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.
Exhaustively combing through stacks most of us would gladly pass by, Yagoda traces the line of Rousseau’s less distinguished progeny, where we learn, for instance, that the down-and-out sort of memoir released under the names of former wastrels is no modern invention; criminals’ tales, some told by those two feet from the gallows, enjoyed an especial popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries—but whether serving the appetites of the prurient or the upright as morality tales isn’t always clear.
It also turns out that authenticity of authorship in memoirs has been open to question for centuries. Yagoda dredges up cases of memoirs from the 1920s and ’30s that were proven to be outright fakes after enjoying healthy sales, and then lists the spate of more innocent books—and a heaping helping they are—from the 1940s and ’50s that took on zestier incarnations such as Broadway musicals, movies, and television series. But by the time we pull up into our own day—and to the 2006 disgrace of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, the supposed hard-boiled street-life memoir quickly revealed to be a complete fabrication—much to Oprah’s hyperventilating ire for having been taken in—the scene becomes more than a bit dismal as we come to realize not only that we can never be quite certain who is writing under an author’s name, but that publishers have little incentive to ensure the integrity of the material they release into the world under the ever-more-broad rubric of the memoir form.
William Dean Howells once called autobiography “the most democratic province of the republic of letters,” and its practitioners have continually proven him right with a vengeance. Left unexplained to full satisfaction, perhaps because inexplicable, is the boundless attraction of the formula to writer and reader alike—though our “craving for the literal” is a nice guess—that has grown dramatically in the last two decades, and with implications for cultural life. Where once young talents with a yen to write were drawn to cut their literary teeth on a semi-autobiographical novel, now many of them run straight to the presumption that their heretofore brief lives and struggles with addiction, bulimia, parental abuse, unpopularity, acne, bunions, you name it—the Brits call this type the “misery memoir”—will interest the reading public. In vigilant hands, we concede, the gamble may be sound; but the skill required to write a compelling, let alone memorable, life story isn’t negligible, and where it’s lacking, publishers can be all too ready to provide ghostwriters for those not up to the sweaty demands of composition, straining the very idea of “authorship.”
As Yagoda freely acknowledges, here sits the lump in the batter of all those celebrity memoirs infecting the market: Most celebrities are unliterary, even uneducated people, rarely able to produce so much as a vivid letter, much less a gripping manuscript; and when we see “as told to” or “with” after the bold-faced author’s name, and before a lower-cased lesser name on the dust jacket, it’s a good bet that the “author” hasn’t so much as sneezed near the thing. (One happy exception was Charles Lindbergh who, having been assigned a ghostwriter to produce his autobiography soon after his solo flight across the Atlantic, found the product from the professional writer noxious and, taking pen in hand, wrote the book himself—to popular and critical praise. Apparently even celebrity places no absolute bar against talent.)
When we return to those memoirs actually written by their authors, from Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That and Beryl Markham’s West with the Night and Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory to Richard Wright’s Black Boy and James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son to Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and William Styron’s Darkness Visible, we see how vibrant the form can be, and how on the upper reaches of the craft it becomes an art producing books whose quality elevates them to literature, and bestows the right to gather dust in the best bookcases.
I wish that Yagoda had spent more ink on the real memoirs written up by stout, cultivated minds and less on the fraudulent or otherwise lesser ones, to hold the barricades by insisting that the memoir remain a literary genre, not a marketing tool. It’s a shame that A Million Little Pieces should be awarded more space in this account than Winston Churchill’s My Early Life, or the three-volume memoirs of George Santayana, both minor classics of the form, and neither meriting any mention at all.
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.