The Real Story of 'O': Anonymity Has Its Perils
Mccrum, Robert, Newsweek
Byline: Robert Mccrum
In February 1663, the London printer John Twyn was sentenced to a most terrible fate: he was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Twyn's offense? He had dared to print an anonymous pamphlet that justified the right of rebellion against the king. In his jail cell, Twyn told those who begged him to confess the source of the treason that "it was not his principle to betray the author." The next day, Twyn's head was duly placed on a Ludgate spike.
As Washington watches agog at the publication of the anonymous roman a clef O: A Presidential Novel, Twyn's horrible fate is an apt reminder of the historic perils of authorship, the price of anonymity, and the frenzy it used to arouse in the early days of the printed word.
Writers once went to extraordinary lengths to remain anonymous. And with good reason. Books were a matter of life and death. Immediately after the introduction of the printing press, writers who challenged religious or political orthodoxy were in mortal danger. Translations of the Bible, especially, offered a short route to oblivion: William Tyndale, the first person to publish an English-language version of the New Testament, was burned at the stake. In 1679 England's greatest living poet, John Dryden, was so badly beaten by thugs for his supposed authorship of an anonymous satire about one of the king's mistresses that he almost died. Daniel Defoe, the British journalist and author of Robinson Crusoe, was put in the pillory.
The author of O, whoever he (or she) turns out to be--Robert Gibbs? Curtis Sittenfeld? David Plouffe?--has placed himself in a noble, if fraught, tradition. Tracking back through Anglo-American literary history we find that Shakespeare published anonymously, and Anonymous put his name to Gulliver's Travels, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and The Federalist Papers. …