The Magazine

It’s Autobiographical

‘The most democratic province of the republic of letters.’

Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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It’s Autobiographical

Memoir

A History
by Ben Yagoda
Riverhead, 304 pp., $25.95

 

Girding himself for a tough reelection battle looming in 1964, John F. Kennedy mused that, whether he would go on to serve two terms or only one, he would reach a peculiarly awkward age upon leaving the White House: too old to start a new career and too young to write his memoirs. He would face no such conundrum were he living now. In a day when Miley Cyrus can perpetrate an autobiography, a candid account of his own days, penned by a witty former president, especially one who seemed an avid student of history with a well-stocked mind and flair for taut phrasing, even a biased book dotted with a few planned or accidental flaws, would have been a bracing splash of water in a parched world.

Memoirs aren’t what they used to be. We still tend to think that one must have lived a life of some moment and longevity to justify writing it up for posterity, that memoirs flow from the fountain pen—we picture these people writing with pens, not iPads—of someone whose days have been more grand or more variegated than our own, someone who has lived a life, as one wit put it, “fit to be written.” But this picture is not entirely true. And as Ben Yagoda informs us in this cogent study of memoir-writing over the last few millennia, the good memoirs, the ones worth reading one generation after another with nourishment for each, have always been the exception. The average has been, back in those headier days as well as now, relentlessly average, and that average can go fairly low nowadays.

Take a stroll through the local bookstore chain. If we set aside the self-help books, which bid fair to gobble up the place, no other genre seems quite so ubiquitous now as does the memoir, and not in bookstores alone. When any author is given air time on a TV or radio talk show he or she is likely to have written a memoir—not a novel or a work of history or science or even politics. Writing a memoir, it is hoped and believed, provides the slickest way to fame. The market has become so saturated with chronicles both of the formerly famous and woefully obscure, elbowing each other for shelf space, that those of us who still frequent bookstores may wonder if musty old categories like art, history, fiction, philosophy, and poetry aren’t somehow rendered superfluous in the backwash of the tide. 

To possess the sensibility, at once hard and refined, to write a poem that might illumine the darker corners of existence for other people with exquisitely apt, searing words is one thing; to come out as a nearly illiterate but presumably reformed drug-addled pimp who’s found religion at the end of a string of smashed lives, and write up the tale is quite something else again. Indeed, it’s the stuff of the Oprah Book Club. 

Still, it was not always thus. Yagoda’s walk along the towering peaks of the form reminds us of the giants that have walked there. St. Augustine’s Confessions “stands like a lone literary skyscraper in a vast flat medieval landscape,” but it stamped the template for introspective self-examination and inspired proliferating brands of spiritual autobiography that took deep root (for example) in the Puritan soil of 17th-century Massachusetts, and bore fruit three centuries later with The Seven Storey Mountain and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, narratives of ardent personal conversion whose purpose was to assure the restless and weak still wrestling with demons that salvation awaited all prepared to walk the same path.

But with the 18th century arose an impulse other than the redemption of one’s fellows with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s own Confessions, which was (to put it mildly) not a God-directed work, replete as it was with every possible tidbit of salacious disclosure and rank indiscretion its author could scrape up, though none the less diverting for all that. Scandalous as it was, the book advanced a new motive for writing up one’s own life: People do not understand one another, Rousseau declared, because they tend to assume that other people are much like themselves when they are not, and so an honestly blemished revelation of oneself carries the power to expand a reader’s consciousness and make his world a bigger, more tolerant place. This was a formidable spur, Rousseau thought, to the fuller life, although a casual browse through the bales of sordid chronicles his memoir has spawned, right up to the day before yesterday, might dent the point a bit.

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