Memoir: A History

By Hauptman, Robert | Journal of Information Ethics, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Memoir: A History


Hauptman, Robert, Journal of Information Ethics


Memoir: A History Ben Yagoda. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009. 291 pp. $25.95

The impulse to indulge in autobiographical musings is part of our genome. Even many of the poor souls who have luckily led uneventful lives turn out memoirs faster than we can consume them. Everything from Ben Franklin's classic to the sleaziest Hollywood revelation, from Anne Frank's diary to the constructed life found in Binjamin Wilkomerski's Fragments overflows our bookshops, libraries, and personal collections. We are suckers for a life well-spent (or not) and personally articulated, fairly and factually or falsely and with deceptive rancor. There are, naturally, many ways in which an author can approach this impressive body of material: bibliographically, theoretically, hypercritically, thematically, interdisciplinarally, or historically. Ben Yagoda, though he touches on a variety of peripheral if important issues, chooses this latter method. He begins at the beginning, with Caesar and then Augustine and carries us up to the recent controversial work of James Frey and Augusten Burroughs. Historical overviews of specific ideas, concepts, types, or genres must of necessity suffer from repetitive listings even when there is no pretense of completion. And how could there be? A mere catalogue of all or most or even many of the English-language memoirs would take up all of the pages of a multi-volume encyclopedia. Here, Yagoda surveys the most important works within reasonable sets of chronological or thematic parameters emphasizing those that set new precedents thus altering the genre. Some people are incapable of not chronicling every aspect and detail of their lives. Maya Angelou has written eight memoirs and Shirley MacLaine has produced eleven! Now and again, Yagoda intercalates discussions of concepts such as truth. But he is not as strict as one might hope: He insists that with contemporary memoir, one expects that the facts may be slightly distorted. I disagree. Rigobertu Menchu or Frey present extreme cases that only the ideologically motivated would defend, but I would be disappointed and angered to discover even minor deception in a memoir that I took to be a truthful representation of the author's reality.

Extensive historical surveys demand breadth and a certain degree of superficiality. Yagoda notes a specific work, comments briefly, and then moves on to the next one. He makes many interesting points along the way: Abelard suffered more from those who commiserated than from his physical pain; the first English autobiography is The Book of Margery Kempe; and I do doubt that all of the high school students who have been tortured by the enormous outpouring of words in Benvenuto Cellini's autobiography realize that it is packed with action including stabbings and killings but is almost entirely devoid of reflection. These early chronicles and confessions are often religiously oriented (think of Augustine's Confessions and, more than a thousand years later, Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners). Defoe and the early novel make brief appearances as do adventure, travel, addiction, Holocaust, African American, disability, slave, and captivity narratives (captured by Indians or the Symbionese Liberation Army). …

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