The history of centuries has been written mostly by men. But for centuries, women have been recording their lives every day. Lives coded into letters, in diaries, in stories told on porches or across kitchen tables. These stories, once passed down orally or tightly locked in diaries, now find permanent home in memoir. Subtly framing autobiography with storytelling, memoir at its best offers models of how to reimagine our lives. Great memoirs are emblems of moral courage.
As the excerpts here suggest, whether it's overcoming challenges of poverty, racism, or isolation, memoir is often finally about redemption. Whether it's Helen Keller making speech her own, or Maxine Hong Kingston listening to her mother's "talk stories," we learn of an individual's refusal to capitulate to the world's obstacles. We witness the resourcefulness of a life finding the creativity to tell its story.
* * * Helen Keller's "The Story of My Life" (1903) is itself a heroic achievement. With the help of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, Keller not only overcame severe speech impairments, but mastered language to inspire generations of readers. When I had made speech my own, I could not wait to go home. At last the happiest of happy moments arrived. I had made my homeward journey, talking constantly to Miss Sullivan, not for the sake of talking, but determined to improve to the last minute. Almost before I knew it, the train stopped at the Tuscumbia station, and there on the platform stood the whole family. My eyes fill with tears now as I think how my mother pressed me close to her, speechless and trembling with delight, taking in every syllable that I spoke, while little Mildred seized my free hand and kissed it and danced, and my father expressed his pride and affection in a big silence. It was as if Isaiah's prophecy had been fulfilled in me. "The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands!" Helen Keller * * * Maya Angelou, like Zora Neale Hurston before her, pioneered the memoir of social ideas. In "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" (1970), the first volume of her ongoing memoir, she chronicles a childhood in which dignity and pride are forged amid poverty and racism. When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed - "To Whom It May Concern" - that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson. Our parents had decided to put an end to their calamitous marriage, and Father shipped us home to his mother. A porter had been charged with our welfare - he got off the train the next day in Arizona - and our tickets were pinned to my brother's inside coat pocket. I don't remember much of the trip, but after we reached the segregated southern part of the journey, things must have looked up. Negro passengers, who always traveled with loaded lunch boxes, felt sorry for "the poor little motherless darlings" and plied us with cold fried chicken and potato salad.... During these years in Stamps, I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare. He was my first white love. Although I enjoyed and respected Kipling, Poe, Butler, Thackeray and Henley, I saved my young and loyal passions for Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois' "Litany at Atlanta." But it was Shakespeare who said, "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes." It was a state with which I felt myself most familiar. I pacified myself about his whiteness by saying that after all he had been dead so long it couldn't matter to anyone any more.... Maya Angelou * * * "The Woman Warrior," Maxine Hong Kingston's memoir about the divided legacy of her parents' immigrant world, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. Exploring how the women in her family struggled with identity, Kingston paved the way not only for other Chinese-American writers, but also for memoirists exploring mother-daughter ties. …