Tedra Osell on the Uses of Pseudonyms

Since I liked this piece, I asked Tedra if we could run her MLA presentation on 18c periodical essayists and blogging personae. I thought it would be useful for us to talk about, because it pushes the historical analogy further and reflects a bit on the function of pseudonyms in public writing. Tedra also notes that this is an earlier draft than the one delivered, because of a hard-drive meltdown. Nonetheless, I think it’s got plenty for us to consider.–DM


I’m Nobody, Who Are You?

It’s really strange to be here delivering this talk. Because no one in the audience is here to hear what Tedra Osell, the scholar of 18th century studies with one article to her name, coming from a university few people have even heard of, currently on leave, is here to say. This isn’t even an 18th century panel. You’re all here to see Michael, or Scott or John, or a persona named [pseudonymous blogger]. And, of course, it was PB, not Tedra Osell–who was invited to be on the panel in the first place. But for whatever reason, the MLA doesn’t yet allow personae to deliver papers, so here I am instead.  And since 18th-century studies is, in fact, my field, I’m going to talk a little bit about 18th-century studies. On the other hand, since it’s PB who was invited to be on the panel, I’ll do so in her style, which is (ironically, since she’s only a persona) first-person and personal, rather than in my style, which is more typically academic (and therefore less interesting, or at least less novel).

Like most of the stuff PB does, the underlying premises of her creation are apparent to me, Tedra, only in retrospect. What led to my being online at all was my being pregnant while I was writing my dissertation; I went looking for stuff about pregnancy and babies and life/work balance and ended up on the HipMama forums, which were a really awesome mothering resource that no longer exists. The forums went down, and I finished my dissertation, and went on the market, and then some of my old friends from HipMama wrote and said that they were all starting LiveJournals and I should too, so I did that for a while and wrote about my job search. Since I was getting more interested, by this point, in that subject than in babies, I started wanting a forum to talk about academia–which was also a topic some of my mama friends were interested in, but between feeling the desire for a more public kind of accountability and the desire to be a little *less* public about specific things like where I was interviewing, and the like, I went over to blogger and started a blog there–the name for which I came up with offhandedly, in a late-night chat with an old college friend, by the way.

What led to my making Pseudonymous Blog (I hope) into something more than “just” a personal blog, though, was said dissertation. What I wrote on, and am supposed to work on (though I haven’t, much, lately) is 18th-century periodical publishing. Specifically, 18th-century periodical essays, the best known of which are the Tatler (which still exists, as the title of a British society magazine), the Spectator, and Johnson’s Rambler. The 19th-century canon of 18th-century essays included other titles, now forgotten, and–as I came to realize–mostly written by a more-or-less connected group of Whig politicians and Whiggish hangers on, a kind of 18th-century old boys club. (Which, I have to say, established a canon not only by promoting its own, but also simply because the Whig world view was, in fact, on the ascendant–so that what Whiggish writers wrote was, in fact, more popular.)

But there were literally hundreds of these essay periodicals that weren’t canonical, and many of these were anonymously written. Or, I should say, pseudonymously, because one of the quickly-established features of the genre was an eponymous authorial persona. There were two Parrots, both written by parrots; a North Briton, written by an anonymous Scotsman; The Young Lady, written by a Young Lady, and so on.

One of the most successful essay periodicals to fail to enter the canon was The Female Tatler (written by “Mrs. Crackenthrope,” mostly, and then by a Society of Ladies), which began publishing shortly after the Tatler did, and successfully competed with it (a singular achievement) partly through the extremely clever conceit of publishing on alternate days and claiming to represent an alternate–i.e., woman’s–point of view. To this day, the author of the Female Tatler is at best an educated guess: the CBEL still lists the probable author as Thomas Baker, based on stories that Baker was publicly beaten because of something that the Female Tatler wrote. The few scholars who work on the thing, though, have pretty much moved over to attributing it to Delariviere Manley, aka Mary Delariviere Manley. The evidence for this attribution rests on Manley’s having been arrested just as Mrs. Crackenthorpe turned over the reins to the Society of Ladies, now known to have been mostly the creation of Bernard Mandeville, a friend and associate of Manley’s. No one admits this outright, but I suspect strongly that an underlying reason for this (rather thin) evidence having been accepted so widely is the desire or belief that, in fact, the Female Tatler should have been written by a woman.

By now, probably, most of you are seeing the parallels to blogging, or at least to my own blog. In effect, my blog was doing more or less the same thing that 18th-century periodical essayists were doing: writing more-or-less personal essays on a regular schedule, using a consistent eponymous pseudonym, about topics from politics to the latest news to what the author dreamt last night or where he or she had dinner, and what the company talked about. And, more specifically, just as the Female Tatler consciously courted an audience by explicitly presenting an “alternative” viewpoint, “Pseudonymous Blog” was a title chosen–however casually–in order to represent a kind of paradox, an “alternative” point of view on the ostensible success of having finished the degree, landed a good tenure-track job, and embarked on an academic career that I felt I was kind of faking (and blogging itself magnifies that feeling–after all, as I said in the beginning, PB is a far more successful academic than Tedra Osell).

Now, it isn’t especially groundbreaking of me to say “wow, blogging’s just like 18th-century periodical publication!” Most of the 18th-centuryists I know have made this observation at one point or another. There are a couple of other similarities, as well: 18th-century periodicals instituted the letter to the editor, which was in its day as marked an innovation as blog comments. The Tatler, in particular, played with this innovation by introducing fake letters (written by Richard Steele, its primary author), by using real letters as essays (presented either as submissions or revised slightly and printed without attribution), and by engaging in multi-issue discussions with correspondents–virtually all of whom, following the paper’s own model, wrote under pseudonyms or initials, by the way. There were interpaper spats and dramas, along with threats to reveal author’s identities (or thin allusions to identities that “everyone” supposedly already knew).

And, just as with blogs, there were those who celebrated the emergence of print ephemera as a revolutionizing, democratizing force: “anyone” could start a paper, or write to one, or publish in one. Of course, a canon emerged rather quickly and, as I said, it favored a small group of loosely interconnected ideological comrades (more or less); the “where are the women” question wasn’t asked at the time, but if you were to look exclusively at the canonical 18th-century periodicals, you might be tempted to conclude that women didn’t write many of them–and the 1992 “Women Advising Women” microfilm collection, which includes 40 periodicals and periodical-type miscellanies along with conduct books and the like, has several titles that appear, or are known to have been written by men using female personae for either satirical or didactic purposes.

Which brings me to the two main points I want to raise for discussion and, one hopes, further research. First, notwithstanding post-Habermas discontent, I think it’s fair to say that the 18th century generally, and periodical print culture specifically, established if not an actual fully-realized public sphere, at least what I like to call the “enabling fiction” of the public sphere: that is, the idea (which even Habermas’ critics invoke more or less self-consciously) that we should work towards such a thing, and that (though this is somewhat more debatable) that we’re all more or less in agreement about what such a thing would involve.

Second, along the same lines, that we really don’t know how unrealized the imperfect textual public sphere really was (then) or is (now). And I think that this is related to something I suspect, based on my own practice and an (unscientific and imperfectly conceived) survey I did about a year ago, putting out a call for respondents on my blog and then emailing a survey to all those who showed interest. I got about 450 narrative responses, which are impossible, really, to perfectly interpret. But the jist of the results correspond with my observations in the blogosphere, and my observations of 18th-century anonymous periodicals. I suspect that the vast majority of pseudonymous writers are exactly who they represent themselves as, at least insofar as gender is concerned.

We all joke that “on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog,” but it seems to me that, in fact, this isn’t true. Even unschooled readers are fairly savvy about generic form, and one of the formal conceits of public discourse is that people whose social identities are marked as “other”–women, in this case–will, when writing personally, draw attention to their persons. Pseudonyms prevent texts from being impersonal, from pretending to objectivity; they draw attention to the author’s role in a way that a straight byline does not. At the same time, though, pseudonyms make a text more fully public: by hiding the author’s identity, the author becomes potentially anyone. Pseudonyms mean something, and one of the things they mean is that the pseudonymous writer has a reason for pseudonymity. When pseudonymity becomes a generic feature, as with essay periodicals and blogs, one of the things that means is that the genre entails risk, that publishing is risky.

If pseudonymity suggests risk, risk suggests that writers are motivated by something more important than the risk that entails. For some 18th-century women, the need to make money was more important than the association between publication and whorishness. Few bloggers make money on their blogs, and profitability isn’t morally problematic any more; but the desire to talk about work conditions, or personal problems, or politics, or parenting (apparently) more important than fears of being fired, or embarrassment, or shamed. But because those risks are real, writers publish pseudonymously.

Let me back this up with a brief and partial summary of what the survey I did suggested. To date, I’ve collated about 1/3rd of the responses, and so far 92% of pseudonymous women bloggers self-report that their content is clearly gendered (by mentioning pregnancy, husbands, professional concerns as women). This despite the fact that most of their pseudonyms were gender neutral: “Dr. Crazy,” for instance, rather than (say) “Hysterical Woman.” In contrast, only 65% of pseudonymous men said that their content was clearly masculine–but some of those who claimed neutrality also said that they simply had never considered the question and therefore *assumed* their content was neutral, and two of these admitted that they mentioned their wives (one resolved this apparent contradiction by explaining that “nowadays, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything”–one wonders if he really thinks that lesbian bloggers are likely to mention wives, but not lesbianism). Men and women both say they use pseudonyms because they’re afraid of being fired. But more men than women said that they chose to use their real names because they hoped their blogs would be professionally advantageous; these self-reported that they didn’t talk much about their families in order to guard their privacy. In contrast, more women than men say they blog pseudonymously in order to talk about private / personal things. On the other hand, there were women (but no men) who said that they had chosen to break their pseudonymity in order to either claim their blogs as a professional asset, or more generally to “get credit for their work.” (I want, by the way, to point out the particular advantage of periodicity here–one’s goals and purpose can change over time).

The biggest difference, though, is that 65/92% gap between men’s and women’s self-reported awareness of gendered content. This, along with the fact that women tended to report blogging as a process of discovery, a form of honesty, a “confidence-builder,” suggests that publication still “feels” risky for women in a way it doesn’t for men, and that this very sense of risk is part of what compels women to write, as women, about things they think of as gendered in nature. The paradox here is that this perception of risk compels publication, rather than suppressing it, and this makes me want to hypothesize that the content of public writing is determined less by gender per se than by issues of property and authorship.

Comments, anyone?

16 responses to “Tedra Osell on the Uses of Pseudonyms

  1. David Mazella

    There are two things I like about this: the first is the way you describe your gradual discovery about the purposes of the blog, and the way that it could unite different aspects of your writing life.

    The second is your description of the putlic/private paradoxes of the pseudonym, which shields the private identity of the writer, while permitting the writer access to a (largely anonymous) public, or what Michael Warner would call an audience of “strangers.” The pseudonym carries risk (you can always be “outed”) but it also provides some margin of safety. And don’t forget the way in which pseudonyms can function as “open secrets” for insiders and members of the right coterie.

    Finally, I think that the gender issues you describe in your final paragraph probably function in some kind of figurative relation to the issues of property and authorship, so that they cannot be mapped literally onto one another (that’s the point of the cross-gendered pseudonym), but operate as a “masculinization” or “feminization” of the authorial role.



  2. I admit that what pulled me into this discussion was your analysis of eighteenth-century periodical literature, which was a major component of my MA thesis over a decade ago. In that I focused on the concept of a female persona for a male writer.

    Like Dave, I really appreciate how you pulled together the public/private dichotomies and then in your final paragraph you get not only to issues of public / private (fears of being fired, etc.), but then to the issue of authorship.

    I’m reminded of Foucault’s “Author Function”, and will have to go back and re-read it now.

    Thank you for posting this paper.

  3. What I found most interesting about this comparison is your insight about the blog and the periodical’s potential to create an audience, which is sometimes done literally (writing the letters to themselves) but also in other ways as well. Most work that I have read on C18 periodical discusses the way periodicals interpellate subjects: femininity (Shevelov); masculinity (Mauer); consumers (Mackie). But has anyone recently returned to or explored the possibility, as Tedra seems to be suggesting here, that they created potentially oppositional communities (as do blogs) in ways that potentially exceed party politics? If not, is this because most work is on the more canonical periodicals? There might be things about there that I don’t know about, but I would really very much like to see more work in this area, especially in sifting through some of those anonymous or quasi-anonymous periodical that seem to be engaging female audiences.

  4. Exactly Laura. I liked how Tedra drew connections of that quasi-anonymous component of eighteenth-century periodical literature to her persona’s blog and the poll responses currently received. In some respects the authorial voice serves as the vehicle for prompting discussion regardless of sex-role behind said voice. Interesting, though, how the males in the blog poll unwittingly gender their responses; how might that affect their female audiences?

  5. Laura, I think you’re right that the elision of the competitive nature of periodicals is a function of canonization; extra-surprising, really, given how much stuff there is in the early Tatlers (and the last one) about critics and competition. Everyone seems to take Steele’s statement about political content being his biggest regret (and the implication that politics was the primary motivation of his critics) at face value, and therefore no one bothers to actually go do the reading.

    Sharlene, you’re right: the author function is one of the big theoretical questions behind my work on this stuff; it’s really fun to not only think about it, but also be able to play with it by doing a little pseudonymous writing myself. I’d be interested in hearing what your argument about male writers using female pseudonyms was; you might be interested in my (single) published article, “Tatling Women in the Public Sphere.” If you have access to project MUSE, you can get it here. If not, email me and I’ll send you a copy, if I can find one in the mess that is my office.

  6. David Mazella

    Tedra’s formulation here is really helpful: the presence of the pseudonym indicates the presence of real risk, a risk that nonetheless gets forestalled but not resolved by the tactic of the pseudonym. And the blogging analogy helps fill this out, because the kinds of discourse that fit uncomfortably in a professional context and discourse (pregnancy, workplace issues, etc.) still find ways to break into public discussion this way. And yes, risk can always be seen as a gendered concept.

    Tedra, if you’re listening in, do you have a sense of where you’d like to take this research, in terms of sources or further investigation?


  7. In 18th-c studies, I would love to do more with both periodicals–so much primary material–but also think about the convention of anonymous publication more generally. I’m not satisfied with the standard explanations that anonymous publication was about fear of prosecution or fear of being unladylike, though undoubtedly these are both considerations. My problem is that by focusing on why people published anonymously, we’ve really failed to think about the effect of doing so on audiences or on publication history. I’m really convinced that anonymous publication enabled (and was enabled by) the so-called rise of the public sphere. What needs to be done is talk about how and why this works.

    In re. blogging, it’s really an open field: the scholarship so far is really just beginning. And again, we’ve tended to dismiss anonymity (pseudonymity) by thinking of it mostly in terms of authorial intent–although, as in the 18th c, there’s also some discussion of its effect on the audience, mostly along the lines of arguments that anonymous writers are unreliable. Of course, *all* authors, as authors, are unreliable, but I find it fascinating that despite the death of the author, we really still want to base the “legitimacy” of a text on knowing its provenance.

  8. Speaking of pseudonyms, I noticed that I was the only one here posting under a full name. I don’t know if that reflects risk-taking bravado or indifference to my own fate. Perhaps these amount to the same thing?

    Seriously, though, I think that the author-function in the blogging world is so disembodied, so “deterritorialized” that it makes us reflect on an earlier stage of print culture, where understandings were similarly unsettled.

    I’ve been thinking about Junius along these lines, because I think that a large part of the impact those letters had was in their anonymity. No one could tell it where they were coming from, but they were clearly superior to most of the other paid government writers, and the uncertainty over his identity made him even more effective, because readers thought it was an “inside job” of some sort.

    Since our jobs are about the establishment of meaning, not enjoyment of the writing in its initial rhetorical occasion, it’s not surprising that we need to know who wrote what, something our periodical-writers and -readers could be indifferent about. When you find a funny YouTube clip about Bush, do you really care who produced it?


  9. There has been some interesting work theorizing anonymity in the period before ours, although you may be already familiar with it. I’m thinking of Marcy North’s *The Anonymous Renaissance* (former colleague of mine). She’s interested in both manuscript and print culture, so it might be a productive point of comparison to what happens in the eighteenth century. But I agree that it is undertheorized in our period, which in a way surprising given how many people published anonymously. Several playwrights withheld their names (esp in first efforts), as did so many novelists. *Oroonoko* was considered a choice role for a novice because if you were really terrible no one would know who you were! So there was even anonymity, supposedly, on stage. Not to mention the other space of live anonymity, the masquerade.



  10. Dave,

    Funny you should mention the full name issue. I keep forgetting to login and haven’t yet mastered this new format so some of my posts the past couple of days are seeming fairly random.

    Tedra, I would love to read your article, and yes, I do have access to Project Muse, so will try to read it this weekend or early next week.

    This is a very fascinating discussion, in fact a very nice one to return to in this new semester.

  11. David Mazella


    I know of R. Griffin’s work, but haven’t read his book on anonymity. Has anyone here read it? I saw Halasz’s book on early modern pamphlets, which I think is a logical comparison, and it does have a public sphere approach, but it didn’t seem to do much with its material.

    Fantomina is the ultimate masquerade fiction, because it makes clear that we are talking about substitutions, displacements, rather than the nullification of identity.

    Sharlene, apparently if you login then comment, your login name will turn up as the name to your comment.



  12. Heh. I for one don’t use my full name b/c I’m a lazy typist, and b/c it’s not like my first name alone isn’t enough to identify me anyway. If I’m logged in, the thing defaults to my username, so, fine.

    Since our jobs are about the establishment of meaning, not enjoyment of the writing in its initial rhetorical occasion, it’s not surprising that we need to know who wrote what

    See, I don’t know about this. First, it’s begging the question: is authorial identity necessary to establish a text’s meaning? Is it not equally possible that knowing an author’s identity–especially if it was concealed at the time–actually limits possible meaning(s)? Second, it depends on what one is studying: in a cultural studies or historicist context, at least, the initial (and subsequent) rhetorical occasions of a written work surely are at least part of what we’re trying to get at, no?

    At least, this was the argument I found myself having to make when I realized that the only way to talk about these texts, short of spending the next twenty years on attribution, was to say so.

  13. David Mazella


    I agree that this question of attribution is completely symptomatic, because it reduces meaning-production to the classic Foucauldean dyad of “author/work.” This may be useful for analyzing certain literary genres, and in certain periods, but it is not universally applicable, because of all the issues MF and his readers have raised.

    What I was trying to tease out in my last post was the different kinds of “sense-making” that we need to do, especially in regard to polemical or political genres, which do not require a full and explicit reconstitution of authorial intention to be enjoyed or understood.

    I was thinking instead that our jobs are closer to that of the Q. Skinner-style of analysis in those cases, wherein we try to understand the rhetorical thrust of a position taken at a certain moment, as part of a larger argument.

    So, yes, understanding the rhetorical occasion is part of our historicist job job of reconstitution of meaning, but doing so requires making explicit what was often tacit in that source text, something which contemporary reades may or may not have required for their purposes.

    So, yes, again, trying to “see through” the mediating device of a pseudonym, which has its own historicity as a writing-practice, takes us further away from the historical experience of those who consumed it in the first place.



  14. Kirstin Wilcox

    Tedra says, “I’m not satisfied with the standard explanations that anonymous publication was about fear of prosecution or fear of being unladylike, though undoubtedly these are both considerations.” My limited work on female pseudonyms in late C18 British and American periodicals suggests that pseudonymous female authors (those that we can be fairly sure were in fact women) saw pseudonyms as a way of replicating gender protocols on the printed page (once the pseudonym had allowed the big taboo of publication to be breached).

    Do we need to know who wrote what in the c21 blogging world? I’m not sure myself that not knowing C21 blog identities really changes the structure of the public discourse (though the networks of “real-world” and non-academic friendship perhaps can become more visible than they are in, say, scholarly journals). I’m relatively new to the academic blogosphere, but I have my own emerging list of who is worth reading and who isn’t, based more on what they say and how other participants respond to them than on the limited information I have about their real identities. Identity matters more in the non-blogging academic world, but that seems to be a function of the relative power of these two worlds. My list of “who is worth reading and knowing about” in non-academic blogging contexts is, I admit, shaped by who may be in a position to affect my career and who I need to know about in order to claim knowledgability about my field. If these things are less of a consideration in the academic blogosphere, it seems a function of the size and scope of the blogosphere than its structural qualities.

    What strikes me as “new” about the public created (projected? interpellated? constructed?) by academic blogging is the way that it values the written expression of wit. Not that wit is irrelevant in non-blogging academic contexts, but it doesn’t shape who gets read and why to the same degree. So I’m wondering about the C18 periodical analogues. In print contexts where wit was already the currency of the realm, what literary values did anonymous periodical publication thrust into prominence?

  15. Ooh, that’s a really good question. I haven’t thought to look at anonymous stuff, specifically, in that way.

    Things I have noticed, though: the convention of the pseudonym/title *does* promote a kind of combined individualized editorial voice + house style that seems to me to be new. And, over and over, they emphasize that pseudonymity forces readers to rely on the text itself to determine whether it’s good or not. Which I suppose one could think of as being anon/pseudonymity’s contribution to the revived interest in rhetoric.

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