Memoir: A History

Overview

From Augustine's Confessions to Augusten Burroughs's Running with Scissors, from Julius Caesar to Ulysses S. Grant, from Mark Twain to David Sedaris, the art of memoir has had a fascinating life, and deserves its own biography. "As Yagoda says: 'Memoir has become the central form of the culture: not only the way stories are told, but the way arguments are put forth, products and properties marketed, ideas floated, acts justified, reputations constructed or salvaged. How did we come to this pass? The only way to ...

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Memoir: A History

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Overview

From Augustine's Confessions to Augusten Burroughs's Running with Scissors, from Julius Caesar to Ulysses S. Grant, from Mark Twain to David Sedaris, the art of memoir has had a fascinating life, and deserves its own biography. "As Yagoda says: 'Memoir has become the central form of the culture: not only the way stories are told, but the way arguments are put forth, products and properties marketed, ideas floated, acts justified, reputations constructed or salvaged. How did we come to this pass? The only way to answer that question is to go back a couple of thousand years and tell the story from the beginning,'" which is just what Yagoda does in this "excellent" history (The Washington Post).

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
…excellent…Beginning with Julius Caesar's Commentaries…and The Confessions of Saint Augustine, [Yagoda] brings in example after example…[he] touches just about all the bases, some more lightly than others
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Yagoda, biographer of Will Rogers, presents a spirited account of a form of writing that since its inception has been one of the most contested and most popular. Without dwelling too heavily on the genre's most recent scandals, Yagoda begins with the fifth-century Confessions of Saint Augustine, still cited as a prime example. Autobiography, Yagoda says, helped give rise to the invention of the novel in 1719 when Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, “written by himself.” While this fictional memoir helped usher in real accounts of, among other things, adventures on the high seas and capture by hostile Indians, it is memoir's fraught relationship with the truth—which implicated both readers (who took Robinson Crusoe to be a true tale) and writers (embellishing or inventing particularly sordid episodes in their lives)—that explains the memoir's longevity, popularity and breadth, says Yagoda. In a fascinating break from his chronological study, Yagoda explores the fluid definition of “truth” and whether, given memory's malleability, it's possible to achieve it in any memoir. With its mixture of literary criticism, cultural history and just enough trivia, Yagoda's survey is sure to appeal to scholars and bibliophiles alike. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Like no other genre, memoir has splintered into multiple subgenres that resist classification. Apart from the lives of celebrities, children of celebrities, addicts, infidels, and masters of amazing feats, there are new brands: six-word memoirs, canine memoirs, and "shtick lit" (a stuntlike project undertaken for the purpose of writing about it), all part of an unprecedented and spawning publishing enterprise. Yagoda (When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse) tackles a history of memoir in order to trace its fashionableness. His use of anecdotes reveals likely progenitors and the circumstances from which the form evolved. A course is mapped from the Confessions of St. Augustine, to the rise of secularist writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Daniel Defoe, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry David Thoreau, to the change-issuing slave narratives and Holocaust survivor accounts. Despite fakes, fictional inventions, and battles for legitimacy, memoir remains enduringly popular. VERDICT Highly recommended for hearty readers, lovers of memoir, and students of literary and cultural studies.—Katharine A. Webb, Ohio State Univ. Libs., Columbus\
Kirkus Reviews
Under the memoir sun there's nothing new-just a lot more of it. So argues biographer Yagoda (Journalism and English/Univ. of Delaware; When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worse, 2007, etc.) in this lively history/cultural study of the memoir. Unlike some students of the genre, he uses autobiography and memoir interchangeably, and credits Tobias Wolff for first removing the "s" from memoirs. Yagoda notes that memoir has rapidly become literature's most popular genre, with "a million little subgenres." After an introduction, the author looks at Julius Caesar's Commentaries (noting the Emperor anticipated many others by writing of himself in the third person), then moves through the "confessions" with stops for closer looks at St. Augustine, Abelard, John Bunyan and others. He considers Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography as among the most influential; glances at works by Davy Crockett, Black Hawk and Melville; and notes the enduring, powerful effect of the I in slave narratives. About a third of the way in, Yagoda pauses to consider the issue of the bogus memoir, mentioning early fabrications by people claiming to be slaves and mountain men. (He delivers even more at the end.) The author reminds us several times that memory is not a digital recorder but a tenuous process of reconstruction. He admires the autobiography of U.S. Grant, the memoir-like writings of Mark Twain and the achievement of Helen Keller. He also considers the ubiquitous celebrity memoir-and the issue of ghostwriting-followed by an amusing disquisition on 1930s and '40s warm-and-fuzzy memoirs like Clarence Day's Life with Father and Frank Gilbreth's Cheaper by the Dozen. Yagodaalso discusses the re-emergence in the '60s of stark memoirs by black writers-notably Dick Gregory and Claude Brown-and the recent explosion of the entire genre, with the unsurprising consequences of counterfeiters, fakers, narcissists and liars, and the decline in sales of literary fiction. Substantial, engaging and convincing. Agent: Stuart Krichevsky/Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594484827
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/5/2010
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 741,274
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Ben Yagoda is a journalism professor at the University of Delaware. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of ten books, including Memoir: A History, Will Rogers: A Biography, and When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, and has written for Slate, The New York Times Magazine, and publications that start with every letter of the alphabet except J, K, Q, X, and Z. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife.

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Table of Contents

Author's Note: By Way of Definition 1

1 Memoir [Nation] Universe 5

2 Before Memoir: Chronicles and Confessions 31

3 These Autobiographical Times of Ours 57

4 The United States of Autobiography 71

5 Interlude: Truth, Memory, and Autobiography 93

6 Eminent Victorian Autobiography 113

7 One Hundred Percent Americans 143

8 Modernists and Movie Stars 169

9 Looking on the Bright Side, Mainly: Mid-Century Memoirs 191

10 Songs of Myself 215

11 Truth and Consequences 243

Acknowledgments 273

A Note on Sources 275

Index of Memoirists and Autobiographers 281

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