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Before 'O': a 19th-century anonymous sensation

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(Read caption) John Hay was an American statesman, diplomat, private secretary and assistant to Abraham Lincoln – and the anonymous author of a wildly popular political novel.

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Will the unnamed author of "O," the new novel about a quasi-realistic 2012 presidential campaign, take his or her identity to the grave? Considering the horrific critical reaction to the book – "trite, implausible and decidedly unfunny," grumbled Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times – it might not be a bad idea. And there just so happens to be some precedent.

The anonymous author of a sensational and female-friendly 19th-century bestseller about the dangers of a socialist revolution never fessed up. But the unknown writer of "O" might not want to follow this precedent too closely: Everybody eventually figured out who wrote 1883's "The Bread-winners," which would one day hold the dubious distinction being "the first important polemic in American fiction in defense of Property."

The anonymous author was John Hay, a private secretary-turned-diplomat who managed to serve not one but two assassinated presidents in a life that also included a stint in journalism, an ambassadorship and, it seems, a lot of time spent learning to understand the ladies.

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