How Memoir Helps Society

A memoirist's work these days can often involve reading statements about the badness, self-centered, or non-artistic nature of our work. Do you need me to provide links? There are many, but Neil Genzlinger's article, “The Problem with Memoirs,” in the New York Times, seems to sum it up. These are different than controversies over the truthiness of a particular memoir or piece of literary nonfiction, because the specific controversies often delve deeply into the works themselves and talk about them. That deep delving and reading and discussing is almost always a very productive thing, even if nothing about the nature of truthiness gets resolved. (How could it?) In any case, the challenge with the controversies is not the controversies themselves. It is that the controversies are then used by others as logs on the fire to attempt to burn memoir as a genre. (My metaphor kind of got away from me. It's not actually that Joan-of-Arc-ish, but you know what I mean). Granted, I probably shouldn't take these statements personally. They usually betray both a lack of understanding about the scope of the genre itself as well as a lack of reading in the genre. The statements sadden me because they remind me of how much great and beautiful writing is lumped into a term, and how that term itself is then used to excuse not investigating the genre further.

For that reason, I am always delighted to collect proof from the outside world about the contributions that memoir can make. Well, the outside world constantly delivers that proof in terms of readers and a great community of supportive writers. Maybe I also hunger for support from the “inside” world–academics doing “official” things and studying reality with a bit of distance. And that's why I get happy when both literary folks and history folks in particular talk about the value of memoir. This came my way today via Inside Higher Ed: Dr. G. Thomas Couser of Hofstra University writes: In American literary history, memoir has long functioned as the threshold genre through which various minorities and marginalized populations have gained access to the realm of literature. Consider the antebellum slave narrative, which first empowered African Americans to tell their lives. In the late twentieth century, memoir surges have tracked successive rights movements: the Civil Rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the gay rights movement, and the disability rights movement. Of these, the last most vividly illustrates the genre’s accessibility; in recent years memoir has issued from people whose conditions were once believed to utterly preclude self-representation–locked-in syndrome, Down syndrome, autism, and early Alzheimer’s. Of course, as its critics claim, much memoir is self-aggrandizing, trashy, and not worth your time. But before you dismiss memoir in its entirety, remember that it has served historically–and still functions–to make visible lives that once were lived in the shadows–or were considered not worth living, let alone writing.

I think Couser's point is central to the problem with memoirs. Many of them irritate critics precisely because their content and the lives they describe also irritate notions of the status quo. We exist, and our subjectivities are complicated But as a collector of these various clips of academic friends telling us we exist, I would be remiss if I made it sound as thought the excellent Dr. Couser was alone. I also read and loved a book by historian Jennifer Jensen Wallach, Closer to the Truth Than Any Fact: Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow, that you can read if you ever get sad about doing your work for nothing. One of her huge points is the validity of using memoir as historical documentation for studying a particular time period. She writes: “Skillful autobiographers are uniquely equipped to describe the entire universe as it appeared from an acknowledged perspective. Skillfully executed life writing has the ability to portray the complicated interplay between thoughts and emotions of a historical actor. Furthermore, autobiographers intermingle historical data about what actually happened with reflections on what the author wishes had happened or imagines had happened. A full-fledged understanding of a particular historical moment must capture the complexities of the cognitive and the affective, the factual and the imaginary, perceptions and misperceptions. These elements are constitutive of a complex historical reality, which exists from the perspective of the people who inhabited a past social world. The thought and feelings of historical agents are not responses to a preexisting social reality. Rather, they are reality. If we are to come to a deep understanding of a historical moment, we must endeavor to understand the individual experiences that constituted it. No other single source of historical evidence can capture these intricacies as effectively as a literary memoir.” (4) and also: “Autobiographers frequently assume the role of lay sociologist and cultural critic, and they always function as a cultural anthropologist of sorts—for what are autobiographers if not participant-observers living their life with a critical eye and then reporting their findings later?” (5) The idea of this book is to examine Jim Crow era autobiography but also to argue for the validity of memoir as a historian's tool. I found the book completely by accident at a book fair, and I'm so glad I did. I think we often focus on what memoir does for us–is it healing, is it fair to our subjects and the people depicted–and I think wrestling with those ethical difficulties is actually *part* of doing memoir work. But all the same, I like the idea of branching out of fields of study to see ourselves from the outside. If anyone has other examples of memoir as used in other fields of study, please let me know.


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