Students resist readings outside of the 20th century largely because they don't have a way into them, for the same reason we as readers might resist the unfamiliar logics of an alien culture. That's why teachers of literature work so hard to establish a context that is comprehensible, and if that approach can be placed into some larger narrative, like that provided by history, students will begin shaping their ideas around how they read the relationships between events and people distant from them. In the creative writing classroom, we may focus on elements of style, form, and technique. Explaining a text's relevance to the course largely depends on establishing continuity within the genre of study, in our particular case, creative nonfiction, more specifically--the personal essay.
How does the essayist construct himself or herself in relation to the reader? How does the writer earn and maintain credibility? What are the techniques of self-representation available to an author in his or her own time and place? The value of learning these ideas through reading can shape a deeper appreciation for the form in practice. It's never been my method to structure essay assignments around a theme, largely because I was allowed free range early on, for which I am appreciative. As a result, choosing what readings to teach is the more difficult task, but necessary for building a strong terminology for describing what happens in a personal essay. I consider construction of persona the most crucial prologue for developing this vocabulary. Persona also carries into my teaching in the humanities, where longer, less accessible readings of foreign cultures are privileged over contemporary American writing. My students are able to read the work of Cabeza de Vaca and Olaudah Equiano in a more articulate way, because we discuss how each constructed persona serves an identifiable purpose within each of their respective narratives. Returning to the workshop, where student writing takes precedence over readings, there is a pressure to be selective, and the essay is perfectly shaped for picking and choosing. What then are the best choices for developing a student view of persona that has some breadth?
For some students, writing a personal essay for the first time feels like journaling, by which they mean, writing in a diary. Students who attempt such private writing can learn much from early 20th century diarist W.N.B. Barbellion about the psychological acuity that is possible in such an intimate space, especially with regard to how it can be edited and prepared for larger readership. His diaries are the physical monument of his own existence, and student writers can consider this linguistic transubstantiation when attempting their own diaristic pieces. As a sufferer of Multiple Sclerosis, before the disease had a name, Barbellion provides a sympathetic model for writing about the body and illness, and for seeing the way one's life can become literally, one's book.
Barbellion is a pseudonym, which raises questions about how one might construct a false self as a form of protection. Harriet Jacobs published her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861 under the name Linda Brent, to protect her identity so that neither she nor her children could be returned to the enslavement that they had managed to escape. Reading Jacobs also highlights questions about representation in a genre primarily mastered by white men. The English essay is imperially situated within the tradition, unless you take it back out of our language and return to Montaigne, or others who preceded him in other cultures. Reading slave narratives counter to the English essay is a way of examining the limits of art, or the limits of politics, depending on your perspective, in the lives of those who attempted to build their own subjectivity from the ground up.
In other cases, pseudonymity is not so much a life and death matter, but can be used self-consciously as a satirical ploy. 18th century Irishman Oliver Goldsmith, slightly outside of his sphere in London, 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. By making his persona a living spectacle, Goldsmith is able to parade the flaws of his closest countrymen more convincingly, as if only by stepping outside of his own Irish self is he able to see the authentic Englishman at work.
Similarly, certain segments of Mark Twain's autobiographical Life On the Mississippi show much variance in the way he constructs himself as an observer. He may exercise distanced and pseudo-scholarly reportage, or he may allow other people he encounters to carry his story forth in dialogue. He provides an excellent model for incorporating fictional technique into the essay form, without endangering truth value. By way of contrast, early 19th century essayist Charles Lamb chooses the false persona of Elia, I think, as a way of ensuring his own credibility by effacing certain more unsettling facts of his personal life. Both he and his older sister Mary were of a sensitive temperament, each hospitalized at different times during their lives. After Mary stabbed and killed their mother, Charles took responsibility for her, thus forming a strong bond between them. He cared for her and she for him, for the rest of his life, and one wonders if a pseudonym, even one whose bearer was well known, could have exercised some relief from the strain of public and private accountancy for their necessary interdependence.
Such a pressure can lead us to wonder why people write personal essays at all, and what benefit can come from writing about the self. I urge students to consult Freud on the matter, but only a few ever do, instead content with their own ideas limited to the Oedipus complex and Freud's maligned view of women. This is unfortunate, because Freud is one of the quirkiest essayists I've ever encountered, provided that you read him as a pioneer of the ego, and a true experimenter with regard to self-analysis. Some of his most accessible material is found in his 1901 text Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and specific portions are quite personal, his attempt to look carefully into his own life to see the completely normal ways human beings cultivate bad faith through elaborate unconscious habits. If my students take nothing else from reading Freud, I would hope that it would be this: don't allow your reader to read you better than you read yourself. Nothing is more embarrassing for a student than having a passage of prose unburdened of its subtext in front of his or her peers.
As mentioned earlier, the essay before the 20th century is dominated by white men. More specifically, an elaborate, unfettered persona is a luxury unavailable to those who struggle just to be heard, even by an inside audience. Elizabeth Clinton's late 17th century essay "The Countesse of Lincolne's Nurserie" identifies many of the reasons a woman of her time would give for not breastfeeding and systematically unbalances these reasons through Biblical examples and relation of her own experience. She condemns her own decision not to 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, we may consider it a dear confession and penance for her own perceived failure as a mother. But her essay intends to convince, and she must write in the only way known to her, since there isn't much evidence within the essay for reading her persona as self-conscious or having any more complexity than is on the surface.
Contrast with Margaret Cavendish, an accomplished philosopher of the middle 17th century, writing just a few decades later. Students can more readily enjoy the 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. We may be surprised to find that Cavendish is modest, witty, loving toward her husband, and altogether whole as a person and thinker. What a difference a little education makes, and the leisure to write in, so that we might make selves for the true self to explore.
Emphasizing persona formation can easily be incorporated into structured assignments. Students can be asked to create false personas much different from themselves, or exchange essays written under chosen pen-names and attempt to guess the identities of their peers. Not knowing the author of the work can create conversations about style that might not have been possible before. In another type of exercise, students could be asked to describe a specific moment in their lives for radically different audiences, such as one's father, or perhaps an unborn child. We can use persona as a way of reading one's relationship to the material he or she produces, or as a segue into more complicated discussions of occasion or theme. By focusing on persona formation within the essay, at heart an epistolary desire to relate one's self to others, students may find that sometimes the only way to approach something we do not understand is to inhabit it completely.
is a Harper Fellow and Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Humanities Collegiate Division at the University of Chicago. Her essays are published and forthcoming in turnrow and Fourth Genre, and her conference work includes papers on self-analysis in the work of Montaigne, creative lexicographies, and pre-20th century experimentation with persona. Prior to finishing a Ph.D. in creative nonfiction at Ohio University, she studied philosophy at East Tennessee State University. Her essays frequently consider displacement, human behavior, culture, and the commonplace.