Memoir: A History
What is a memoir – and when and why did we go so crazy for the genre?
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It’s easy to connect this to the bookshelves of today, when Michael Phelps’s book can be “written, typeset, bound, and on the shelves within four months after he was handed his final Olympic gold medal.” But Yagoda shows that memoir’s rise was not a straight celebrity march. The 1930s were dominated by the “ordinary American” memoir, and Yagoda pays special attention to Clarence Day’s two smash hits, “Life With Father” and “Life With Mother.”Skip to next paragraph
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Day’s books also suggest that, in the history of memoir, changes can be more interesting than continuities. If Day wrote today, as Yagoda points out, he would center his story around the crippling arthritis that forced him to rely on an elaborate pulley system in order to write. Yet Day doesn’t mention it a single time. An even more pointed example of the then/now divide is Susanna Kaysen’s “Girl, Interrupted,” which opens with a facsimile of her case file from McLean Hospital – the same institution that, 30 years earlier, Sylvia Plath felt compelled to novelize in “The Bell Jar.”
Of course, a juicy correspondence is hard to pass up. In 1816, a writer at the North American Review did some digging and found that a popular memoir, “The Narrative of Robert Adams, An American Sailor,” was full of errors. This clearly anticipates the journalists who unearth falsehoods in some of today’s biggest memoirs, a subject to which Yagoda returns in his last (and best) chapter. Here, he revises his own “factual account” definition:
“[I]naccuracy is a problem to the extent a memoir depicts identifiable people, depicts those people in a negative light, (demonstrably) gets gists as well as details wrong, is poorly written, is self-serving, or otherwise wears its agenda on its sleeve. The more of these things it does and the more egregiously it does them, the bigger the problem is.”
This idea-driven cultural criticism leads to all kinds of interesting places. (Who knew Australia was “particularly susceptible” to autobiographical fraud?) It also elevates the relevant history into something more than just memoir’s family tree.
Near the end of his book, Yagoda writes that “the memoir boom, for all its sins, has been a net plus for the cause of writing,” producing a lot of “good” books, if only a few “great” ones. The boom’s first history belongs in the former category. It might have been more if it had sustained the last chapter’s probing tone – perhaps by deepening its research and tightening its scope, as Yagoda did in his excellent “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made.” Instead, his new book will appeal to history fans curious about memoir more than to memoir fans curious about history.
Still, it offers many more facts and curiosities like the ones cited here, and, in that sense, “Memoir: A History” accomplishes what it set out to do.
Craig Fehrman is working on a PhD in English at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.