MEMOIR: A History

Ben Yagoda
Riverhead Books ($25.95)

by Don Messerschmidt

A definitive study of the art of autobiography, Ben Yagoda’s Memoirtakes an historical approach to the subject. Its comprehensive and finely tuned analysis begins with the definition of autobiography and memoirs (plural) as “a book understood by its author, its publisher, and its readers to be a factual account of the author’s life,” while memoir (singular) describes “books that cover the entirety or some portion of it.” While autobiography must be written by that person, use of the term memoir (from the French mémoire, “memory”) complicates matters. As a result, whether or not an autobiography is based on factual memory is one of Yagoda’s persistent themes.

The author traces the first use of the term “autobiography” to the Oxford English Dictionary of 1809. Prior to that, there were autobiography-like writings in the form of chronicles and confessions, the most famous being St. Augustine’s Confessions (398 AD) and Rousseau’s The Confessions (c.1770). To Yagoda, however, such early personal expositions came before true memoir. Some dealt with politics and war (e.g., Julius Caesar’s Commentaries), others with a spiritual purpose, like The Book of Margery Kempe (c.1430s). Some, like Pope Pius II’s Commentaries (1463), were mirror-like products of Renaissance humanism (following the invention of glass mirrors in the 15th century). And of course there were diaries, personal essays, and literal self-portraits, some of which were veiled forms of fiction or drama—Yagoda cites Dante, Petrarch, Montaigne, Erasmus, Shakespeare, John Donne, and others.

Yagoda also discusses the profound influence of autobiography on the development of the novel, beginning with Robinson Crusoe, which many readers believed to be true. Daniel Defoe, he says, “shook everything up.” Yagoda also notes “it’s hard to find an important American novel that’s not some variation on a memoir.” Examples are Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

The question of autobiographical truth is a recurring theme, which Yagoda introduces, and later caps, with skeptical observations by Friedrich Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw, respectively:

“I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually—memory yields.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

All autobiographies are lies. I do not mean unconscious, unintentional lies; I mean deliberate lies.

There are many examples where putting “autobiography” or “memoir” or “personal narrative” on a book cover has had little bearing on the veracity of the account. In several chapters, Yagoda discusses some rather famous but spurious autobiographies, beginning with the “supposedly factual memoirs” of men shipwrecked or kidnapped and the slave chronicles of 1800s America. The 1800s were a time, he says, when a spate of unreliable autobiographies (based on “memory like Swiss cheese,” “self-imposed suggestibility,” and “compromises with the truth”) were published, reflecting something of the wider culture. Leslie Stephen, an “advocate of life writing” (and father of Virginia Woolf), observed the following near the end of the 19th century: “an autobiography, alone of all books, may be more valuable in proportion to the amount of misrepresentation it contains.” His statement holds true today; witness the recent furor over Oprah Winfrey falling victim to the fakery of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and critical observations of Sarah Palin’s stretchers in Going Rogue.

Yagoda pegs the arrival of the modern memoir to Tobias Wolff’s 1989 book This Boy’s Life, in which the importance of the author’s power as storyteller and the importance (or not) of telling the exact truth, or a fair representation of it, are debated. “I’m going to tell this the way I want to,” is how Yagoda interprets Wolff’s admonition that some contestable points of fact be allowed to stand. “Memory is an impression, not a transcript,” says Yagoda, and he’s at pains to point out that a truthful story comes not from hard facts but from the heart. “That is the baseline position of the modern memoir.” Consider the small-type revelation on the copyright page of Paul Monette’s Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story(1992): “This is a true story. To protect the privacy of the participants, the names of most of the characters have been changed, as have some details about them and the events recounted here.” For Yagoda, the past four decades will likely go down in literary history as the golden age of autobiographical fraud, yet they have also seen a re-emergence of the African American memoir, begun with the slave testimonials of the previous century.

Memoir ends with a critical essay entitled “Truth and Consequences” in which Yagoda concludes his discussion on the writing of fake memoirs. He recounts a scene early in Breaking Clean (2002), Judy Blunt’s memoir about her life as a farm wife in Western Montana, in which Blunt describes her father-in-law dispatching her typewriter with a sledgehammer. Dramatic, yes, but truthful? After “the old man” publicly disputed her account, she confessed to a reporter that the machine’s death by sledgehammer story was “symbolic” and that, in reality, he simply “pulled the plug . . . and shouted and screamed, but the typewriter survived”—intact enough, we assume, for her to finish the book.

Ultimately, Yagoda concludes, autobiographers give us a version of what happened, and readers have the freedom to take it or leave it.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010