Barbellion is a pseudonymous figure, and the form of his essaying took a turn toward diary where he groomed his most private thoughts for public readership. As a result, his entries are polished and contain very little dead weight. This piece recalls a jaunt through the city with his close friend and captures a light mood, though not without his usual sarcastic edge. Writing students who attempt the diary form with dated entries can learn much from Barbellion about the psychological depth that is possible in such an intimate space, especially with regard to how it can be edited and prepared for larger readership. This piece in particular is the work of a flaneur, moving through his city searching for the unusual experience.
The depth of Barbellion’s self-analysis at times seems deconstructive, but his arch criticism is occasionally therapeutic, as in this piece. He is too ironic and self-aware to be accused of narcissistic pity. His frequent allusions reveal his wide-ranging interests, and perhaps there is no better exhibit of the tortured pedant than what he offers to the world in his diaries. This piece begins with his metaphorized journals—he compares them to wines, how we enjoy them by year, and refers to their cabinet as a “coffin.” He has already made these diaries the physical monument of his own existence, and student writers can consider this linguistic transubstantiation when attempting their own diaristic pieces. Readers may also find some kinship with his will to live and to write, despite ill-health, loneliness, and rejection.
An absorbed play on Barbellion’s own ironic viewpoint considering his journals. He mocks his own protectiveness of the cabinet containing his diaries, referring to it as his “coffin,” and sketches historical instances of fire destroying unpublished manuscripts. Barbellion reveals his almost obsessive desire to persist through his diaries, if through nothing else. This near-fragment is instructive to students attempting short essays that function as isolated digressions, and to all stripes of personal writers such as diarists and memoirists, whose manuscripts may never survive into publication.
Whenever I look for self-conscious essays by women that are pre-twentieth century, I am more often discouraged than fed by what I discover. It is a cruel irony that much of the essaying done by women seems effaced of personality or too topically focused, perhaps more a reflection of the times and limitations placed on the development of the female writer’s persona than of actual gendered proclivities. So it is a rare treat to find Margaret Cavendish’s engrossing section in her memoir where she ponders her own self, and sees that practice as worthy and her character deserving of such sustained introspection. (Sadly, too many male essayists consider themselves more interesting to readers than they actually are. The result is a surplus that marks the historical deficit of women essayists deeply.) In this selection, we find that Cavendish is modest, witty, loving toward her husband, whose personality she also discusses here, and altogether whole as a person and thinker. She is very much the sort of woman one wishes history to be more populated with, and writing students may find themselves buoyed up by her humble and philosophical musings.
On what matters a woman could have essayed about during Elizabeth Clinton’s time, the argument for breastfeeding seems by far a more political and realistic reason for setting ideas down by pen than any other. Nothing else exists by her that we know of, but what we learn from this piece speaks to a character that can be inferred from what little information she provides about herself as part of her argument. She takes it upon herself to dispel the ignorance of women in her time by showing them that choosing not to breastfeed their children is an act of disobedience to God. Her numerous examples recall women of the Bible and their mothering practices. This in itself is a valuable piece of literary analysis! But she also identifies many of the reasons a woman of her time (or even of our own time, still), would give for not breastfeeding and systematically unbalances these reasons through textual and experiential examples. But in the best and most alarming of moves, she self-condemns her own decision to not breastfeed any one of her own eighteen children, and admits that “one or two” of her children died as a result of negligent nurses. Reading this essay in light of whatever guilt we can imagine for her, this essay becomes a dear confession and penance for her own perceived failure as a mother. Students can benefit from considering the subjects female essayists would have had most immediate to them, and by comparing contemporary essays (by mothers) to this early model.
Reading Freud is of limitless value to the essayist pondering persona formation and deep self-awareness. Too often an essay’s subtext speaks in a distracting way much louder than the main text the author intends. Reading Freud keeps us alert to our own dual writing fount—the conscious and unconscious mind. This particular selection comes from one of Freud’s most accessible works in which he digresses toward the personal, with a scientific spirit, with admirable ease and a healthy dose of self-criticism. This essay serves a twofold purpose in (1) showing Freud’s own tendency to analyze himself as needed to make a point, and (2) to investigate reasons for not remembering events, names, or promises, a matter of importance to essayists who work in the reflective mode. This essay is both theoretically engaging and a good model for integrating analysis with personal anecdote. Freud more often “attempts” psychology than he masters it, when considered against 100 years of neurology, and I mean that in the best of ways, as essai means “to attempt.” Lest we neglect the substantial quoting and interaction with antiquity in Montaigne, there is no reason to exclude a more thematic or less literary essay from the ranks of the classically personal, especially when the subject is so persistently the self, not just the essayist’s self, but the Self unpacked egotistically, writ large. Student essayists may find this the most enjoyable and instructive approach to Freud, and certainly the most human version of the man one can find outside of his personal correspondence.
Once much beloved among essayists for his gentleness and humor, Oliver Goldsmith is less remembered now outside of the 18th century literature course. But the contemporary reader may be surprised by his persona’s humility that never rings false. This particular essay is interesting because it approaches English custom from the most ironic of angles. He adopts the persona of a Chinese letter-writer, Lien Chi Altangi, and though this was not an unheard of literary technique, some would argue that Goldsmith surpassed the simple “estranging” quality of the fictionalized oriental persona with his character. Student essayists may wonder how a fictional persona can model the classical essay in performance—but here we revisit several questions of the form, such as whether the essayist ever accurately represents himself or herself to a reader at all. If such veracity is impossible, where does the truth lie? By making his persona the living wonder at the center of this essay on spectacle, Goldsmith is able to parade the flaws of his own countrymen more convincingly, as if only by stepping outside of his own self is he is able to see the authentic Englishman at work. Could be a model workshop assignment—to write a short ethnographic piece from a foreign persona. Many students may draw a quick line between Goldsmith’s “Lien Chi” and the contemporary (also English) figure of “Borat”; comparison of the two could produce a number of revelations about the nature of comedy and persona.
Unlike many other pre-twentieth century authors who chose to write under pseudonyms, Harriet Jacobs composed her unconventional slave narrative under the name Linda Brent as a way of protecting herself, her children, and those who aided her escape to the north from a possible return to bondage. This selection from her 1861 book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl explains the risk created by this law which ran the duration of 1850-1862. Because her manuscript appeared in serial form in the New York Tribune, use of a pseudonym was a necessary measure. As is made clear in this selection, her owner took great pains to attempt her capture. From a stylistic standpoint, her narrative has been criticized because it more closely resembles a 19th century romance novel than a typical slave narrative by contemporaries. However, letters have been recovered in recent years that confirm Harriet Jacobs to be the author writing under the name Linda Brent. Additionally, her account differs from those of others in the way she focuses on “incidents” rather than following a strict chronological progression. Students can speculate how differently her narrative would have progressed had she been able to write and publish without the threat of recapture. Additionally, use of pseudonymity raises questions about privacy and safety that can be relevant to contemporary situations.
This, the final installment in her 1861 book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, finishes the anxiety raised in the previous segment, also on Quotidiana, titled “The Fugitive Slave Law.” Unlike many other pre-twentieth century authors who chose to write under pseudonyms, Harriet Jacobs composed her unconventional slave narrative under the name Linda Brent as a way of protecting herself, her children, and those who aided her escape to the north from a possible return to bondage. In this selection, the death of her owner does not ensure her safety, or that of her children under the law which can have any runaway slave returned to an owner, even if captured in a “free state.” Her owner’s daughter comes to New York to collect Linda Brent (as a living inheritance), and this selection discusses Brent’s dealings with that legal situation, as well as the emotional one of her being “bought” into freedom. It is a troubling aspect of her narrative overall that it is unconventionally novelistic, but this has been attributed to her loose, “incident” focused account in lieu of a strict chronology. Students who do not feel a kinship with 18th century English essayists (mostly male) may find a deeper and more resonant model in Harriet Jacobs. Her work could provoke a discussion regarding the balance between art and politics that some essays must go between in order to be successful. How much do we expect in either regard?
Under the name of “Elia,” with the desire to protect his privacy and that of his sister, Charles Lamb writes this essay as a study of his “cousin” Bridget Elia (actually his sister, Mary Lamb). In this piece, I admire his gentleness when considering her, especially in light of his care for her that may have ensured his bachelorhood. The way they each supported one another, considering his drinking, his own depression, her ten year seniority over him, and her own illness, which they both likely shared symptoms of (he was shortly hospitalized himself), though she continued to be confined for alternating periods—all construct a hidden life not openly explored in essay. Still, the mask is worn, though it was well known that Lamb was Elia by most of his contemporaries. Aside from studying one of the greatest practitioners of the form, a student reader can appreciate his various kindnesses in this essay, and respect his protective love for Mary, which perhaps prohibits any deeper biographical exploration of their history together, if nothing else.
The “humour of the thing, if there was ever much in it” is gone, says Charles Lamb, in reference to his persona of “Elia.” Referring to this shadow-self as a phantom, Lamb deconstructs the idea of Elia in a preface which barely conceals his enjoyment over the whole charade. But this preface also puts forward a reasonable defense for the essayist’s use of the first person persona to tell the story of “another,” meaning himself, and the necessary contraction and expansion of the self while exploring the universal experience. Lamb compares the essayist to the dramatist in this instance, “who doubtless, under cover of passion uttered by another, oftentimes gives blameless vent to his most inward feelings.” Lamb’s scurrilous and playful criticism of Elia includes jabs at his irony, loquaciousness, and his use of the “Indian weed.” Writing students should appreciate his tongue-in-cheek condemnation of the second self, a straw one at that. Could be turned into a model for an assignment requiring students to bewail the going of a created persona that has served its purpose, a sort of “second-self execution.”
Mark Twain begins with a traveler’s description of burial practices in New Orleans, but then moves into a more thoughtful mode, advancing into almost scholarly interest in the practice of inhumation (human burial). He moves from concerns over health to ethical considerations of cost, and it is this odd disjunction between initial curiosity and his progress through supporting evidence that makes his final position, one of pure and unadulterated compassion, highlighted in my memory. Having read much of the entire text, nothing in his autobiographical Life on the Mississippi moved me so much as chapter 42 and 43, where he considers and rejects the sense behind putting corpses in the ground. Many essayists will lightly digress into this subject or that subject, in much the same way Twain runs aground in the New Orleans cemetery, creepily referred to as the “city of the dead.” Students may find that they have deep-set opinions about subjects rarely considered outside of personal essays. Invite them to explore and rebel against a convention accepted by most people as standard, and perhaps discuss the temptation to find evidence for what is already believed in the heart to be true.
In this selection, the 43rd chapter of Life on the Mississippi, we see the persona of Twain shift from an almost scholarly consideration of the tradition of human burial in the preceding chapter, into an almost novelistic portrayal of an undertaker he is acquainted with. Twain becomes silent while the other speaks. He only returns in the conclusion of this chapter, showing how much an essayist can say about a subject through character and dialogue alone. Since this piece is more accurately classified as autobiography, the techniques of fiction are to be expected, but something seems more noteworthy about his decision to inhabit a speaker’s voice here, as if letting the undertaker speak without commentary from Twain more effectively conveys a point about the exploitation of mourners who survive the dead and must purchase coffins for them. As with much of Twain’s work, this one walks the edge of funny and critical—a perfect tonal model should students desire to experiment with satire or essays that accomplish their main influence largely through dialogue.
Desirae Matherly is a Harper Fellow at The University of Chicago where she teaches in the Humanities Collegiate Division. Her most recent essays appear in Pleiades, Southern Humanities Review, and Lake Effect. Desirae finished her Ph.D. in creative nonfiction at Ohio University in 2004, and she has been an occasional contributor to Quotidiana since 2005.
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