‘The most democratic province of the republic of letters.’
Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
Nonetheless, though the best memoirs may rise to the heights of art, this is an art compromised by its very method. Yagoda ponders the capriciousness of memory and the degrees to which we might fairly trust our own memories, and trust those trusting to their memories. The last thing we might expect from even a fine memoir is strict accuracy.
“The memory is an impression,” writes Yagoda, “not a transcript,” and temptations to deception and score-settling can be overwhelming, especially in the hands of ex-politicians. But even this isn’t the final word. “An autobiography,” Sir Leslie Stephen wrote, “alone of all books, may be more valuable in proportion to the amount of misrepresentation it contains.” It’s best, in short, to pick up a memoir for the sap of experience, for the singular point of view, not for the niceties of minutiae, or for a story or history. Most of the better memoirs are near-dreamlike acts of remembering, and even the best are stubbornly unamenable to the verification of fact-checkers.
Tracy Lee Simmons is the author of Climbing Parnassus and director of the Dow Journalism program at Hillsdale College.