, a provincial English author claimed, "Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones -- it is not fair. -- He has fame and profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people's mouths. -- I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it -- but fear I must."

As Jane Austen's letter makes clear, Scott was indemnified against the voicing of an open secret. Her wit was right on target. In a letter of the time, Scott said: "Many things would please people well enough anonymously, which, if they bore me on the title-page, would just give me that sort of ill-name which precedes hanging, and that would be in many respects inconvenient if I thought of again trying a grande opus." When he officially revealed himself in 1827 he called anonymity "the humour or caprice of the time."

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