Marie L. Fiala
Recently, a passionate discussion was sparked among the students in my MFA class concerning Richard Rodriguez's essay, “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood.” Some class members speculated that Rodriguez had failed to disclose critical facts about his private life and thus had undermined the authenticity and authority of his views about bilingual education — which, generally speaking, he opposes (although this rough summary does injustice to Rodriguez’s sensitive and nuanced exploration of the topic). I felt that Rodriguez had given the reader all the information needed to establish his credibility, but was surprised by the emotional intensity of the debate, which was inspired in part by the essay’s controversial content, but also layered with tones of mistrust, accusation and anger. To those who felt that Rodriguez had been insufficiently self-revelatory, his “failure” was tantamount to a betrayal of what Annie Dillard calls “the covenant between the nonfiction writer and his reader” (xvii). But what, exactly, I was led to consider, had been betrayed?
No matter what his overt subject, the personal essayist inevitably and always takes himself as his material — as Phillip Lopate puts it wonderfully, “diving into the volcano of self and extracting a single hot coal to consider and shape” — and displays it for his reader’s consideration (Introduction, Art xxix). The resulting relationship both privileges and obligates the writer. I say “privileges” because, by procuring the reader as witness to his life, the writer secures for himself a small measure of immortality, at least a modest success at what Brett Lott calls “the attempt to keep from passing altogether away the lives we have lived” (192). And “obligates,” because the essayist in return owes to the reader a fidelity to truth that, if unsatisfied, will erode the reader’s trust and cause her to feel at best alienated, and at worst, abused.
The proper quantum of that “truth” is a relative measure and easily misjudged, especially in the current cultural context, where the public’s insatiable appetite for self-disclosure can translate into an indiscriminate sense of entitlement to know all manner of personal information about a writer. Think (with a shudder) of the literary equivalent of reality television — is the writer depressive, alcoholic, drug-addicted, a child abuse victim, estranged from his spouse, gay? But surely the essayist is not obliged by the act of writing to provide a tell-all of private experience. Whether or not Hemingway was a drunk, or Mary McCarthy was too-easily married, or James Baldwin was gay may not be material to the integrity of their writings at all, depending on the subjects they elect to address.
What, then, defines the personal essayist’s obligation to his reader in this area? I wrestle with this question in my own writing, as I decide which doors need to be opened and which ones can remain closed, what must be revealed and what may be concealed. Two things are necessary, I have concluded, and perhaps no more than that. First, that the disclosure be deployed in the service of a higher endeavor than personal narrative alone. Without a larger meaning, disclosure reduces to mere narcissism, or even exhibitionism. And second, that an unflinching “dialectic of self-questioning,” as Lopate puts it, shines the bright hard light of exposure on all information that matters to the undertaking (Introduction, Art xxx). The writer may not rhetorically avert his gaze from material that is distressing or difficult, if it is relevant. He owes to the reader what he owes to himself — to be in good faith with himself, whether exploring a problem interiorly or on the page. An asexual Baldwin discoursing on race relations is one thing. An undeclared Baldwin fulminating against gay marriage would be quite another.
Even the most skilled of writers may err in this regard. Phillip Lopate’s “Portrait of My Body” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up” seem to me to over and undershoot, respectively, the boundaries of optimal disclosure. Lopate’s synecdochic essay affords the reader a frank tour of the writer’s anatomy that leaves no part unaccounted for. Thus we are privy to the shape of the writer’s navel and the “ripe, underground smell” that comes from “jabbing his finger in it” (“Portrait” 26); his tooth-grinding, nose-picking and scab-scratching habits; ear wax removal, with its own associated “sulfurous” aroma (27); and the size, shape and color of his penis, which has “two peeing holes” (28), with attendant observations on the writer’s infrequent (he hastens to assure us, and then assures us again, and again) bouts of impotence. The physical descriptions are punctuated with ruminations on the writer’s personality, self-image and attitudes. Lopate’s mouth, “arching downward in an ironic smile” (20), furnishes the means for “a neutral stall among people who do not seem to appreciate [his] ‘contribution’” (20), and his “long and not unshapely” legs (21) (for which he confesses an immoderate vanity) incline him to “feel well-disposed toward the (mostly shorter) swarms of humanity” (21).
This is candor in abundance, but to what end? Lopate explains his purpose:
In first person writing, there is a thin line between the charming and the insufferable. For a while now, I have dreamt of pushing at this line, slipping over occasionally to the other side, stretching the boundaries of acceptable first-person behavior, increasing like a dye the amount of obnoxiousness in my narrator — just for the thrill of living dangerously (Introduction, Portrait 3).
That is to say, in this essay he discloses for disclosure’s sake alone. It is not enough. Though immaculate in form, his essay is not concerned with any subject larger than the writer himself, and thus illuminates only the writer’s insistent ego, his thrill-seeking self put on display for our awe and admiration. “Portrait of My Body” is perhaps not insufferable, but certainly self-absorbed, and ultimately slight.
By contrast, Fitzgerald’s confessional essay, “The Crack-Up,” is a brave attempt to grapple with weighty and universal issues — disappointment, failure, the lifelong “constant striving” against entropy (151). Written late in Fitzgerald’s career, the essay was said by a New York Times reviewer to comprise “the whitened bones of genius,” (Du Bois 17) and the writer’s indisputable genius dazzles even as it disappoints. The essay charts Fitzgerald’s deterioration and breakdown in the face of a series of personal challenges: his disappointing performance at Princeton, an unsatisfying stint in the Army during World War I, the struggle to maintain in his thirties the too-easily-won career successes of his twenties, an unhappy love affair and a grave (and unspecified) medical crisis. Fitzgerald acutely chronicles the crumbling of an artist, and of a self. The “Crack-Up” was a remarkably candid essay for its time, and Fitzgerald paid a price for it, as the essay itself foretold (“there are always those to whom all self-revelation is contemptible”) (144). His contemporaries thought it an embarrassment — Hemingway denounced it as cowardly and shameful, Dos Passos deemed it an abuse of Fitzgerald’s talent, and John O’Hara pronounced it an “orgy of self-pity . . . which should have been suppressed at the mail-box” (O’Hara 68).
Fitzgerald says of his emotional collapse that it “is not a pretty picture,” and indeed it is not. He starts off strong — “Of course all life is a process of breaking down . . . ” — and systematically catalogs his spiritual depletion, his alienation and his enervation (137). He ultimately concludes that those qualities on which he most prides himself — what he calls his intellectual, moral, artistic, emotional and political “consciences” (147) — are all pale simulacra of other men’s attributes, other men all made of better stuff than he. At the end of this relentless debriding, he observes, “there was not an ‘I’ any more — not a basis on which I could organize my self-respect” (148). A brutally honest self-assessment, yes, but in its largely dispassionate tone, wanting.
The 19th century Scottish essayist and poet Alexander Smith wrote, “If you wish to preserve your secret, wrap it up in frankness” (54316). And so has Fitzgerald done here. Although seemingly disclosing a great deal, on closer inspection he actually masks more than he reveals by adopting an attitude of ironic detachment in place of an emotionally textured rendering of his experience: “During this time I had plenty of the usual horses shot out from under me — I remember some of their names — Punctured Pride, Thwarted Expectations, Faithless, Show-off, Hard Hit, Never Again” (Fitzgerald 146). Bravura words, but bloodless, as Fitzgerald shows us none of the raw feeling that must have underlain these episodes. Of actual experience, Fitzgerald provides only a glimpse — “I took a dollar room in a drab little town where I knew no one and sunk all the money I had with me in a stock of potted meat, crackers and apples” (148) — and then retreats to his “dollar room” and a detached, sardonic stance.
In the final third of his essay, Fitzgerald averts his rhetorical gaze from the emotions — despair, anguish, despondency — that one can only surmise must have accompanied his crack-up, and assumes a deliberately cynical pose:
So, since I could not longer fulfill the obligations that life had set for me or that I had set for myself, why not slay the empty shell who had been posturing at it for four years? . . . I would cease any attempts to be a person — to be kind, just or generous . . . . There was to be no more giving of myself — all giving was to be outlawed henceforth under a new name, and that name was Waste (149-50).
From now on, he tells us, he will wear a mask of his own devising, both in the world and on the page. With a “heady villainous feeling” (150) he assembles his new persona: “A smile — ah, I would get me a smile. . . . The voice too — I am working with a teacher on the voice. When I have perfected it the larynx will show no ring of conviction except the conviction of the person I am talking to. . . . The old dream of being an entire man . . . has been relegated to the junk heap” (150-51). What we are left with at the end is a man and a writer who has disclaimed his own humanity:
The man I had persistently tried to be became such a burden that I have “cut him loose” . . . . I do not any longer like the postman, nor the grocer, nor the editor, nor the cousin’s husband, and he in turn will come to dislike me, so that life will never be very pleasant again, and the sign Cave canem is hung permanently just above my door. I will try to be a correct animal, though, and if you throw me a bone with enough meat on it I may even lick your hand (151-52).
In contrast to “The Crack-Up’s” bold beginning, which implicitly promises to delve beneath the surface of the narrator’s psyche, its resolution not only disappoints, but flouts the contemporary reader’s expectations, leaving her dissatisfied and ultimately distanced from the writer.
In one sense it is unfair to scrutinize Fitzgerald’s writing by 21st century standards. He was the product of a restrained, gentlemanly and stiff-upper-lip tradition from which he was unable to escape entirely. But his effort illuminates and helps me to formulate my own answer to the question of disclosure. What does the writer of personal essays owe to the reader? To handle the topic as honestly as possible by rigorously interrogating the self, resolutely confronting those facts that matter, and revealing them in the service of the truth. So that, when I read Rodriguez’s painful confession of childhood shame at his Spanish-speaking parents’ “high-whining vowels and guttural consonants; their sentences that got stuck with ‘eh’ and ‘ah’ sounds; the confused syntax; the hesitant rhythm of sounds so different from the way gringos spoke” (449), and his own classroom humiliations that left him “dazed, diffident, afraid” (453), I know that his views on bilingual education, whether politically agreeable or not, have been honestly arrived at and shaped by authentic personal experience.
On the personal essayist’s duty to his readers, Michel de Montaigne, the progenitor of the genre itself, showed the way. “I have this, at least, . . . that never any man penetrated farther into his matter, nor better and more distinctly sifted the parts and sequences of it, nor ever more exactly and fully arrived at the end he proposed to himself. To perfect it, I need bring nothing but fidelity to the work” (“Of Repentance”). To which I can only add, and fidelity to oneself.
Dillard, Annie. Introduction. The Best American Essays 1988. Ed. Annie Dillard and Robert Atwan. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1988. xii-xxii.
Du Bois, William. “Books of the Times.” Rev. of The Crack Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York Times 23 July 1945: 17.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “The Crack-Up.” 1936. The Best American Essays of the Century. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 139-152.
Lopate, Phillip. Introduction. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Anchor Books-Random House, 1995. xxiii-liv.
- - -. Introduction. Portrait of My Body. New York: Anchor Books-Doubleday, 1996. 1-7.
- - -. “Portrait of My Body.” Portrait 18-31.
Lott, Brett. “Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction.” Fourth Genre 2.1 (2000): 192-200.
Montaigne, Michel de. “Of Repentance.” 1575. Trans. Charles Cotton. Project Gutenberg. Release 3594. 3 March 2005. Project Gutenberg. 28 April 2005. http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/3/5/9/3594/3594.txt.
O’Hara, John. “Scott Fitzgerald-Odds and Ends.” New York Times 8 July 1945: 68.
Rodriguez, Richard. “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood.” 1980. The Best American Essays of the Century. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 447-466.
Smith, Alexander. “Dreamthorp — On the Writing of Essays.” 1863. The Columbia World of Quotations. Ed. Robert Andrews, Mary Biggs, and Michael Seidel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. New York: Bartleby.com, 2001. April 28, 2005.