Ben Yagoda chronicles a genre’s perplexed reception
by Ben Yagoda
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What is it about the memoir that forces it, in spite of its many wonderful achievements, always to stand in the docket? Was it ever thus, or is it our age that feels especially defensive, apologetic, and guilt-ridden about the practice of the genre? We can only begin reckoning with such questions by placing the memoir in historical perspective, which is exactly what Ben Yagoda has done with his timely, useful, and informative study, Memoir: A History.
Yagoda, a journalism professor at the University of Delaware, has written in the past a fine biography, Will Rogers (1993), and About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2000), among other books. He has a lively, resolutely nonacademic, clever style, bordering on the glib, but never less than intelligent. He begins with a few definitions, sensibly equating the terms autobiography and memoirs, each of them the attempt “to be a factual account of the author’s life,” adding that memoir, singular, tends to refer to books that cover only a portion of a life. He then traces the roots of the memoir from its beginnings in spiritual autobiography and confession (Saint Augustine, Rousseau) through its many tributaries—the fictional autobiography (Defoe), the slave narrative, the captivity narrative, the Victorian memoir of John Stuart Mill and Edmund Gosse, the criminal/lowlife memoir, the normative memoir (“Life with Father”), the immigrant memoir, the celebrity memoir, the addiction and abuse memoir, etc. In attempting to cover so much territory in three hundred pages, some exemplary works inevitably get overlooked (I particularly