- The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay
Although its provocative title might lead one to think this book adds to the complaints about fictionalized memoirs, in fact it is a useful, instructive, and engaging history and analysis of the personal essay as a genre.
Carl Klaus is one of the grand old men of literary nonfiction. He was the founding director of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, and his name entered most writing classrooms in the 1960s and ’70s through Elements of the Essay, which he co-authored with his friend Robert Scholes. The Made-Up Self draws on Klaus’s decades of teaching and writing as a personal essayist.
Through writers’ self-evaluations and his own close readings, Klaus investigates how the authorial “I” is a “textual stand-in” for the author. “The ‘person’ in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts,” he says (1). He acknowledges that, in this collection, he calls forth his own different selves—“sometimes academic, sometimes playful, sometimes contentious, sometimes intensely personal” (3).
This has always been true of essayists, according to their own testimonies:
Michel de Montaigne: “Painting my self for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than the original ones.”(1)
Virginia Woolf: “Never to be yourself and yet always—that is the problem.”(2)
E. B. White: “Writing is a form of imposture: I’m not at all sure I am anything like the person I seem to a reader.”(2)
Nancy Mairs: “I am not the woman whose voice animates my essays. She’s made up.”(2) [End Page 338]
Perhaps writers have always known they spoke in different voices. But for three hundred years, readers heard an essayist’s voice as the literal voice of the author. In the 1820s Charles Lamb tried to introduce the idea of different voices in his pseudonymous essays by “Elia.” But even though he “spoke” in different ways and fictionalized some events through Elia’s persona, readers into the twentieth century, including Virginia Woolf, equated Elia with Lamb, the man.
Montaigne is still the touchstone for personal essayists. He was one of the first to reject the formal structures of classical rhetoric and medieval scholasticism because they claimed a certainty he did not value. Instead, he was fascinated by the vagaries of his consciousness, its multitudinous voices. He wanted to be seen in his “simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice, for it is myself that I portray” (13)—a persona that nonetheless needed careful calculation, he acknowledged.
Persona defined as consciousness still preoccupies essayists. As John D’Agata says, “The essay is the equivalent of a mind in rumination” (19). “And what could be more profoundly personal, more intimate, than the revelation of a mind in the process of thought?” Klaus asks (19).
Other essayists evoke a persona of personality. Consciousness or personality is rendered by the voice. And, just as the details of thought or life vary, so does the voice. E. B. White noted, “The essayist . . . can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter” (46). The voice can even change within an essay or between drafts of an essay. It is always a fluid blend of authenticity and artifice. That’s why it’s ironic, Klaus notes, that teachers and writers still allude to a “singular and unchanging voice”—a myth that has led to the myth of “finding one’s voice” (58). Each myth is a false, and limiting, promise.
Nonetheless, Virginia Woolf celebrated “civilized” essays and the “geniality” of a good essayist’s voice. She lauded Max Beerbohm for being appropriate for “the drawing room” where reading was meant to happen (83). And she excoriated William Hazlitt for being “emphatically himself”—“He has no reticence and he has no shame” (85).
E. B. White would continue to use the gentlemanly persona of genial companion, but George...