What Does "Persona" Mean?

Person in Venetian mask, New Orleans Mardi Gras.

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A persona is a voice or mask that an author, speaker, or performer puts on for a particular purpose. Plural: personae or personas. Persona comes from the Latin word meaning "mask," and may also be referred to as an implied author or an artificial author.

Author Katherine Anne Porter explained the relation between writing style and persona: "A cultivated style would be like a mask. Everybody knows it's a mask, and sooner or later you must show yourself — or at least, you show yourself as someone who could not afford to show himself, and so created something to hide behind" (Writers at Work, 1963). Similarly, essayist E.B. White observed that writing "is a form of imposture. I'm not at all sure I am anything like the person I seem to a reader."

Various Observations on Persona

  • "[L]ike the 'I' of the lyric and of the real and invented autobiography, the 'I' of the essayist is a mask."
    (Joseph P. Clancy, "The Literary Genres in Theory and Practice." College English, April 1967)
  • "The artful 'I' of an essay can be as chameleon as any narrator in fiction."
    (Edward Hoagland, "What I Think, What I Am")
  • "He who speaks is not he who writes, and he who writes is not he who is.”
    (Roland Barthes, quoted by Arthur Krystal in Except When I Write. Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • "You may rely on it that you have the best of me in my books, and that I am not worth seeing personally — the stuttering, blundering, clod-hopper that I am."
    (Henry David Thoreau, letter to Calvin H. Greene, February 10, 1856)
  • "Writing is a form of imposture. I'm not at all sure I am anything like the person I seem to a reader. . . .
    "[T]he man on paper is always a more admirable character than his creator, who is a miserable creature of nose colds, minor compromises, and sudden flights into nobility. . . . I suppose readers who feel friendly toward someone whose work they like seldom realize that they are drawn more toward a set of aspirations than toward a human being."
    (E.B. White, Letters of E.B. White, ed. by Dorothy Lobrano Guth. Harper, 1976)
  • "[T]he 'person' in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts--the sound of its voice a byproduct of carefully chosen words, its recollection of experience, its run of thought and feeling, much tidier than the mess of memories, thoughts, and feelings arising in one's consciousness. . . . Indeed, when personal essayists write about self-embodiment in the essay, they often acknowledge an element of fabrication or of artful impersonation."
    (Carl H. Klaus, The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay. University of Iowa Press, 2010)

Perlman on Person and Persona

  • "Persona is the Latin word for the masks used in the Greek drama. It meant that the actor was heard and his identity recognized by others through the sounds that issued from the open mask mouth. From it the word 'person' emerged to express the idea of a human being who meant something, who represented something, and who seemed to have some defined connectedness with others by action or affects. (We still use 'person' to connote this: we say of an infant who begins to show awareness of self in relation to others, 'He's becoming a person.') A person makes himself known, felt, taken in by others, through his particular roles and their functions. Some of his personae — his masks — are readily detachable and put aside, but others become fused with his skin and bone."
    (Helen Harris Perlman, Persona: Social Role and Personality. University of Chicago Press, 1986)

Hemingway's Public Persona

  • "According to those who knew him well, Hemingway was a sensitive, often shy man whose enthusiasm for life was balanced by his ability to listen intently . . . That was not the Hemingway of the news stories. The media wanted and encouraged a brawnier Hemingway, a two-fisted man whose life was fraught with dangers. The author, a newspaper man by training, was complicit in this creation of a public persona, a Hemingway that was not without factual basis, but also not the whole man. Critics, especially, but the public as well, Hemingway hinted in his 1933 letter to [Maxwell] Perkins, were eager 'automatically' to 'label' Hemingway's characters as himself, which helped establish the Hemingway persona, a media-created Hemingway that would shadow — and overshadow — the man and writer."
    (Michael Reynolds, "Hemingway in Our Times." The New York Times, July 11, 1999)

Borges and the Other Self

  • "It is to my other self, to Borges, that things happen. I walk about Buenos Aires and I pause, almost mechanically, to contemplate the arch of an entry or the portal of a church; news of Borges comes to me in the mail, and I see his name on a short list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I am fond of hourglasses, maps, 18th-century typography, the etymology of words, the tang of coffee, and the prose of Stevenson; the other one shares these enthusiasms, but in a rather vain, theatrical way. . . .
    "I cannot tell which one of us is writing this page."
    (Jorge Luis Borges, "Borges and I")
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Does "Persona" Mean?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/persona-definition-1691613. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). What Does "Persona" Mean? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/persona-definition-1691613 Nordquist, Richard. "What Does "Persona" Mean?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/persona-definition-1691613 (accessed April 22, 2021).