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
* * *
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
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.
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
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
* * *
"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. …