Originally published in Broken Turtle Blog:
Memoir makes me grumble. It is a form I have come to despise. It is to literature as infotainment is to news: focused on celebrity and dysfunction-of-the-month kitsch and easier to write about than the complexities of human events or the mysteries of the heart. It is suited to the over-corporatized literary marketplace with its emphasis on the velocity by which hysteria is disseminated more than the patience with which wisdom is contemplated. The audience, dulled by decades of TV, has lost the ability to imagine and thus "crave[s] the literal." With such prejudices, I approached Memoir: A History, by Ben Yagoda, my colleague at the University of Delaware.
Yagoda is a full professor of journalism at UD and like a scholar with a nose for news, he combines taxonomy, history, analysis, and evaluation of the form with expose's and human interest anecdotes. From the Confessions of Augustine and Rousseau to Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, Yagoda places a particular emphasis on memory and its relationship to truth.
The taxonomy of American memoirs divides, says Yagoda with a coy reference to the fraudulent James Frey, into "a million little subgenres."
There is "shtick lit," for example, "perpetrated by people who undertook an unusual project with the express purpose of writing about it." Beginning with Thoreau's Walden, and continuing with Nellie Bly's Ten Days in a Mad-House and Jack London's People of the Abyss, the form engineered by these masters was followed by works of lesser bricoleurs whose "projects [. . . became] ever more stuntlike." Ever more successful, too, apparently, considering Julie Powell's Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, which recounts Powell's year of blogging about and cooking from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and which became a big movie with a shorter title and staring Meryl Streep. Yagoda always fills us in with the titles and casts of the films made from these sometimes otherwise inconsequential tomes.
Yet as I read on I began to notice how many of these works I had read and had contributed to my literary and personal consciousness, even such now forgotten bestsellers as See Here, Private Hargrove, Marion Hargrove's memoir of pre-WWII basic training. See Here, along with Clarence Day's Life With Father and Ruth McKenney's My Sister Eileen, was an example of "light memoir," which exemplified "the shared sense that the United States was the best place on earth, capable of overcoming any setbacks and fixing any flaws." All of these were on my family bookshelf when I was a child.
As Yagoda traced the categories, I recognized more old friends. For instruction and vanity: Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin; third person: Education of Henry Adams; verse: Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Robert Lowell's Life Studies; slave narrative: Autobiography of Frederick Douglas; expose': Charles Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast; 20th Century African American (and ghost-written): Autobiography of Malcom X; celebrity: Alexander King's Mine Enemy Grows Older (which was also a recovery memoir); Holocaust: Elie Wiesel's Night; impersonated: Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird (actually about Roman Polanski); fake: Go Ask Alice; and Indigenous communal memory: I, Rogoberta Menchú. I have happily avoided misery memoirs like James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, the fraud Oprah fell for.
Yagoda conludes that the memoir makes for a lot of good literature that otherwise would not have been written. He even provides a scale to evaluate memoirs morally and literarily, which he schematized for us at a discussion of his work at the University of Delaware: subtract points for inaccuracies, trashing living people, political or moral agenda (ahem!), lack of corroboration, excessive dialogue (accuracy improbable), bad writing (up to 15 points), and failure to own up to fallibility. Add points for self-deprecation.
While I find that Memoir: A History succeeds in deepening our understanding of the genre and even justifying it, my inner subversive percolates to the surface to wonder how we can use this knowledge to overcome the atomization of humanity, inspire solidarity, and build a sustainable future.
I've gone on too long in a blog post to elaborate the answer. But thanks to Ben Yagoda, I am now grumbling about memoirs less and ruminating more.