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Memoir: A History

What is a memoir – and when and why did we go so crazy for the genre?

By Craig Fehrman / November 11, 2009



At this point, we probably know more about what a memoir is not – it’s not a multicultural tear-jerker about a dying son (“The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams,” by Nasdijj), an Oprah-approved tale of rehab and regret (“A Million Little Pieces,” by James Frey), or an apple-chucking holocaust romance (“Angel at the Fence,” by Herman Rosenblat) – than what a memoir is. So it seems like the perfect time for Ben Yagoda’s new book, the interesting but uneven Memoir: A History.

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In a short “Author’s Note,” Yagoda defines memoir as “a book understood by its author, its publisher, and its readers to be a factual account of the author’s life.” Over the next 11 chapters, he surveys not only memoir’s failures – it has averaged “a scandal a year” since 1960 – but also its many successes.

But first, Yagoda details our own memoir-crazed moment. Between 2004 and 2008, the genre’s sales have jumped 400 percent; we now find father-son sets writing dueling memoirs and releasing them within a week of each other. Anecdotes like this offer a sort of rubbernecking appeal – if this isn’t bubble behavior, I don’t know what is – but Yagoda wants to prove that even they have a history: “Every single one of the books, and every piece of the debate about them, had a historical precedent.”

With his strategy set, Yagoda goes back to the beginning. He moves at a Greatest Hits clip, bouncing from Abelard to Margery of Kempe. It all feels a little dry, and Yagoda seems to sense this, often straining for an anachronistic joke. About Pope Pius II, who immediately follows Dame Margery, Yagoda observes “his tendency – common to so many politicians and chief executives – to make himself the hero of every story”; in the very next paragraph, on the pope’s candor, Yagoda quips that “no American president has dished such dirt.” Such asides become only more irksome when Yagoda falls into a pattern – a paragraph or two per luminary, with a short historical argument or idea every 10th page.

Thankfully, these criticisms apply only to the first 100 pages. After that, everything – even the hokey tone – improves, as Yagoda switches from mere summaries to context and analysis. He traces, for example, how Mark Twain, Ulysses Grant, and P.T. Barnum are “emblematic of a sea change in the kinds of Americans who were inspired to write their autobiographies.” The numbers back him up: Memoirs by “Entertainers” increased from 1 percent of the genre’s output in the 1900s to 14 percent in the ’60s – the same decade, incidentally, when “Entertainers” overtook “Clergy/Religious” as memoir’s most popular subcategory.

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