My first reading of Wendell Berry's The Memory of Old Jack turned me inside out. More precisely, it turned me right side out, the right side being at the time submerged. I read the novel in the midst of a concerted effort to become someone else for someone else, and when I came face to face with my own values, affirmed in fiction, my expedition into the novel returned me with unexpected pleasure to myself.
I did not foresee the “shock of recognition” the book would transmit. Such an experience is not uncommon among Berry's readers, as we respond to the sane and somehow familiar voice we hear in his work. Because of the jarringly personal quality with which the story reawakened me, and because of the narrator's obvious affection for Old Jack Beechum, my initial impulse was to read The Memory of Old Jack as autobiography. Berry's provocatively ambiguous title seemed to refer as much to Old Jack remembered as to Old Jack's remembering processes. Accordingly, I wondered if the novel's protagonist was as much a part of the narrator's autobiography as he was a model of an autobiographer himself, remembering and reliving his experience.
At the time, I dismissed my sense that in reading a novel I was reading autobiography. Because the book purported to be fiction, it did not fit my paradigms of autobiography. Further investigation made it clear that any account of a remembered life is at once fact and fiction. Andre Maurois has recognized this truth in his remark that the autobiographer “will do what the novelist does; he will create [his life].” Maurois recognized autobiography not as a genre of its own, but merely as a branch of biography. Sixty years later, Herbert Leibowitz in his Fabricating Lives: Explorations in American Autobiography acknowledged the same novelistic impulse in the autobiographer. Because memory complicates any writer's attempt to retrieve the historical or