Jonathan Yardley

Jonathan Yardley reviews the book Memoir: A History by Ben Yagoda

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 29, 2009

MEMOIR

A History

By Ben Yagoda

Riverhead. 291 pp. $25.95

Back in the 1960s and '70s, when my career as a book reviewer was young, I was elated by a sudden and wholly unexpected literary development: the publication of memoirs by people who were not much older than I was -- memoirs, that is, of lives not near completion but still very much in progress. Three led the way: "Stop-Time" (1967) by Frank Conroy, "North Toward Home" (1967) by Willie Morris and "A Fan's Notes" (1968) by Frederick Exley. This last, a true monument of American literature, was presented as a work of fiction for legal reasons, but it was memoir to the core and in hindsight can be seen as the book that opened the floodgates to the Age of Memoir we now inhabit, by no means entirely happily.

This is because, unlike the books by Conroy and Morris, which were immensely skillful and revealing but emotionally guarded, Exley's was raw, self-lacerating and unrelievedly confessional. Oddly enough, it is mentioned only in a footnote in Ben Yagoda's excellent "Memoir: A History" -- evidently because it was passed off as fiction -- but it soon became a model, if not the model, for all those men and women, most of them relatively young, who now pour forth their confessions in book after book after book.

Never mind that few of these confessions can be of interest to anyone except the people writing them, never mind that few of these people know how to tell a story or write literate prose, never mind that the market is now so thoroughly saturated that it is just about impossible to separate what little wheat there may be from the vast ocean of chaff. What matters is that, as Yagoda says, we live in an age of "more narcissism overall, less concern for privacy, a strong interest in victimhood, and a therapeutic culture." He quotes Carolyn See: "Those people in [Alcoholics Anonymous] in the late 40's and early 50's can be said to have reinvented American narrative style. All the terrible, terrible things that had ever happened to them just made for a great pitch."

One would look high and low to find more incontrovertible and devastating evidence of the triumph of memoir (if "triumph" is the word for it) than is contained in Yagoda's opening chapter. In mostly deadpan style, he enumerates in some 25 pages the "million little subgenres," from "celebrity, misery, canine, methamphetamine, and eccentric-mother memoirs" on and on through "the dad memoir," the spiritual memoir, the "rock-star memoir" and of course "the seemingly endless series of bombshells over fraudulent lives," most notoriously James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces," which was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as a selection for her book club, then revealed as a fake, for which "she invited him again onto her show and hung him out to dry." As Yagoda says:

"Autobiographically speaking, there has never been a time like it. Memoir has become the central form of the culture: not only the way stories are told, but the way arguments are put forth, products and properties marketed, ideas floated, acts justified, reputations constructed or salvaged. The sheer volume of memoirs is unprecedented; the way the books were trailed by an unceasing stream of contention, doubt, hype, and accusations is distressing. Yet every single one of the books, and every piece of the debate about them, had a historical precedent. How did we come to this pass? The only way to answer that question is to go back a couple of thousand years and tell the story from the beginning."

Which is just what Yagoda does. Beginning with Julius Caesar's "Commentaries" (known to generations of Latin students as "Caesar's Gallic Wars") and "The Confessions of Saint Augustine," he brings in example after example: "Peter Abelard's Historia calamitatum (The Story of My Misfortunes), remains a compelling cautionary tale and, in its depiction of mental and physical hurt, anticipates today's misery memoirs"; spiritual memoirs of the 17th century, with their "back-and-forth dance between doubt and faith," anticipating modern memoirs that "follow an account of the author's wayward past (and the more wayward the better), his or her discovery of some sort of secular or sacred light, and then, finally, sweet redemption"; 19th-century American slave narratives, which "outnumbered every other kind of book by African-Americans" and anticipated the 20th-century memoirs by the likes of Richard Wright, Maya Angelou and Malcolm X.

Yagoda -- a much-published writer who teaches at the University of Delaware -- touches just about all the bases, some more lightly than others, but I can think of no significant omissions beyond his failure to give Exley anything more than a footnoted nod. He offers a nimble and nuanced discussion of the nettlesome issue of truth and fiction in autobiography and memoir. Dating back to the 19th century, "the spate of unreliable memoirs [has] reflected an uncertainty and sometimes malleability about 'truth' that showed up in the wider culture as well." On the one hand, we want "authenticity and credibility" in autobiographical writing; on the other, we want to be entertained, which can sometimes lead writers to exaggeration or invention.

Beyond that, we don't really understand that "the human memory is by nature untrustworthy: contaminated not merely by gaps, but by distortions and fabrications that inevitably and blamelessly creep into it." Memory "is itself a creative writer," and the combination of "memory like Swiss cheese, arrogant confidence in its integrity -- seems to be a human trait, and is certainly reflected in most autobiographies . . . which do not grant even the possibility that the chronicle they offer -- including the word-for-word transcription of conversations held half a century before -- is less than 100 percent accurate." Yagoda quotes Mark Twain:

"I used to remember my brother Henry walking into a fire outdoors when he was a week old. It was remarkable in me to remember a thing like that and it was still more remarkable that I should cling to the delusion for thirty years that I did remember it -- for of course it never happened; he would not have been able to walk at that age. . . . For many years I remembered helping my grandfather drinking his whiskey when I was six weeks old but I do not tell about that any more now; I am grown old and my memory is not as active as it used to be. When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened."

Yagoda quotes that wonderful passage to underscore the unreliability of memory, but it does not deter him from taking an upbeat view of his subject. "The memoir boom," he writes, "for all its sins, has been a net plus for the cause of writing. Under its auspices, voices and stories have emerged that, otherwise, would have been dull impersonal nonfiction tomes or forgettable autobiographical novels, or wouldn't have been expressed at all." Alas, it is here that I part company with this otherwise exemplary book. What the memoir boom has in fact given us is too many dull or forgettable memoirs, precious few of which have enriched our literature but most of which have simply encouraged the narcissism of their authors.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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