A Voice for All Seasons: Carl Klaus and The Made-up Self

November 17, 2011 § 8 Comments

The Made-up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay.
Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010. 160 pages. $18.18, paper.

Of all the matters that have eclipsed the minds of essayists, one remains unyieldingly prevalent: the matter of self. It is, after all, the personal essay. One cannot write a personal essay without confronting the self—that elusive entity with blurry lines and ever-changing denotations. I confront the impossibility of defining myself when I write, and typically fail to provide something I am half-satisfied with. Maybe that’s why I essay, to define and explore myself through words.

The problem of pinning down the self is exactly where Carl Klaus starts in his exploration The Made-up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay. In the prologue, Klaus writes that

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.

Though the cover of the book describes it as literary criticism/reference/writing, Klaus doesn’t give the reader what might be expected by these classifications—a solely informative look at the personal essay form. Instead, he says that “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 the enticing roles an essayist can play.” As Klaus sets out to accomplish the feat of a book-length discussion on the essayistic personae, the character, voice, and recollection of classic and contemporary essayists inform the text with a delightfully broad look at the many selves that have given life to the essay. But despite the in-depth look at the work of others, Klaus’ voice weaves itself in and out of Montaigne and Woolf, around bends of Lamb and White, and over the rivers of Dillard and Didion, showing readers that no matter where the essay goes, the essayist is ever at the helm.

Klaus’ book is broken up into four parts: “Evocations of Consciousness,” “Evocations of Personality,” “Personae and Culture,” and “Personae and Personal Experience”; each part is broken into chapters like “Elia: Pseudonymous Self Extraordinaire,” “The Mine and the Mind’s Idiosyncrasy: Ideas of Consciousness in the Personal Essay,” and “Montaigne on ‘Montaigne’: Towards a Poetics of Self,” which is the opening chapter. Of course, who better to begin with than Montaigne, the father of the personal essay to whom we give thanks for shaping the essay’s form? Klaus reflects on Montaigne’s constant digressions into his own mind, and notes that despite whatever subject matter was at hand, Montaigne’s self was under examination as much as anything else. By opening his book with Montaigne, Klaus shows Montaigne’s undeniable stamp of introspection and exploration of the self on the essay that has stayed with the genre for more than four hundred years.

Throughout the book, Klaus’ voice and tone is as changeable as the chapter headings, at times mimicking the subject of each chapter—jumping playfully from topic to topic in his chapter “Discontinuous: Form of Consciousness,” or reflecting on his own battle with health in “Illness and ‘I’: Malady in the Personal Essay.” In the final chapter, Klaus explores the idea of his changing self, and concludes his meditations by saying:

Change, after all, is in the air—it touches us, touches our words, touches our personae, as it touches all things. So, a voice for all seasons could only exist in a world without change, a life without death. The “I” is mutable, whether we will it or not.

A guest blog/book review: Natalie Johansen is currently a Creative Writing MFA student at Brigham Young University. She is first and foremost an essayist, and hopes to soon become a citizen in the world of publication.

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§ 8 Responses to A Voice for All Seasons: Carl Klaus and The Made-up Self

  • Kaaren Kitchell says:

    Dinty, Natalie and Carl,

    Thank you for this. It makes me want to read the book. I especially love the references to Montaigne and Woolf, and the reminder that the personal essay is an exploration of self, as well as all the other subjects an essay writer is drawn to address.


  • Me too! Really look forward to reading this!

  • Okay, this sounds like an absolute must read. Thanks once again, Dinty!

  • John Streamas says:

    This sounds like a good book. I must say, however, that most recent collections of “personal essays” or “creative nonfiction” or “lyric essays” or whatever else they may be called leave me cold. (There are extremely good exceptions, such as Eula Biss’s work.) Notice that the blurbs on the cover of David Shields’s “Reality Hunger” are by white writers. Where are the writers of color? We confront institutional oppression–our histories are a function of our troubled relations with the racist capitalist economic and political system. Julie Otsuka’s newest novel, “The Buddha in the Attic,” is written in first-person PLURAL, and somehow it works wonderfully well. But I would argue that “personal essay” always means, for writers of color, something plural, a confrontation with our shared history. There’s been much consternation, for example, among writers of color because most trendy environmental literature offers only the “personal” perspective of the white liberal middle class college-educated individual. It is written, in other words, from a position of privilege. I don’t want to read a white upper-middle-class writer who is all bent out of shape because he or she cannot decide whether to let the teenage offspring buy a motorcyle, or whine about a move from Austin to Boston, or complain that the elderly in-laws are moving into the basement. The Occupy Wall Street movement is concerned with SOCIAL justice, not personal justice. The liberal white mind seems to think that personal freedom matters more than communal/racial/gender/class justice, and so liberal white writers of “personal essays” fixate on themselves, as if they think they speak for and to and of everyone else. They don’t. What kind of “personal essay” would a refugee write? What about a homeless veteran? The Bill of Rights expresses a litany of guaranteed personal freedoms, and the Tea Party insists that personal freedoms are being trampled in the interest of “multiculturalism,” and it’s only people of color, women, and such groups as the Occupy protestors who realize that we need, not more “personal” anything, but more social everything. Eula Biss writes about herself, yes, but she also writes about a corrupt system for housing impoverished black kids, about the smug privileges of white frat boys in college towns, about segregation in Chicago. She positions herself in relation to those injustices. In his essays, James Baldwin sometimes disappears altogether. Reading him, we learn about the world. We need more essays like those by Biss and Baldwin.

    • carl klaus says:

      Chapters 7 and 8, which comprise the section entitled “Personae and Culture,” directly address the issues that you have good reason to be distressed with. CK

  • In honor of Carl Klaus’s “The Made-Up Self,” note this AWP panel, Friday, March 2, at 4:30:

    F226. The Persona in Personal Narrative: Crafting the Made-Up Self
    (Michael Steinberg, Thomas Larson, Mimi Schwartz, Phillip Lopate)
    Continental C, Hilton Chicago, Lobby Level
    Carl Klaus writes in The Made-Up Self that the narrator in a personal essay or memoir “is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts.” Four essayist/critics will discuss/show how such selves are constructed. Each examines his/her writing and that of published writers; and together they speculate on whether such selves were made-up, when or if the writer was conscious of such invention, and how we judge one fabricated ‘I’ as more or less authentic/ truthful than another.

  • […] A Voice for All Seasons: Carl Klaus and The Made-up Self (brevity.wordpress.com) […]

  • Rebecca « says:

    […] but rather a weak extension of the English Department. The former director of that Program wrote The Made Up Self: Impersonality in the Personal Essay, which I read, reviewed, and sent out for possible publication. After the fifth rejection I gave up […]

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