Seek Memory

Memoir: A History BY Ben Yagoda. Riverhead Hardcover. Hardcover, 304 pages. $25.

The cover of Memoir: A History

What is it about the memoir that forces it, in spite of its many wonderful achievements, always to stand in the docket? Was it ever thus, or is it our age that feels especially defensive, apologetic, and guilt-ridden about the practice of the genre? We can only begin reckoning with such questions by placing the memoir in historical perspective, which is exactly what Ben Yagoda has done with his timely, useful, and informative study, Memoir: A History.

Yagoda, a journalism professor at the University of Delaware, has written in the past a fine biography, Will Rogers (1993), and About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2000), among other books. He has a lively, resolutely nonacademic, clever style, bordering on the glib, but never less than intelligent. He begins with a few definitions, sensibly equating the terms autobiography and memoirs, each of them the attempt “to be a factual account of the author’s life,” adding that memoir, singular, tends to refer to books that cover only a portion of a life. He then traces the roots of the memoir from its beginnings in spiritual autobiography and confession (Saint Augustine, Rousseau) through its many tributaries—the fictional autobiography (Defoe), the slave narrative, the captivity narrative, the Victorian memoir of John Stuart Mill and Edmund Gosse, the criminal/lowlife memoir, the normative memoir (“Life with Father”), the immigrant memoir, the celebrity memoir, the addiction and abuse memoir, etc. In attempting to cover so much territory in three hundred pages, some exemplary works inevitably get overlooked (I particularly missed Casanova, the duc de Saint-Simon, Alexander Herzen, V. S. Naipaul, and the best of Japanese autobiographical writing). But for that, the author should not be faulted; his book is well researched and clearly organized.

In assessing the problematic aspects of the memoir, Yagoda focuses on lies, intentional and not. As he shows, the historical record reveals that autobiographies have been a popular “fad” for centuries and that there have been autobiographical hoaxes for just as long. “In any society where a particular currency has high value and is fairly easily fashioned, counterfeiters will quickly and inevitably emerge,” he writes. This is so unassailably true that it makes you wonder why the educated public can still be so shocked each time a sham surfaces. There are liars and rogues in every profession; why not in literature? To prove his point, he enumerates the many charlatans who have faked their memoirs, and while this is good fun up to a point, it does get repetitious. Much fresher, to my mind, is his synthesis of the psychological research about memory’s distortions. It appears that even when we want to tell the truth, we get the facts wrong. Modern thinkers such as Freud, Wittgenstein, and William James have added their skepticism about our ability to rise above subjective rationalization and give reliable accounts of our own experience.

Perhaps a more snobbish objection to the memoir is that it is so inclusive. The ever-generous and wise William Dean Howells, Yagoda writes, called autobiographical works “the most delightful of all reading,” because they constitute the “most democratic province of the republic of letters.” On the other hand, William Gass’s antimemoir “screed” in the May 1994 issue of Harper’s takes the more exclusionary road in demanding: “Why is it so exciting to say, now that everyone knows it anyway, 'I was born . . . I was born . . . I was born’? I pooped in my pants, I was betrayed, I made straight A’s.”

Yagoda himself is not exactly a champion of the form. He has a ball laughing at bogus contemporary memoirs, about alien abductions or “a preacher who says he was hit by a truck, saw heaven, and came back to life.” He cannot get enough of quoting with a superior chuckle the plot summaries from Through a Woman’s I: An Annotated Bibliography of American Women’s Autobiographical Writings, 1946-1976. Though he tries to be evenhanded in citing both the defenders and the detractors of the memoir, his own condescension comes disturbingly through. He seems convinced the memoir is intrinsically inferior to fiction, as when he aphorizes: “Memoir is to fiction as photography is to painting, also in being easier to do fairly well.” A debatable point, in more than one respect. His highest compliment, paid to Primo Levi, is that The Periodic Table displays “a sense of language and form equal to the finest fiction.” Why not say about a great novel that it is written as well as the finest memoir? If he comes down finally on the side of the memoir, it is just barely: “The memoir boom, for all its sins, has been a net plus for the cause of writing. Under its auspices, voices and stories have emerged that, otherwise, would have been dull impersonal nonfiction tomes or forgettable autobiographical novels, or wouldn’t have been expressed at all.” “Net plus” is faint praise indeed, especially alongside the patronizing notion that the genre has mostly performed the democratic service of documenting the lives of otherwise mediocre writers.

Missing from such assessments is an appreciation for just how difficult it is to make genuine literary art out of autobiographical materials, precisely because the would-be memoirist is swamped with too much bewildering data at the outset. The successful memoirist requires powers of imagination and form of a different but not weaker order than those who fashion made-up stories.

Maybe because Yagoda’s training is as a literary journalist, he seems always on the track of the juicy story, the scandal, the huge best seller or colossal flop, and less attuned to the lonely miracle of literary value. For instance, here is how he dispenses with two of the greatest English autobiographical works of the nineteenth century:

In 1821, Wordsworth’s onetime protégé Thomas De Quincey created a scandal with his anonymous Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which is exactly what it says it is. Two years later, the prominent man of letters William Hazlitt wrote an embarrassing narrative of his disastrous infatuation with a nineteen-year-old waitress; he published it anonymously, under the title Liber Amoris, but didn’t fool anybody. (Nor was it greeted with enthusiasm: one review called it a “wretched compound of folly and nauseous sensibility”; another stated that it “mixed filth and utter despicableness.”)

Never mind that de Quincey’s labyrinthine prose remains a monumental stylistic achievement or that Hazlitt generously raised the stakes for candid, vulnerable self-portraiture. Similarly, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, one of the most powerful American autobiographies ever written, is discussed only in terms of its cowardly publisher’s decision to sever the final sections, about the Communist Party, from the body of the work.

In explaining that space limitations made it impossible to discuss certain works that he himself considers great memoirs, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Yagoda writes: “Pride of place goes to books that memorably or notably did a significant thing first, and thus changed the way the genre was conceived.” I would argue that Nabokov and McCarthy did break new ground, the former by his distinguished lyric prose, the latter by the risks she took in making her “I” character obnoxious. Also, both books are composed of discrete personal essays that add up to a memoir, a formal innovation in itself. Yagoda says nothing about the fertile relationship of the memoir to the personal essay, which is a pity, considering that some of the greatest works of autobiographical prose are essays, such as George Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys . . .” and James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.”

Of course, Yagoda has every right to compose a swift historical survey of the genre, rather than getting bogged down in literary criticism. The catch is that historical importance and literary greatness are not so easily disentangled. What’s also frustrating is that he can be very keen when he does take the trouble to comment on a writer’s style, as he does in his analyses of Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant, and Henry Adams.

Yagoda is strong on taxonomies, such as his definition of what he calls shtick lit: “that is to say, books perpetrated by people who undertook an unusual project with the express purpose of writing about it.” He can also be cavalier when it comes to individual cases, as when he mistakenly lumps Lorna Sage’s wryly amusing, elegantly written Bad Blood into the category of English “misery memoirs,” which tell “tales of extreme woe” about childhood. Perhaps, too, if he had been more attentive to the merits of some other recent memoirs that go unmentioned, such as Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, Emily Fox Gordon’s Mockingbird Years, and Jill Ciment’s Half a Life, he might have seen that much more balance and self-mocking perspective are available to the coming-of-age memoir than a simplistic slotting into categories of trauma and abuse would suggest. Broadly speaking, despite all the risks of distortion and being self-serving, many memoirists manage to get it right: to reach a deeper level of insight and detachment that enables them to turn their “I” into a believable, flawed character and to situate that “I” within the proper proportions of self and world. About that standard, Yagoda says far too little. He is less interested in dispelling misgivings about the memoir than in collecting them for a pleasurable read. In doing so, he reflects the attitude of the literary establishment, which turns up its nose at this honorable genre while refusing to acknowledge the degree to which egotism, stylistic mediocrity, and self-serving opportunism are just as prevalent in fiction, poetry, and all the other rooms of the mansion.

Phillip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag (Princeton University Press) was published this year. At the End of the Day, a book of selected poems, is forthcoming from Marsh Hawk Press.