Before Dan Swanson claimed "James North" as a name, "North" was the wandering identity of several writers.
The name originated in 1978 at The Washington Monthly when editor Joe Nocera was editing a piece on corporate bribery by a free-lance writer, Stephen Chapman.
"Charlie Peters The Washington Monthly editor in typical fashion wanted to get the story in but disagreed with about 50 percent of what Steve wrote," says Nocera, now a senior editor at Texas Monthly. "I was given the unenviable task of rewriting it. Chapman came in, looked at the galleys and hit the roof. He said, 'This is not what I wrote! Take my name off it!' I didn't want to put my name on it either. I don't know why but 'James North' was the name I came up with and for some reason it stuck." Nocera speculates that it was a subconscious choice. "Those are my initials," he says. "Maybe I secretly wanted to be a WASP."
The article written by Chapman -- now a columnist for the Chicago Tribune -- and rewritten by Nocera appeared in the November 1978 issue and was titled "The Economics of Extortion."
Nocera recalls running into consumer advocate Ralph Nader shortly after the article ran. Nader, he remembers, derided the story and asked, "Who the hell is James North?"
Nocera explained, but 'James North' would soon go beyond The Washington Monthly. The name caught another editor's eye. "I thought it would be funny," says Michael Kinsley, editor of The New Republic, "if every time somebody wrote a piece and wanted to be anonymous they called themselves 'James North.' "
Several writers at The New Republic turned up as North. "For a couple of years there," says Nocera, "James North became this prolific Washington writer." There are 16 references to stories by James North, identified as a pseudonym, in the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature between 1978 and 1984.
"It was sort of interesting that this James North guy accumulated quite a clip file," says Chapman.
When Dan Swanson, writing articles from southern Africa, asked for a pen name for security reasons, Kinsley says, "I gave it to Dan Swanson, and he took a liking to it."
"My passport had my real name on it," says Swanson. "But when I wrote articles and mailed them out, I would sign them 'James North' and then the South African police couldn't find me."
The New Republic has now retired James North's jersey with Dan Swanson.
And Swanson says he has gotten so comfortable being James North that he expects to keep the persona for the rest of his writing career.
"I've published for so long under that name. I haven't used my real name since 1978."