Memoir: A History

Article excerpt

At this point, we probably know more about what a memoir is not - it's not a multicultural tear-jerker about a dying son ("The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams," by Nasdijj), an Oprah- approved tale of rehab and regret ("A Million Little Pieces," by James Frey), or an apple-chucking holocaust romance ("Angel at the Fence," by Herman Rosenblat) - than what a memoir is. So it seems like the perfect time for Ben Yagoda's new book, the interesting but uneven Memoir: A History.

In a short "Author's Note," Yagoda defines memoir as "a book understood by its author, its publisher, and its readers to be a factual account of the author's life." Over the next 11 chapters, he surveys not only memoir's failures - it has averaged "a scandal a year" since 1960 - but also its many successes.

But first, Yagoda details our own memoir-crazed moment. Between 2004 and 2008, the genre's sales have jumped 400 percent; we now find father-son sets writing dueling memoirs and releasing them within a week of each other. Anecdotes like this offer a sort of rubbernecking appeal - if this isn't bubble behavior, I don't know what is - but Yagoda wants to prove that even they have a history: "Every single one of the books, and every piece of the debate about them, had a historical precedent."

With his strategy set, Yagoda goes back to the beginning. He moves at a Greatest Hits clip, bouncing from Abelard to Margery of Kempe. It all feels a little dry, and Yagoda seems to sense this, often straining for an anachronistic joke. About Pope Pius II, who immediately follows Dame Margery, Yagoda observes "his tendency - common to so many politicians and chief executives - to make himself the hero of every story"; in the very next paragraph, on the pope's candor, Yagoda quips that "no American president has dished such dirt." Such asides become only more irksome when Yagoda falls into a pattern - a paragraph or two per luminary, with a short historical argument or idea every 10th page.

Thankfully, these criticisms apply only to the first 100 pages. After that, everything - even the hokey tone - improves, as Yagoda switches from mere summaries to context and analysis. He traces, for example, how Mark Twain, Ulysses Grant, and P.T. Barnum are "emblematic of a sea change in the kinds of Americans who were inspired to write their autobiographies." The numbers back him up: Memoirs by "Entertainers" increased from 1 percent of the genre's output in the 1900s to 14 percent in the '60s - the same decade, incidentally, when "Entertainers" overtook "Clergy/Religious" as memoir's most popular subcategory.

It's easy to connect this to the bookshelves of today, when Michael Phelps's book can be "written, typeset, bound, and on the shelves within four months after he was handed his final Olympic gold medal. …