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The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay

The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay

by Carl H. Klaus

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The human presence that animates the personal essay is surely one of the most beguiling of literary phenomena, for it comes across in so familiar a voice that it’s easy to believe we are listening to the author rather than a textual stand-in. But the “person” in a personal essay is always a written construct, a fabricated character, its


The human presence that animates the personal essay is surely one of the most beguiling of literary phenomena, for it comes across in so familiar a voice that it’s easy to believe we are listening to the author rather than a textual stand-in. But the “person” in a personal essay is always a written construct, a fabricated character, its confessions and reminiscences as rehearsed as those of any novelist. In this first book-length study of the personal essay, Carl Klaus unpacks this made-up self and the manifold ways in which a wide range of essayists and essays have brought it to life.

By reconceiving the most fundamental aspect of the personal essay—the I of the essayist—Klaus demonstrates that this seemingly uncontrived form of writing is inherently problematic, not willfully devious but bordering upon the world of fiction. He develops this key idea by explaining how structure, style, and voice determine the nature of a persona and our perception of it in the works of such essayists as Michel de Montaigne, Charles Lamb, E. B. White, and Virginia Woolf. Realizing that this persona is shaped by the force of culture and the impress of personal experience, he explores the effects of both upon the point of view, content, and voice of such essayists as George Orwell, Nancy Mairs, Richard Rodriguez, and Alice Walker. Throughout, in full command of the history of the essay, he calls up numerous passages in which essayists themselves acknowledge the element of impersonation in their work, drawing upon the perspectives of Joan Didion, Edward Hoagland, Joyce Carol Oates, Leslie Marmon Silko, Scott Russell Sanders, Annie Dillard, Vivian Gornick, Loren Eiseley, James Baldwin, and a host of other literary guides.

Finally, adding yet another layer to the made-up self, Klaus succumbs to his addiction to the personal essay by placing some of the different selves that various essayists have called forth in him within the essays that he has crafted so carefully for this book. Making his way from one essay to the next with a persona variously learned, whimsical, and poignant, he enacts the palimpsest of ways in which the made-up self comes to life in the work of a single essayist. Thus over the course of this highly original, beautifully structured study, the personal essay is revealed to be more complex than many readers have supposed. With its lively analyses and illuminating examples, The Made-Up Self will speak to anyone who wishes to understand—or to write—personal essays.

Editorial Reviews

Amy Rowland
…engrossing…Drawing from writers as varied as Woolf, Montaigne, Orwell, E. B. White, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard and James Baldwin, [Klaus] conducts a thorough inquiry into the ways the essayist's persona is shaped not only by the interior but also by the exterior, and by individual experience and culture.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher

“As stimulating a discussion of the personal essay as I have ever encountered.With the accumulated wisdom of a lifetime of practicing and teaching the form, Klaus thoughtfully probes and generously upends his own and everyone else's pieties. We are deeply in his debt.”—Phillip Lopate  

“Quite simply, Carl Klaus’s magnum opus: the book he has spent his entire writing life building toward: a persuasive and even moving summing up of everything he knows about the essay, especially the protean, inherently problematizing, stylized nature of the form. An extremely valuable correction to any misconception of ‘nonfiction as ‘truth.’”—David Shields, author, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

“This book is a cabinet of finely balanced wonders: treatise and revelation, study and confession, provocation and lyric—but most of all, it’s a love letter to the essay form. Carl Klaus approaches his subject, the complicated construction of a self on the page, with the curiosity, intellect, and innocence of an artist in love with and awed by his materials. As he reflects on essayists past and present as well as on his own prose, Klaus’s insights grow ever more intimate. His is a sensibility engaged in the deepest, lifelong work an essayist can perform: the creation, nurturing, and refining of that ever-elusive yet companionable made-up self.”—Lia Purpura, author, On Looking

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Impersonation in the Personal Essay

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2010 Carl H. Klaus
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-913-1

Chapter One


Toward a Poetics of Self

In 1580, Montaigne prefaced the second edition of his essays with the announcement that "I am myself the matter of my book," a commonplace in the twenty-first century, given the current popularity of memoir and the personal essay, but virtually unprecedented in the late sixteenth century, when nonfiction prose was rarely self- referential much less self-absorbed. Equally bold was his prefatory assertion that "I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice, for it is myself that I portray." Given such a declaration of independence from the traditions of classical rhetoric and medieval scholasticism, one might suppose that Montaigne pursued his self-regarding project with utter self-confidence, especially given the bravado of his later assertion in "Of Repentance" that while "Authors communicate with people by some special extrinsic mark: I am the first to do so by my entire being, as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian or a poet or a jurist." But Montaigne's project was so complicated by his idea of the self, which he equated with his thoughts more than with any other dimension of his being, that in twenty-six of his 107 essays he digressed from the subject at hand to ruminate on the problems of reflecting his thoughts in writing. Some of these self-reflexive passages run on for several hundred words, occasionally interrupting an essay five or six times, often expanding in length with each successive edition of his work-digressiveness that provoked Montaigne in his final essay, "Of Experience," to exclaim "How often and perhaps how stupidly have I extended my book to make it speak of itself!" Contrary to his dismay, Montaigne's digressions collectively embody the most detailed and substantial concern with the evocation of consciousness in the history of the personal essay. Such a venturesome concern with the rendering of interiority that it might well be seen as prefiguring modernist evocations of consciousness in the fiction of Woolf and Joyce.

As Montaigne suggests in "Of Practice," his commitment to self-portraiture involved him in the difficult, if not impossible, task of giving visible form to something that is invisible and doing so in the "airy medium" of language: "What I chiefly portray is my cogitations, a shapeless subject that does not lend itself to expression in actions. It is all I can do to couch my thoughts in this airy medium of words." Even more challenging was Montaigne's belief that the self is reflected not just in thoughts per se but in the flow of thought, in the process of meditation and reflection. To portray himself, in other words, required not just an exposition of his thoughts but a depiction of his mind in the process of thinking. For Montaigne, then, the ultimate challenge, as he explained in "Of Practice," was to convey the experience of thinking itself: "It is a thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our minds, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds, to pick out and immobilize the innumerable flutterings that agitate it." As he defines the problem here, it is caused in part by the inherently digressive habit of the mind, which he depicts as being so dynamic in its "wandering," so given to "movement," to "innumerable flutterings," that "to follow" it would indeed be "a thorny undertaking." Moreover, his final metaphor suggests that the thorniness is caused by attempting not only to track the flow of one's thought but also record the flow and thus "immobilize" it at the very same time that one is immersed in the process of thinking -a cognitive juggling act that is logically impossible without a radical division of one's consciousness into subject and object, into the observer and the thing observed.

Given his commitment to this dizzying mental task, Montaigne evidently went to extraordinary lengths to devise a way of generating his essays that would leave his mind free to follow its own inclinations, as he explains in "Of Books": "As my fancies present themselves, I pile them up; now they come pressing in a crowd, now dragging single file. I want people to see my natural and ordinary pace, however off the track it is." Here as in other passages, Montaigne's composing process appears to be free from any kind of artificial manipulation or intervention, in keeping with his prefatory tribute to the "sweet freedom of nature's first laws." Voicing such convictions, he often sounds like contemporary composition specialists, espousing the principles of free writing. Montaigne was so eager to let his mind follow its natural bent, to include all of its ramblings, that he refused to make any kind of correction, lest he exclude "the imperfections that are ordinary and constant in me." In fact, he was so committed to being seen in his "simple, natural, ordinary fashion" that in "A Consideration upon Cicero" he claimed to "pile up only the headings of subjects," rather than obliging himself to develop them into "numberless essays."

Likewise, in his essay on Virgil, he notes that "when I write, I prefer to do without the company and remembrance of books, for fear they may interfere with my style. Also because, in truth, the good authors humble and dishearten me too much." As these comments suggest, Montaigne evidently felt the anxiety of influence, despite having lived in an era before it became a central preoccupation of literary consciousness. In other essays as well, he goes out of his way to make clear that he quotes others not as authority but as a means of self- expression: "I do not speak the minds of others except to speak my own mind better." Thus Montaigne bears witness to the struggle he went through in trying to convey his own ideas, to be true to his own train of thought, while also being conscious of how deeply influenced he was by his extensive reading.

Much as he sought an uninhibited composing process, Montaigne also proclaims his prose to be free from any mechanical or methodical constraints-"My style and my mind alike go roaming." In keeping with this image of a style in unison with his mind, Montaigne often characterizes his prose as being natural, simple, ordinary, plain, or free, rather than artificial, affected, pedantic, studied, or strained. And as if to heighten the contrast, he tends to use more extreme adjectives and figures in his later essays, referring to his style as crude, harsh, disjointed, imperfect, or undisciplined and to traditional writing as even, orderly, polished, and smooth. For similar reasons, he refuses to be distracted by the bother of correcting his spelling and punctuation.

Just as he disclaims any polish in his style, so in his final essay, "Of Experience," he disavows any structure in his essays or in his work as a whole: "The scholars distinguish and mark off their ideas more specifically and in detail. I, who cannot see beyond what I have learned from experience, without any system, present my ideas in a general way, and tentatively. As in this: I speak my meaning in disjointed parts, as something that cannot be said all at once and in a lump." Here as elsewhere, Montaigne contrasts his work with the methodical discourse of classical rhetoric and medieval scholasticism, and to reinforce the difference he directly expresses his impatience with Cicero's "way of writing, and every other similar way," with "his prefaces, definitions, partitions, etymologies," claiming that "these logical and Aristotelian arrangements are not to the point." Montaigne's objections to such highly formalistic "arrangements" were occasioned not only by a desire to be seen in his "simple, natural, ordinary fashion" but also by an awareness that methodical discourse was expressive of a mental certitude that he did not possess-"If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial."

By pitting himself so clearly and persistently against Aristotle, Cicero, and the medieval scholastics, Montaigne established the now conventional posture of the personal essayist as an independent, often skeptical, mind, exploring ideas and experience outside the confines of received or prevailing intellectual structures. So, too, he established the personal essay as an anti-genre, as an open form of writing, at odds with systematized bodies of knowledge and systematized modes of transmitting knowledge, as he makes clear in this passage from his essay on Virgil: "Learning treats of things too subtly, in a mode too artificial and different from the common and natural one.... If I were of the trade, I would naturalize art as much as they artify nature."

But even in the act of staking out a libertarian role for himself, Montaigne was evidently quite conscious that his composing process and his prose were not so free and natural as they might seem. As early as the first edition, he acknowledged in "Of Presumption" that "I am quite conscious that sometimes I let myself go too far, and that in the effort to avoid art and affection, I fall back into them in another direction." By the second edition, he openly admitted that his way of writing is deliberately calculated to create the illusion of being a free and natural activity:

I go out of my way, but rather by license than carelessness. My ideas follow one another, but sometimes it is from a distance, and look at each other, but with a sidelong glance. I have run my eyes over a certain dialogue of Plato, a fantastic motley in two parts, the beginning part about love, all the rest about rhetoric. The ancients do not fear these changes, and with wonderful grace they let themselves thus be tossed in the wind, or seem to. The titles of my chapters do not always embrace their matter; often they only denote it by some sign like those other titles, "The Maid of Andros," "The Eunuch," or those other names, Sulla, Cicero, Torquatus. I love the poetic gait by leaps and gambols. It is an art, as Plato says, light, flighty, daemonic. There are works of Plutarch's in which he forgets his theme, in which the treatment of his subject is quite smothered in foreign matter. See his movements in "The Daemon of Socrates." Lord, what beauty there is in these lusty sallies and this variation, and more so the more casual and accidental they seem. It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I. Some word about it will always be found in a corner, which will not fail to be sufficient, though it takes little room. I seek out change indiscriminately and tumultuously. My style and my mind alike go roaming.

Throughout this notable passage from "Of Vanity," Montaigne seeks to dispel the impression that his essays are the product of undisciplined thinking and writing. So, while he begins by acknowledging his digressive tendencies, he insists that they are the product of "license [rather] than carelessness," of deliberateness rather than chance, of art rather than nature. Montaigne is so concerned here to distinguish his intentional digressiveness from authorial carelessness that he devotes the rest of the passage to defining and explaining a revolutionary concept of textual coherence which accounts for the unity of his work. He defines this concept in the second sentence, by means of an arresting personification which endows his "ideas" with the capacity to "follow one another, but ... from a distance, and look at each other, but with a sidelong glance." As this personification suggests, Montaigne conceives of his ideas as being so deeply allied to each other that their inner cohesiveness has the power to overcome the surface digressiveness of his prose. Having defined his special theory of coherence, Montaigne cites the classical precedents for it in Plato's Phaedrus and Plutarch's "The Daemon of Socrates," carefully drawing out the parallels between these works and his own by noting that "the ancients ... let themselves ... be tossed in the wind, or seem to."

Montaigne's repeated concern with a calculatedly wrought impression of digressiveness reaches its climax at the end of the first paragraph in his exclamatory transformation of the concept into an esthetic principle-"Lord what beauty there is in these lusty sallies and this variation, and more so the more casual and accidental they seem." In this bold exclamation, Montaigne openly espouses a policy not of naturalness but of studied casualness or, to be more exact, of artful artlessness. Indeed, in the paragraph immediately following this exclamation, he declares that "it is the inattentive reader who loses my subject not I. Some word about it will always be found off in a corner, which will not fail to be sufficient, though it takes little room." Thus, Montaigne depicts his essays as the outcome of a complex mental balancing act, in which he lets his thoughts wander freely enough so that they seem to be "casual" and "accidental" yet keeps them sufficiently controlled so that they do "follow one another," no matter how superficially disconnected they may seem to be. He conceives of his writing, then, as being at once the embodiment and the enactment of a mind freely following its own changeable directions-a paradoxical conception that is echoed by personal essayists as varied as Gass, Gerould, Hardwick, Hoagland, Kazin, and White.

Given this conception of his essays, Montaigne recognized that they call for a correspondingly radical approach to reading and interpretation, the nature of which he insinuates throughout the previous passage. For example, in discussing both his essays and their classical precedents, he focuses attention on aspects of their form that defy the conventional expectations of readers, such as chapter titles that "do not always embrace their matter," abrupt "changes" in "subject" from one part of a piece to the next or even from one sentence to the next, and statements of "theme" that can be "found only incidentally, quite smothered in foreign matter ... off in a corner, which will not fail to be sufficient, though it takes little room." Elsewhere in a similar vein, he acknowledges that his essays are filled with "stories" and "quotations" that "often bear, outside of my subject, the seeds of a richer and bolder material, and sound obliquely a subtler note, both for myself, who do not wish to express anything more, and for those who get my drift." But Montaigne also recognized that digressive or unrelated material is likely to confound an "inattentive reader," especially one accustomed to methodically written texts that contain "links and seams introduced for the benefit of weak or heedless ears." His essays, in other words, cannot be literally interpreted, because they do not assert their meaning in the forthright and systematic ways that characterize rhetorical and scholastic discourse. Indeed, given their allusive, digressive, and disjunctive form, his essays require instead an attentive reader, attuned to following all of his mental jaunts, a reader who like him "loves the poetic gait, by leaps and gambols." By positing such a reader, Montaigne deftly allies the personal essay with texts that use language imaginatively and thus require literary rather than literal interpretation.

The need for such interpretation is especially true of Montaigne's comments about the subjectivity of his work. Most of these widely scattered comments echo his prefatory desire "to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice, for it is myself that I portray." So one can easily be lulled into taking them at face value, as reiterations of his self-regarding purpose and persona. But from one passage to the next, Montaigne tends to invoke different metaphors or definitions in discussing the reflexivity of his work, as if he were trying out different ways of expressing the relationship between his essays and himself. So, it seems appropriate to examine these passages in detail, not only because they directly address what Montaigne claimed to be the hallmark of his essays but also because they tacitly explore the relationship of the persona to the essayist's self.


Excerpted from THE MADE-UP Self by CARL H. KLAUS Copyright © 2010 by Carl H. Klaus . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Carl H. Klaus, founding director of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, professor emeritus at the University of Iowa, and co-editor of Sightline Books: The Iowa Series in Literary Nonfiction, is a diarist, essayist, and author or co-author of several textbooks on writing. His nonfiction includes My Vegetable Love (Iowa paperback, 2000) and its companion Weathering Winter (Iowa, 1997) as well as Taking Retirement: A Beginner’s Diary and Letters to Kate: Life after Life (Iowa, 2006).

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