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Prologue: The "Person" in a Personal Essay

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, or Joan Didion about keeping a notebook, or Vivian Gornick about street-life in New York City, and you will hear such distinctive voices that you too might refer to the persons in those pieces by the names of the authors who created them, as if they were one and the same. And in a sense they are, given the self-referential status of “I” that’s entrenched in language. A personal essay does, after all, put one more directly in contact with the thought and feeling of its author than do other forms of literature, if only because personal essayists speak in their own name rather than through the fictive characters that inhabit the work of novelists and playwrights.

But the “person” in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts—the sound of its voice a byproduct 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. As Scott Russell Sanders says in “The Singular First Person,” “What we meet on the page is not the flesh and blood author, but a simulacrum, a character who wears the label I.” Indeed, when personal essayists write about self-embodiment in the essay, they often acknowledge an element of fabrication or of artful impersonation. Montaigne admits in “Of Giving the Lie” that “Painting my self for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than the original ones.” Charles Lamb in an unpublished review praises William Hazlitt for the “assumption of a character . . . which gives force and life to his writing.” In “The Modern Essay,” Virginia Woolf dramatizes the paradox of essayistic self-embodiment in a striking imperative: “Never to be yourself and yet always—that is the problem.” Likewise, Vivian Gornick tells of discovering the need for a persona “who was me and at the same time was not me.” Edward Hoagland doesn’t even nod at the possibility of being oneself, suggesting in “What I Think, What I Am” that “the artful ‘I’ of an essay can be as chameleon as any narrator in fiction.” E. B. White in a letter about his work (August, 15, 1969), frankly acknowledges that “Writing is a form of imposture: I’m not at all sure I am anything like the person I seem to a reader.” And Nancy Mairs, whose self-revelatory essays in Carnal Acts might seem to be unrehearsed confessions, declares in “But First,” that “I am not the woman whose voice animates my essays. She’s made up . . . ”

The “made-up” self and the manifold ways it has come to life in a wide range of essayists and essays—these are my central concerns in this book. Thus it is intended to reconceive the most fundamental element of the personal essay—the “I” of the essayist—and by doing so to demonstrate that this seemingly uncontrived form of writing is inherently problematic. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s devious or willfully misleading like some fictionalized memoirs of recent years. But it’s well to remember that the world of literary nonfiction borders upon the world of fiction, and sometimes their boundaries overlap, as Phillip Lopate implies in his Foreword to The Essays of Elia: “. . . all autobiographical first persons are highly selective and therefore distorting representations of their owners, even when they do not bother, as Lamb did, to employ an alter ego or pen name.” Lopate’s observation is a reminder too that whenever we write in the first person, reflecting on our personal experience, we inevitably create a version of ourselves, crafting a self out of words.

Though the essayist’s “I” has not been the subject of a book-length study, personal essayists have shed light on it in so many different contexts—in prefaces, introductions, essays, reviews, diaries, letters, and interviews—that I have collected and analyzed their comments and been guided by them in the conception and organization of this book, as well as in my approach to specific authors, issues, and texts. In defining or describing a persona, essayists tend to emphasize either consciousness or personality—either interiority or exteriority. Thus I have devoted the first two parts of this book to “Evocations of Consciousness” and “Evocations of Personality,” each of which focuses on representative authors and texts as a means of exploring how structure, style, and voice determine the nature of a persona and one’s perception of it. My reading and writing of essays have also led me to realize that a persona is inevitably shaped by both the impress of culture and the force of personal experience. Accordingly, the last two parts of this book are devoted to “Personae and Culture” and “Personae and Personal Experience,” as reflected in the point of view, content, and voice of selected essays and essayists.

Given my addiction to the personal essay, I could not resist the temptation to write about it in the freewheeling form of essays, nor could I resist some of the enticing roles an essayist can play, as envisioned by White in the foreword to his collected essays: “he can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter—philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidante, pundit, devil’s advocate, enthusiast.” Though I don’t have so many personae in my portfolio, the pieces that follow embody some of the different selves that various essayists and issues have called forth in me. Sometimes academic, sometimes playful, sometimes contentious, sometimes intensely personal, I make my way from one essay to the next. So, the book as a whole enacts its concern with the made-up self and the varied ways it can come to life in the work of a single essayist.