Henry Adams, great grandson and grandson of presidents, Harvard history professor, and early voice of modernism, wrote a third person memoir, The Education of Henry Adams. In it, he skips over twenty years—much of his marriage—and only obliquely refers to his wife’s suicide. He cannot name her or discuss the event and includes only a description of his visits to the Saint-Gaudens monument he commissioned for her grave.
Is his third-person omission love or cruelty? Did he wish to erase her or was he saying she, and his years with her, were the one aspect of his life beyond words?
After his wife’s death, Adams wrote John Hay, “The world seems to me to have suddenly changed, and to have left me an old man, pretty well stranded and very indifferent to situations which another generation must deal with… I have been thrown out of the procession, and can’t catch up again.”
Adams tastes bitterness in everything, and, even if he never utters Clover Adams’ name in his autobiography, her absence seems another shadow in a dim and disappointing life. Any report of comfort is missing too.
Using third person doesn’t shake the message from the messenger, nor does metaphor, imagery, or elusive syntax. Observers see the author hiding in the scene. That dwindling candle is his longing. The photograph without a frame is his conception of life in our age. Light scattered through that crystal bowl is a spectral vision of idiosyncratic perception.
Authors remain as long as readers look to find them.
Michel de Montaigne believed, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Montaigne thought even his idiosyncratic observations and revelations would be understood because his readers must also be idiosyncratic in their own ways.
Moderns are not so sure. Henry Adams coined the term “multiverse” to describe the product of irreconcilable perspectives. Subjectivity destroys the uni-verse because two people never experience the same scene or reach exactly the same understanding of it.
“Exactly” seems key phrasing. Any degree of disagreement signals the impossibility of a shared perspective. To speak in third-person, as God might, is just as much an invention as speaking as oneself.
Montaigne said he could express himself and humanity all at once, but, apparently, he was wrong—humans don’t know anything, least of all themselves.
Writers sometimes prefer first person narration because they think they can speak directly using a voice that, if not themselves, is at least some facsimile. Yet first person can be challenging too. As inventions, first person narrators must communicate character, and not just in what they say but also in their expression, the fingerprints of their voice.
And omission is no less critical. First person narrators omit without noticing. They still leave gaps for readers to fill and, in the process, allow readers to observe more than the narrators notice themselves. They grant readers judgment, just as third person narrators do.
Hidden authority is ominous. A voiceless, faceless perspective dictates what’s known and also what world readers occupy. Insufferable first person narrators can be smothering, but readers can walk away, rejecting this character’s take on the world. Third person leaves little choice but to believe. Third person says, “This is real.”
Yet it may not seem so.
When a person uses third person to describe him or herself it’s called “illeism.” Lebron James, the Big Lebowski, and Bob Dole are notable examples, and when they slip outside themselves and look back, a listener senses oblivious—often comic—egotism. Once a reporter asked the baseball player Wade Boggs why he always referred to himself as Wade Boggs, and he replied, “’My father always told me not to be a braggart, not to say I, I, I.”
It’s hard for a person to voice his or her name without elevating it. To go third person is to go big and expand a solitary view into something cosmic.
Parts 8-15 on Saturday…