Junius on pseudonyms

A while back, when we ran Tedra’s MLA piece on pseudonyms, I suggested Junius as a possible parallel to contemporary blogging practice.  While working here at the BL, I’ve had the opportunity to read an interesting set of exchanges between Wilkes and Junius between September 1771 and January 1772.  These were conducted through Junius’s bookseller H.S. Woodfall, who never knew his identity.  [Cannon’s edition of J’s letters describes the entire, and still unresolved, debate over his identity, and the mechanics involved with the printing of these letters]

The exchange involves a kind of flirtation between these two polemical writers, the first one of the biggest political celebrities of the mid-century, the second a kind of anti-celebrity best known for operating in shroud and mist.  Junius insists, a little melodramatically, that Wilkes not speculate about his identity, but demands that he only listen to his (unsolicited) advice about the London mayoral race.  Wilkes goes along with Junius’s somewhat overwrought performance:

I do not mean to indulge the impertinent curiosity of finding out the most important secret of our times, the author of Junius. I will not attempt with profane hands to tear the sacred veil of the Sanctuary. I am disposed with the inhabitants of Attica to erect an altar to the unknown God our political idolatry, and will be content to worship him in clouds and darkness. 

What I find most intriguing about Junius’s position is his own articulation of why he needs to remain anonymous.  It is not the pragmatics alone, the need to stay out of reach from the Ministry’s long arm, but also because his anonymity makes it impossible for him to benefit personally from his writing.  This makes him not only peculiarly disinterested, but also difficult to discount, in an era when pamphleteers were assumed to be writing for pay from one side or another:

I have faithfully served the public, without the possibility of a personal advantage. As Junius cannot expect to be rewarded. The Secret is too important to be committed to any great Man’s discretion. If views of interest or ambition could tempt me to betray my own Secret how could I flatter myself that the Man I trusted would not act upon the same principles, and sacrifice me at once to the King’s Curiosity & Resentment? Speaking therefore as a Disinterested Man, I have a claim to your attention. Let my opinion be fairly examined.

In our own era’s political discussions, it also seems that pointing to a writer’s self-interest seems to substitute for reasoned response to an argument, and that these kinds of tagging function as the quickest way to discount opinions outside conventional wisdom.  This is probably why bloggers make mainstream politicians and journalists so nervous; the usual forms of gatekeeping and credentialing don’t operate in this public sphere.  And anything that makes such people nervous can’t be all bad.



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