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The Made-Up Self

Impersonation in the Personal Essay

Carl H. Klaus

Publication Year: 2010

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.


Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. vii

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Prologue: The "Person" in a Personal Essay

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pp. 1-3

The sense of a human presence that animates a personal essay is surely one of the most beguiling literary phenomena, for it usually comes across in so familiar and direct a voice, seemingly without effort or contrivance, that it’s easy to believe I’m hearing (or overhearing) the author of the piece rather than a textual stand- in. Listen to Montaigne tell about his near- fatal fall from a horse, or Virginia Woolf about the death of a moth, or James Baldwin about his sojourn in a Swiss mountaintop village...

Part I. Evocations of Consciousness

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Montaigne on "Montaigne": Toward a Poetics of Self

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pp. 7-18

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.” ...

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The Mind and the Mind's Idiosyncrasy: Ideas of Consciousness in the Personal Essay

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pp. 19-29

The mind, the mind—it’s probably not what first comes to mind when one thinks about the personal essay, but it’s certainly on the mind of essayists who write about it. Montaigne made it a leitmotif of his essays, cogitating so often upon the nature of his cogitations as to endow his work with a profoundly self- reflexive cast. And one can readily hear echoes of Montaigne’s preoccupation in essayists of our own time. ...

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Discontinuous: Form of Consciousness

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pp. 30-41

...It’s 1963, and I’ve just been puzzling over something called “Spring,” by E. B. White. I refer to it as “something,” because I don’t know what to call it or how to describe it. All I know is that it doesn’t look like an essay and doesn’t read like one, though it’s included in One Man’s Meat together with “Once More to the Lake” and other essays that White wrote for his monthly column in Harper’s some twenty years earlier. ...

Part II. Evocations of Personality

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Voices on Voice: The Singular "I" and the Chameleon "I"

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pp. 45-59

Voice. You can hear it, can’t you? And just think how little it takes to create such an effect. In this case, a one-word opener, a direct address, a question, and an imperative remark—all contributing to the sense of a human presence, of someone talking, giving voice to thought and feeling in an audibly distinctive way. But the voice, of course, is not spoken; it’s written. ...

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Elia: Pseudonymous Self Extraordinaire

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pp. 60-73

Walking into Tio Pepe’s, I never imagined that dining there in Baltimore, amid the lamp- lit stucco walls of a Spanish restaurant, bristling with re-djacketed waiters and bullfighting scenes, would lead to this piece on Elia, the pseudonymous self of Charles Lamb. Oh yes, I went there intending to dine on roast suckling pig, a specialty of the chef and subject of Elia’s renowned “Dissertation,” so one might say I was tacitly committed to doing the kind of primary research that could lead to an essay such as this. ...

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Never to Be Yourself and Yet Always: Virginia Woolf on the Essayist’s Problem

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pp. 74-85

On November 30, 1922, the essay had a day in the sun, thanks to the Times Literary Supplement, whose lead article, “Modern Essays,” filled the front page and part of the second—prominence rarely accorded an essay on the essay. Written by Virginia Woolf—anonymously, as then the custom in TLS—it was occasioned by the publication of Modern English Essays, a five-volume collection edited by Ernest Rhys, essayist, poet, and founder of the Everyman’s Library Series. ...

Part III. Personae and Culture

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Difference and "I": Cultural Consciousness in the Personal Essay

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pp. 89-102

For much of its history, the personal essay has been a domain of white male authors, so inattentive to the drastically different circumstances of women and minorities that Lamb’s diatribe on the mistreatment of women stands out as a premodern rarity. Far from speaking out on cultural and political issues, personal essayists from Montaigne to Beerbohm chose to ruminate instead on books, ideas, manners, and personal experience. ...

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Orwell's "A Hanging": Politics and the First-Person Singular/Plural

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pp. 103-115

This is an exhortation of sorts—to note the point of view in a personal essay. Such commonsense advice as to need no urging, were it not for the fact that the first-person singular is so conventional an aspect of the personal essay that it’s taken for granted as the default point of view, and deviations from it are virtually ignored, as I discovered from the shock of realizing what I (and others) had missed by ignoring the split point of view in Orwell’s “A Hanging.” ...

Part IV. Personae and Personal Experience

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Illness and "I": Malady in the Personal Essay

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pp. 119-131

Twenty-five years ago on an evening in late February, Kate and I had just finished a dinner of stir-fried pork, hot and sour bok choy, steamed rice, and fresh daikon radishes, so it hardly surprised me that I was burping up the taste of those radishes as she cleared the table and I prepared to take out the garbage. I had, after all, had more than my share of them. Six months later, I came to see those radishy burpings as the harbinger of a radically new kind of life for both of us, since they were, as it turns out, the first signs of a heart attack. ...

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Days into Essays: A Self for All Seasons

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pp. 132-147

Even now, fifteen years later, I can still see the soap suds in the wine glass, still behold my reflection in the kitchen window that mid-December evening, when out of nowhere, it seemed, I was visited by something like the muse. How else to account for the writing project that suddenly came to mind while doing the dishes?

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pp. 149-150

This book is the outgrowth of courses in prose style, voice, and the art of the personal essay that I began teaching at the University of Iowa during the 1960s, well before the academic advent of literary nonfiction, thanks to the encouragement and professional support of such a visionary department chair as John C. Gerber and my colleague, Richard Lloyd-Jones. ...

Works Cited

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pp. 151-156


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pp. 157-160

E-ISBN-13: 9781587299469
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587299131

Page Count: 168
Publication Year: 2010