Ben Yagoda, that funky journalism professor down In Newark, Delaware has hit a humanistic homerun with “Memoir: A History” (Riverhead Books, 2009). It melds a universal history of the genre while illuminating how it fared (and sometimes failed) throughout American history. No easy trick when he estimates that tens of thousands of such recollections followed Caesar’s “Commentaries” some three millennia ago. Julius put his description of the Gallic wars in the third person because he was reporting those battles back home to the Rome HQ.
The French word for “memory” named the field “memoirs” which entered the O.E.D. in 1678. “Autobiography” didn’t make the cut until 1809. Gore Vidal made a crucial distinction in his cleverly entitled memouir, "Palimpsest" (1996): "A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts, double-checked.” (p.3)
And the American trend gets stronger all the time. When Bennett Cerf, cofounder of Random House in the 1920`s, wrote his own memoir “At Random”, he noted that “fiction outsold nonfiction four-to-one. Now (1960’s) that ratio is absolutely reversed, and nonfiction outsells fiction four-to-one.” (p.239). Nielsen Book Scan notes that memoirs boomed 400% between 2004 and 2008. Why that old Inkling John Grogan even expanded the genre with “Morley and Me: Life with the World’s Worst Dog”. No pet is now safe from such psychological exploitation!
It was not so when Saint Augustine triggered a religious revolution by confessing to his moral failings in public. Yagoda notes there were prefigurings of such religious experiences in both the Old and New Testaments. But it was a long jump to Rousseau’s “Confessions”. “For some strange reason,” Rousseau’s publisher (1759-60) “had been urging me for some time to write my memoirs.” (p.58.)
Heh, publishers are ever attuned to new curiosities, are even known to invent such! But Jean-Jacques was a far cry from the holy penitent Augustine. His obsessive masturbatory maneuvers turned off many of his semi-secularized, only partially Enlightened readers. It would take awhile for Walt Whitman to make a metaphysic of his “Songs of Myself”.
Which reminded me of the great Basil exhibition a few seasons back of “Art of the Everyday”. There the curators shrewdly revealed how we Euros slowly switched from images of Saints and saintly antecedents to first an awareness then an affection for the miraculous ordinary. As Blake enjoined us: To see the world in a grain of sand. Or Walt who exulted “The mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.” Descralization is the first boldly timid step of secularization. From the miracle of transubstantiation to the blessedness of orgasm. The memoir is there in all of its multifariousness to trace the transition.
America played a major role in that transformation: From Ben Franklin’s blessings on an “ordinary” life of common commerce to Mark Twain’s humorous take on the newly egalitarian life. (It reminds me that Twain’s blackout for 100 years of his autobiography is finally over this spring,as the apex of his centennial.) He’ll finally (perhaps) let us know what he really thought of his lady office manager who perhaps tried to seduce the new widow but surely did finagle his assets! And both P.T. Barnum and Ulysses Grant added their special flavor to this newly expanded Panorama of Ego.
In the thirties the Frankfurt savant Leo Lowenthal (who almost turned me to a career in anthropology!) quantified the subjects of Saturday Evening Post biographies and saw a clear transition from producers to entertainers. I followed him in Journalism Quarterly in the sixties by analyzing the subjects interviewed on TV by Edward R. Murrow and Mike Wallace. Almost all of them were entertainers! The genre endures, but the focus shifts. We shall see what Facebook and Twitterology do to the memoir. Blogs after all are daily memoirs.
My only gripe with Ben is his lack of a traditional index. People only is a hack of a guide, especially when the contents frequently cite useful humungous bibliographies and diverse examples. He shows, for example, how the Puritan John Bunyan led to the novelist Daniel Defoe. There are almost 600 names cited in his “Index of Memoirists and Autobiographers”.
I’d settle for 100 significant categories in the history of the genre. Beggars can’t be too choosy! There is plenty of time and space left for follow-ups on how our media-saturated culture deals with this increasingly democratized genre. Do we understand each other more deeply and acutely? Or do we just skitter from one superficiality or another?
You may also read a version of this piece at Broad Street Review.