Personal Effects: Essays on Memoir, Teaching, and Culture in the Work of Louise Desalvo

Personal Effects: Essays on Memoir, Teaching, and Culture in the Work of Louise Desalvo

Personal Effects: Essays on Memoir, Teaching, and Culture in the Work of Louise Desalvo

Personal Effects: Essays on Memoir, Teaching, and Culture in the Work of Louise Desalvo


Celebrating one of the most important Italian American female authors of our time, Personal Effects offers a lucid view of Louise DeSalvo as a writer who has produced a vast and provocative body of memoir writing, a scholar who has enriched our understanding of Virginia Woolf, and a teacherwho has transformed countless lives. More than an anthology, Personal Effects represents an author case study and an example for modern Italian American interdisciplinary scholarship.Personal Effects examines DeSalvo's memoirs as works that push the boundaries of the most controversial genre of the past few decades. In these works, the author fearlessly explores issues such as immigration, domesticity, war, adultery, illness, mental health, sexuality, the environment, and traumathrough the lens of gender, ethnic, and working-class identity. Alongside her groundbreaking scholarship, DeSalvo's memoirs attest to the power and influence of this feminist Italian American writer.


What is simple is not easy. What is easy is not simple.



No single memoir captures the essence of a life remembered. Memoir offers not a complete picture, but instead a fractal image of an experience or related experiences that shape a life. As Louise DeSalvo has taught us, memoir insists that the past be drawn anew each time one meets pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard. Memoir, unlike autobiography, does not offer an account of individual emergence, a narrative of the self retracing the steps that led to its present, socially and culturally recognized success; memoir is more than a coming-of-age narrative or a story of survival. Memoir, with its associative, spiral narrative, seeks to illuminate and understand the ties between the self and the world. In an interview, DeSalvo told us, “I think the major reason that you can … write memoir your whole life … and you can write about the same subject your whole life … is … that there is no single portrait. … [Portraits] … shift and change through time. That’s the reality. We’re at different stages of the life cycle each time we write.”

DeSalvo suggests that memoir does not outline a linear journey of the self-in-themaking, a self invested in its separateness and individuation from the community of its origins. Instead, the contemporary memoir, in its most original and literary manifestation, theorizes a notion of the self less individualistic and more fluid and inclusive than the self of autobiography. The self of memoir must be critically and ambivalently rooted in the stories of the communities the writer inhabits or has left behind if the writing is

1. See Giunta’s “Memoir and the Italian American Canon” (2010–2011). See also Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir (2002); Shari Benstock’s The Private Self: Theory and Practice in Women’s Autobiographical Writing (1988); Sven Birkerts’s The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again (2008); Jill Ker Conway’s When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography (1998); Paul John Eakin’s edited collection The Ethics of Life Writing (2004); Thomas Larsen’s The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing the Personal Narrative (2007); and Sidonie Smith’s and Julia Watson’s Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (2001).

2. Throughout, unless otherwise cited, quotations from Louise DeSalvo are taken from interviews and emails we conducted and exchanged in 2011 and 2012.

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