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A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker.

[Detail] A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker

Pen Names

Use of pen names — names assumed to hide the true authorship of a written work — was common in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Consider the reasons why writers might use pen names. Possible reasons include because of custom, because they did not want the readers to be prejudiced by association of the author's name with the work (thereby allowing readers to focus on the arguments), because the use of a carefully selected pen name allows the author to convey an added layer of meaning, because the author fears retaliation for writing the work, because the author is ashamed of the work, to maintain privacy, etc.

Search the collection for a piece written under a pen name. There are at least two — one of which ("A Letter to Philo Africanus, upon Slavery") can be identified fairly quickly using the Author Index; the other ("Reflections, Occasioned by the Late Disturbances in Charleston") requires considerable effort, since the pen name is not used in the Author Index. What do the authors of these pieces hope to convey by their choice of names? (They chose names of Greek or Latin scholars and leaders or names that suggest those roots, implying the wisdom of these scholars or a link to the first democracy.)

Investigate whether pen names are used for political communication today. If so, how are they used? If not, why not? Interestingly, the right to publish political work anonymously was upheld in the Supreme Court as recently as 1995 (McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U.S. 334, 356); the decision in the case, as well as Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion—both available at numerous legal sites on the Internet—contain interesting treatments of the use of pen names.

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