SEPTEMBER 23, 2011
EVEN THOSE OF US who regularly ask, with Montaigne, “Que sais-je?” (“What do I know?”), may succumb to the belief that we know the author of a personal essay. After all, isn’t that why it’s called personal? The easy, apparently transparent relationship between author and reader forms a large part of the essay’s appeal. With her intimate, confiding tone, the essayist seems to take us by the hand, draw us over the threshold of literature’s imposing mansion, and escort us to a comfortable sitting room with a view of an English garden. There, begging leave for a mere half hour of our time, she gradually but decidedly reveals herself in all her human peculiarity. She strips the “authority” from “author” and shows us the human side of that sometimes-distant figure. That’s why we warm to the essayist and respond to her work as we might to a letter from an old friend. Unlike those chameleon tricksters, the poet and playwright and novelist, the essayist is always herself.
Never mind that essayists from Montaigne to Nancy Mairs have insisted the situation is quite otherwise. Although famous for declaring “I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice, for it is myself that I portray,” Montaigne also recognized that in composing his essays he was engaged less in self-revelation than in self-portraiture — with all the suggestion of mutability and distortion that word implies. “Painting myself for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones,” he admits. And while he sometimes identified himself with his work, he also questioned that easy identification, in the process exhibiting the restless self-consciousness that remains such a distinctive feature of the genre. The “I” of an essay is a “construction,” explains Mairs. “I continually make her up as I go along.” Make her up — and revise her.
That the essayist’s persona is as constructed as any other author’s ought to be obvious. But until Carl Klaus, few seemed aware of it. In The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, Klaus, founder of Iowa’s nonfiction program and Professor Emeritus there, brings many decades of deliberation to a subject that until now has almost escaped observation. What makes his book uniquely rewarding is his double perspective. Klaus has studied and taught the essay, but he is also a practitioner of the form. In The Made-Up Self he brings the academic’s critical intelligence together with the essayist’s graceful prose in a fascinating and multi-faceted exploration of the genre that David Shields calls the “theater of the brain.”
Theater is an apt metaphor, for the essay seems inherently conversational or dialogic. And despite our stubborn adherence to the idea of “voice” it would be much more accurate to speak in terms of an essayist’s “voices.” Nineteenth-century writer Charles Lamb provides an excellent case in point. In a detailed examination, Klaus shows how Lamb employed an entirely different style and tone in his critical work than he did in the essays published under that name “Elia,” and proves, moreover, that Lamb fully recognized the distinction and felt some concern to maintain it.
As an historian, Klaus understands that the ideal self of the essay has changed significantly with the times; the gentlemanly discretion of Max Beerbohm, so beloved of Virginia Woolf, has given way to the politically charged or personally revealing essays of James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and Lauren Slater. It might seem quaint to us today, but in 1979, Joan Didion’s descriptions of her temporary blindness as a result of illness and her descriptions of checking herself into a hospital “stunned” New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani with their unusual “candor.” More familiarity with the genre might have lessened the shock, for Didion was hardly the first to use her own illness as material. Montaigne himself did not flinch from discoursing on his kidney stones and other indispositions.
Whatever the conventions of the era and the aesthetic ambitions of their authors, the “selves” of essayists are protean and various. In The Made-Up Self we meet many of them, from Hazlitt to Woolf to Orwell to E.B. White. “In defining or describing a persona, essayists tend to emphasize either consciousness (inner experience) or personality (how they present themselves to others),” Klaus claims. Accordingly, the first two sections of his book explore those themes through representative authors, while in the last two sections he considers how culture and personal experience shape point of view, content, and voice.
Klaus’s own persona in The Made-Up Self comes across as gentle yet relentlessly probing. If he were a dentist, you’d be grateful for his polite decorum but might wish he were a little less thorough. No matter: you’d keep your teeth to the grave. For Klaus, the essay itself is every bit as worthy of preservation. Like a dentist, he taps at it, sounds it, tries it — to prove its worth. Not content to rest with pieties, he tests them for himself; his analysis of White’s “Once More to the Lake,” for example, is a model of sympathetic rigor.
Fittingly, “Days into Essays: A Self for All Seasons,” the final piece in the book, is an account of Klaus’s own experience of the made-up self. Conceiving of a fairly simple, “controllable” writing project — keeping a journal of the weather every day for one year — he finds it necessary to adopt a persona much different from the professorial one of his long academic career. But no sooner does he begin to feel comfortable with that persona and its associated, more plain-speaking voice than events intrude which inevitably change his perspective. The illness and death of several beloved pets launches a season of losses even more profound, and the man who remarked on the “new start” of fresh snow at the New Year and deliberately yet jauntily cast off Latinate words in favor of Anglo-Saxon comes to understand that the “self” who inhabits a piece of writing is the product less of a consciously chosen “style” than of the work’s mood, its gist, its “gestalt.” The ending is a beautifully restrained enactment of all that Klaus has argued, and a moving testament to the mutable “I.”
“Never to be yourself — and yet always — that is the essayist’s problem,” said Virginia Woolf. In Klaus’s sensitive hands, the problem becomes a question well worth essaying.