A glance at any bestseller list demonstrates the popularity of memoir. Books such as Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club (1998), Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors (2002), and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (2006) have become literary touchstones for American readers, many of whom identify with the authors’ troubled childhoods and searches for redemption. But the genre itself has ancient roots, writes University of Delaware journalism professor Ben Yagoda in Memoir: A History. First-person accounts reach back at least as far as 50 BC, when Julius Caesar recounted his war campaigns in his self-flattering Commentaries. Much of the autobiographical writing from that time does not survive, and Yagoda points to The Confessions of Saint Augustine (AD 397–98) as the first autobiography.
To avoid muddying the waters, Yagoda uses the words “memoir” and “autobiography” somewhat interchangeably, to mean “a book understood by its author, its publisher, and its readers to be a factual account of the author’s life.” Recently, the genre’s very identity as “factual” has come into question. When in 2005 Oprah Winfrey confronted James Frey about the fabrications and exaggerations of his addiction tale A Million Little Pieces—a book she had touted from her powerful book-club pulpit—the backlash was unprecedented. Feeling emotionally defrauded, readers, critics, and journalists began to question the veracity of other memoirists, including Burroughs (who has written about his childhood living in the dysfunctional household of his mother’s psychiatrist) and Ishmael Beah, author of the best-selling book A Long Way Gone, which describes his experience as a child soldier in Sierra Leone. Burroughs’s foster family disputes his account; reporters questioned details and the chronology of Beah’s war years.
The genre’s appeal persists, however, and Yagoda examines its development with a journalist’s thoroughness, beginning with a few modern milestones: the Million Little Pieces fiasco; the record $10 million advance paid to Bill Clinton for My Life (2004); the bizarre sagas surrounding both O. J. Simpson’s If I Did It (2007), his supposedly hypothetical confession of how he murdered his ex-wife, and Peter Golenbock’s “inventive memoir” detailing the sexual exploits of Mickey Mantle.
Yagoda tends to lean on extended excerpts, and some readers may skim the longer quotations. But the narrative accelerates as he chronicles the first half of the 19th century, when the “most original and remarkable American autobiographical subgenre . . . drew on narratives of conversion, repentance, captivity, and adventure,” as in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). The mid-1800s were dominated by works from P. T. Barnum, Ulysses S. Grant, and Mark Twain, all accomplished storytellers and showmen. Barnum, “perhaps the greatest self-promoter of all time,” eagerly and candidly described many of the hoaxes he perpetrated during his performances, including the Feejee Mermaid, “likely the result of someone surgically connecting a fish tail with a monkey’s torso and head.”
The 20th century saw the birth of the “as told to” memoir, as well as the modernist tradition of transforming autobiography into fiction, exemplified by such classics as Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1922–31) and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963). In the last several decades, Yagoda observes, memoir has become more open, even graphic, and authorship has been “democratized”—no longer confined to celebrities and politicians. Today, nearly anyone with a hard-luck story can foist it upon an often eager public.
And what of truth in memoir? In closing, Yagoda excavates the cases of Burroughs, Frey, and numerous others whose integrity was challenged—on the grounds of mere exaggeration for effect, the restructuring or shuffling of chronology, or, in Frey’s book, outright lies. Ultimately, Yagoda concludes, “once you begin to write the true story of your life in a form that anyone would possibly want to read, you start to make compromises with the truth.”
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Eric Liebtrau was managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews until it closed at the end of last year.
Reviewed: "Memoir: A History" by Ben Yagoda, Riverhead, 2009.
Photo courtesy of "Memoir: A History"