If personal essays are supposed to be nonfiction, then how can essayist and teacher Carl Klaus begin a scholarly book of essays with the following premise?
The "person" in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts—the sound of its voice a by-product of carefully chosen words, its recollection of experience, its run of thought and feeling, much tidier than the mess of memories, thoughts, and feelings arising in one’s consciousness.
In part, he is taking up Virginia Woolf’s oft-quoted observation: “Never to be yourself and yet always—that is the problem.” While these statements may cause some readers to feel justified in their skepticism regarding the line between fiction and nonfiction, we need not worry. In The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, writers and readers will find well-conceived and lucid answers to some of the more difficult questions that arise regarding the treatment of the “I” in this kind of nonfiction.
In the first two of the four parts of The Made-Up Self, Klaus, who had been writing and teaching the personal essay for about a half-century when he retired from the University of Iowa a few years ago, explores the ways “structure, style, and voice determine the nature of a persona and one’s perception of it.” He begins, as one might expect, with a study of Montaigne who, in crafting self-portraits through language, brought to the essay form a focus on following the mind at work and showed “the inextricable relationship between the motions of his mind and the movement of his prose.” From this foundation, Klaus includes critical essays that tackle such questions as the uses of “The Mind and the Mind’s Idiosyncrasy: The Singular ‘I’ and the Chameleon ‘I’” and the use of pseudonyms (particularly Charles Lamb’s “Elia”).
The one-liners Klaus quotes from essayists of both today and yore are not trite but insightful and encouraging for essayists of the twenty-first century. In the chapter on “Ideas of Consciousness in the Personal Essay,” Klaus brings together such voices as John D’Agata, Alfred Kazin, and Cynthia Ozick as if in conversation to better express such complicated ideas as how writers go about capturing the mind at work on paper in ways that suggest “the movements of a mind were more compelling than its matter. As if the play of ideas were more important than the ideas themselves.” Klaus brings to bear on the conversation Phillip Lopate’s statement that “the track of a person’s thoughts struggling to achieve some understanding of a problem is the [essay’s] plot, is [its] adventure.”
And for anyone who has been wishing for a study of segmented, mosaic, collage, or other essays that could be called “discontinuous,” Klaus has a chapter for you, where he makes sense of and validates the potentially powerful sub-genre. Such essays are not simply playful or inherently cheap or incomplete. Rather, he says, they offer “a uniquely appropriate form of seriously engaging matters about which one remains profoundly uncertain.”
Whereas parts one and two focus on the emphasis given to persona in terms of consciousness or interiority, parts three and four explore personality and exteriority by looking at the ways point of view, content, and voice are used. Klaus examines the effect of split point of view—both “I” and “we”—in George Orwell’s “A Hanging,” an essay that depicts Orwell’s split observation and participation in a hanging in Burma. He also touches on the way cultural consciousness is portrayed through various points of view in essays by writers from a number of backgrounds. Klaus demonstrates how the “I” is defined in terms of the writer’s treatment of “they” in essays by James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, and Richard Rodriguez.
One of the most engaging features of the book is that it is actually an essay collection, albeit scholarly, that features Klaus in as many personae as he can summon. In his words, the essays “embody some of the different selves that various essayists and issues have called forth in me.” Where possible, he mimics the features—be it structure, use of persona, or style—of the particular point he’s trying to convey. This is evident in the second chapter, where Klaus makes use of what he calls “special effects” such as digression, flashback, memories, and juxtaposition while discussing them.
In an essay, where the narrator is the author, writers can struggle to clarify just what version of the self is thinking or acting. Klaus’s varied and engaging essays in The Made-Up Self can help. Readers will better understand how personae are functioning in personal essays, and writers will gain strategies for crafting the most effective personae for their works. The persona is a construct, but not necessarily a creation. Woolf correctly identified this as a “problem” almost a century ago, and Klaus takes great strides in solving it in this volume.