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My Many Selves

My Many Selves: The Quest for a Plausible Harmony

Wayne C. Booth
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    My Many Selves
    Book Description:

    In his autobiography, My Many Selves, Wayne C. Booth is less concerned with his professional achievements---though the book by no means ignores his distinguished career---than with the personal vision that emerges from a long life lived thoughtfully. For Booth, even the autobiographical process becomes part of a quest to harmonize the diverse, often conflicting aspects of who he was. To see himself clearly and whole, he broke the self down, personified the fragments, uncovered their roots in his experience and background, and engaged those selves and experiences in dialogue. Basic to his story and to its lifelong concern with ethics and rhetoric was his Mormon youth in rural Utah. In adulthood he struggled with that background, abandoning most Mormon doctrines, but he retained the identity, ethical questions, and concern with communication that this upbringing gave him.

    The uncommon wisdom and careful attention that empower Wayne Booth's many other books cause My Many Selves to transcend its genre, as the best memoirs always do. The book becomes a window through which we who read it will see our own conflicts, our own ongoing struggle to live honestly and ethically in the world.

    Wayne Booth died in October 2005, soon after completing work on this autobiography.

    eISBN: 978-0-87421-535-9
    Subjects: History, Education, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Part I My Toughest “Self-Splits” and What Produced Them

    • Chapter One A Devout Mormon Is Challenged by Rival Selves
      (pp. 3-32)

      Recently at a University reception, as I sipped my glass of wine, I spotted across the room the bishop of my LDS ward, who knows me quite well even though I hardly ever attend services.¹ The immediate impulse of the hypocrite in me, based on almost a lifetime of faked “observance,” was to hide the glass. “That’s absurdly dishonest,” the Moralist in me shouted (silently), “and besides, he’s probably already seen it.” So I walked toward the bishop, glass in hand. He smiled warmly, we shook hands, and he seemed simply to ignore my violation of the “Word of Wisdom.”...

    • Chapter Two A Pious Moralist Confronts a Cheater
      (pp. 33-48)

      They still sit on my—not his—shelves, reproachfully but usefully.

      I would now return them to anyone from that family, if I could ever find the name. MoralB finally, in one sense, wins—but to little effect. He often sneers at me, “How on earth could you have committed an offense like that?”

      I wonder how many of the professedly honest men and women I’ve known have committed as much cheating as I have.¹ If this were a self-help book, I would censor all that follows here, laboring to invent a man who practices only life-enhancing, morally and intellectually...

    • Chapter Three The Cheerful Poser Comforts a Griever or, A Would-be Tough Guy Meets Grief and Conceals the Tears
      (pp. 49-76)

      The fact that we felt our lives totally shattered by that should surprise no one. And you readers can predict that my attempts to write about it will land us all in muddy waters. If the organization of the next few pages confuses you, please forgive the Griever, now having to pose as a disciplined author (you will be reading the seventeenth draft). I’ve attempted a whole book about the death and the grieving, but diverse other Selves have always cancelled it. Why torture yourself day by day, dealing with all that? What good will it do the world? How...

    • Chapter Four My Many Selves Confront the Man Who Believes in LOVE
      (pp. 77-94)

      One morning back in 2002, I received an email from my friend Homer Goldberg informing me that the “Millennial” issue of PMLA¹ has a long list of selections from past presidential addresses. “And for some reason yours is just ignored.” This message instantaneously provoked a silly, internal dispute:

      VainB: “How could they do a brutal thing like that to me, one of the best … ?”

      LoverB (chanting): “Oh, damn it man, just ignore it; to worry about fame or attention is simply contemptible. How could you spend three pages in For the Love of It mocking Norman Podhoretz for...

    • Chapter Five Ambition vs. Teaching for the Love of It
      (pp. 95-116)

      My lifetime choice of teaching as a vocation may at first glance seem utterly predictable, revealing no soul-splits whatever. For one thing, the entire Mormon enterprise was evangelical, didactic, preachy. Our communal task was to change the beliefs of as many outsiders as possible, and our daily encounters were full of exhortations, not to say nagging. Being surrounded by would-be “teachers” produced my lifelong impulse, often absurdly overdone, to impose “truth” on others. Even these days, as I try to resist the nagging side, I frequently offend my family, especially the grandchildren, by intruding advice when advice can spoil the...

    • Chapter Six The Hypocritical Mormon Missionary Becomes a Skillful Masker, and Discovers “Hypocrisy-Upward”
      (pp. 117-134)

      For several days now my left knee has screamed at me as I walk. This morning, as I limped into our university library, I saw a colleague far across the hall and quickly stopped limping—and walked toward him smiling cheerfully but giving myself much greater pain than when limping.

      We had a brief, good chat about his essay on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and I walked away still without limping, showing no signs of the pain and aging I felt. At least I think so. Turning the corner toward the elevator, now out of sight, I allowed my more honest “Self”...

    • Chapter Seven The Puritan Preaches at the Luster While the Hypocrite Covers the Show
      (pp. 135-152)

      I often have wondered whether the fact that I’ve had only one “consummated affair” in my life—my marriage to Phyllis—should just wipe out this chapter. How can full monogamy in two descendants of polygamists be anything but boring? Or does the fact of my having had “real sex” with only one beloved woman grant the chapter an interesting escape from the floods of boring accounts of unloving sex? Probably not. My hope is not that my routine masturbative escapes from doing harm can prove interesting but that the perpetual battle between Puritan-Booth and LusterB will prove at least...

    • Chapter Eight The Lover Becomes a Trapped Army Private
      (pp. 153-166)

      Somebody had seen on my record that I could type eighty words a minute. I was taken to the officers’ headquarters and granted not only a typewriter day by day but—oh, bliss!—a bunk bed. But my buddies were gone; even the few who for some reason weren’t shipped seemed more distant, perhaps angry because I had dodged the bullet.

      After lying around for a few days, doing a bit of office typing for the Center, feeling more and more guilty about the contrast between my buddies’ fates and mine, I was trucked back to Paris. On that cold,...

    • Chapter Nine An Egalitarian Quarrels Scornfully with a Hypocritical Bourgeois
      (pp. 167-180)

      As I came out of our drugstore this morning, a man came toward me to sell a copy of StreetWise, our Chicago newspaper sold by the homeless. As usual, I took a dollar from my pocket and accepted the copy of the journal. Then he said (almost predictably), “Sir, you know, I’m in real trouble this mornin’. Nobody wants to buy any papers, and my family at home is hungry, jes like me here. Could you gimme a couple more dollars?”

      Since I wasn’t in a hurry, I subjected him to some of the skeptical questions that I usually ask...

    • Chapter Ten A College Dean Struggles to Escape
      (pp. 181-196)

      On the plane very early in the morning, I have the following wild fantasies: I’m chatting with Ed and say, “I’m tired of pulling your chestnuts out of the fire.” I’m asked to take over on Levi’s resignation. I’m fired. I’m back again, telling off the students for betraying the university—defending them against excessive reprisal—then standing them off—persuading them to drop it, with my superior rhetoric …¹

      Except for the two years in the army, the only sustained period when a single longing dominated almost all of the splits was my five-year term as dean of the...

  2. Part II The Splits Multiply—in Somewhat Less Torturous Form

    • Chapter Eleven The Quarrel between the Cheater and the Moralist Produces Gullible-Booth
      (pp. 199-208)

      You might expect that being an (almost lifetime) cheater, I would have become unusually suspicious of cheaters. But for some reason, it’s been the opposite. I’ve turned out to be gullible to many con artists. People who know me intimately—no names, please—claim that I am often just plain dimwitted in response to appeals they see as obviously fake. MoralB and EgalitarianB sometimes answer with an angry outburst, “Even if they’re conning me, isn’t it better to risk that than to ignore the possibility that they really need the cash—that they may be genuinely suffering?” “Don’t they need...

    • Chapter Twelve A Wandering Generalist Longs to Be a True Scholar
      (pp. 209-220)

      Here is a journal entry by the Wandering Generalist, from five years ago.

      November 10, 2000

      This morning as I try to decide what should be the next chapters of the Life, I am a bit harried—surprise!—by diverse obligations pulling in contrasting directions. Here are some of those that dramatize what may be the subject of the next chapter: my inability ever to pin myself down as a true scholar, a genuine specialist. I must, right this minute

      phone a local Episcopalian minister to chat about my upcoming talk at his church, on the relation of scientific and...

    • Chapter Thirteen A Would-be Novelist Mourns behind the Would-be Lover and Would-be Scholar
      (pp. 221-234)

      Once I’d become hooked into reading famous novels and poems in my midteens, I inevitably had dreams of becoming a novelist or poet. I had always enjoyed making up stories, some of them the outright self-serving lies that I’ve reported here, some of them jokey stories intended only to entertain. But the dream of turning that minor gift into true authoring usually felt hopeless. For one thing, I knew that all of the successful writers lived in New York or Chicago or London or Paris. We lived in the sticks, in the boonies, in what we called the “tules,” pronounced...

    • Chapter Fourteen The Committed Father and Husband, as Lover, Shouts “For Shame!” at All the Other Selves
      (pp. 235-250)

      Long before Phyllis and I were married, I had developed “indubitable” convictions about what marriage should be—of course, with the male in charge. Many of those views had been changed by the time I found the girl of my dreams. I was sure that she and I could come as close to a perfect, fully equal marriage with a perfect family as anyone ever had. And being a good husband and father was even more important than anything else. Sometimes the thought turned into “I must be at least as loving a parent as Mama was, or as Daddy...

    • Chapter Fifteen The Man of Peace Tries to Tame the Slugger
      (pp. 251-262)

      Most people who know me would be surprised, I think, if they saw a tape of that outburst. They think of me as an unusually peaceful, nonviolent man—a “dialogist” or “rhetorologist,” always working to achieve peaceful reconciliation between disputants through the pursuit of understanding. Many have accused me of being too much on the side of hypocritical tongue biting, cooperating when any sincere man would fight back. Yet what they would see in that flare-up is, I insist, a real Self in me.

      The fact is that when that Self tries to take over in public, even suffering fantasies...

    • Interlude A Potpourri of Chapters I Refuse to Write (Let Alone Include)
      (pp. 263-268)

      My Most Famous Hoax: One That Would-Be-Witty Wayne Thought Clever and That Only Some of His Friends Laughed At

      Decades Ago

      My colleague James Chandler has been working for some time on a book to be called England in 1819. He and I have been discussing hoaxes of various kinds, so I decide to test him. After obtaining some stationery from a friend at Stony Brook, I write a subtly fake letter and have the friend mail it from New York.

      Dear Professor Chandler:

      Since I am soon to publish a book entitled England in 1818–1820, I have been...

  3. Part III Aging, Religion, and—Surprise!—the Quest for a Plausible Harmony

    • Chapter Sixteen The Old Fart Debates with a Bunch of Young Booths, While Posing as Younger Than 84
      (pp. 271-288)

      In episodes like that one, diverse young Booths and the reluctant old man live together daily, sometimes quarreling. The old man judges the young man or boy as foolish, often even stupid; the young man, confined to a weaker voice because of having to rely on memory, pleads with the old guy to go with the flow: think young even when old. Only rarely do they join, as they do right now, looking out at the heavy snowstorm, and both find it thrilling.

      Almost everyone who has written about old age has noted how emotions shift about; youthful desires and...

    • Chapter Seventeen Harmony at Last?
      (pp. 289-309)

      Other Lifers’ efforts to pursue harmony of soul have always at least half failed, as mine must do. Sometimes the Lifers do attempt to present a full harmony throughout, behind the many threats that life presents; careful readers then detect the deception. The more serious Lifers confess openly to frustrating failure. Most of them do celebrate moments of feeling fully in harmony: “Ah, at last, this is the harmony, the life I’ve been longing for.” But their efforts to move beyond those moments and produce full harmony by thinking about the conflicts always fall short.

      This chapter begins with a...