The perils of the premature memoir

If the present fashion in autobiography continues, one may be disqualified for being too late should one chronicle one's life story at any point after 35. Nobody has coined a term for it - junior autobiography, or perhaps the premature memoir? - but the genre is certainly blooming. Well, make that budding.

Two young television journalists, Judy Woodruff and Jessica Savitch, have set down their brief, brief histories so far this season. Can Bryant Gumbel be far behind?

We must admit we have not read either tome. When we were roughly at the point in the journey that Woodruff and Savitch are now, we made it a rule never to read the autobiography of anybody younger than we were. This has become an increasingly useful rule as the years have gone by.

Even so we continually fall behind. This season, for instance, we have not yet read the autobiography of Graham Greene. By the rules of the game, we would have to be an octogenarian to get out of that.

In the beginning, our rule chiefly rescued us from the autobiographies of athletes, whose early retirement justified a ghost-written word or two. Occasionally a child of the '60s would manage a full-blown act of autobiography - didn't James Kunen write ''The Strawberry Statement'' at 23? But most such juvenile memoirists set a cautionary example to others by falling back exhausted after their effort, never to be heard from again. Mostly the impulse to strike the capital letter ''I'' at an early age was satisfied through short bursts of what was known as ''confessional'' journalism, still to be found from time to time in extra-roomy periodicals like the Village Voice.

Over the years, those of us who fear junior autobiography have relied on television talk shows to release the first-person singular of Victoria Principal , Elton John, and others at the dangerous age, by means of conversation with fatherly figures like Johnny and Merv and Dick. Now, it seems, the camera people are just the folks who need validation by print. Et tu, Willard Scott.

We don't really expect the junior autobiography to become all the rage. But we do want to use it to bring up the question of what an autobiography is for. Sometimes the titles give clues. ''The Summing Up'' Somerset Maugham called his autobiography, written in his seventh decade, and the autobiography has often aspired to pass private judgment not only on one's life but on one's times.

''Speak, Memory'' is the title of Vladimir Nabokov's memoir, also written in the author's seventh decade. It suggests the sort of collaboration between a younger self, doing, and an older self, reflecting, that produces much of the charm, humor, and shrewdness of a good autobiography.

A certain distancing is necessary before one can see what has happened to one , to say nothing of learning from it. Henry Adams was on the brink of his eighth decade when he wrote ''The Education of Henry Adams.''

Plato had the idea that people should spend the first half of their lives doing deeds and the second half meditating upon the first half. Goethe and Ben Franklin, both of whom thrived into their 80s, made autobiography the continuous event of their last 20 years, as if turning their life slowly around in their hands even as they lived it.

Satire used to be the young person's game. One did not dream at that stage of taking one's life solemnly enough to chronicle it in public. Unfortunately, we take youth so seriously that we force the young to take themselves seriously too , and write autobiography at 30.

Writing autobiography at 30 is like composing a tone poem called ''The Seasons'' that ends with July.

We are assured by people junior to Judy Woodruff who have felt obliged to read her book that she explains her departure from the White House beat by observing: ''There is so much that I have not yet seen.'' We happen to admire Woodruff the journalist, but, as far as we're concerned, that line stands as the last word on junior autobiography.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.