Memoir: A History
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Memoir: A History

by Ben Yagoda
     
 

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From Saint Augustine's Confessions to Augusten Burroughs's Running With Scissors, from Julius Caesar to Ulysses Grant, from Mark Twain to David Sedaris, the art of memoir has had a fascinating life, and deserves its own biography. Cultural and literary critic Ben Yagoda traces the memoir from its birth in early Christian writings and Roman generals'

Overview

From Saint Augustine's Confessions to Augusten Burroughs's Running With Scissors, from Julius Caesar to Ulysses Grant, from Mark Twain to David Sedaris, the art of memoir has had a fascinating life, and deserves its own biography. Cultural and literary critic Ben Yagoda traces the memoir from its birth in early Christian writings and Roman generals' journals all the way to the present, in which, during a year's time, we saw memoirs from and about dogs, rock stars, bad dads, good dads, alternadads, waitresses, drug addicts, George Foreman, Iranian women, and a slew of other illustrious and interesting persons (and animals).

In a time when memoir seems ubiquitous and is still highly controversial, Yagoda tackles memoir and autobiography in all forms and iterations. He discusses the fraudulent memoir and provides many examples from the past—and he considers the ramifications and consequences of these books. Spanning decades and nations, styles and subjects, Yagoda analyzes the hallmark memoirs of the Western tradition—Benhamin Franklin, Edward Gibbon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry Adams, Gertrude Stein, and others. And he describes historical subgenres such as memoirs of being taken captive by Native Americans; slave narratives; and a surprising number of instances in which one had to pay not to be included in a courtesan's memoirs.

Yagoda's elegant examination of memoir is at once a history of literature and taste, and an absorbing glimpse into what humans find interesting—one another.

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

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781594488863
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
11/12/2009
Pages:
293
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range:
17 Years

What People are saying about this

David Friedman
"We owe Ben Yagoda such a huge debt of thanks: his witty, comprehensive, and insightful 'biography' of the form reminds us why the memoir matters - and will continue to matter as long as humans think, read, and write. This is literary criticism at its lively best."--(David Friedman, author of A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis and The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever)
Ron Rosenbaum
"Ben Yagoda is one of the most subtle-and entertaining-writers about writing one can find. His history of the memoir reads between the lines-and the lies-with illuminating precision."--(Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler and The Shakespeare Wars)
From the Publisher
"A shrewd and witty history of memoir sweeps us from Julius Caesar to James Frey. Our guide, Ben Yagoda, is always fine company, with just the right word, kindly good judgment, and another great story coming up on the next page. It's a splendid journey."
—Richard Ben Cramer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of What It Takes: The Way to the White House

"Ben Yagoda is one of the most subtle-and entertaining-writers about writing one can find. His history of the memoir reads between the lines-and the lies-with illuminating precision."
-Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler and The Shakespeare Wars

"We owe Ben Yagoda such a huge debt of thanks: his witty, comprehensive, and insightful 'biography' of the form reminds us why the memoir matters - and will continue to matter as long as humans think, read, and write. This is literary criticism at its lively best."
-David Friedman, author of A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis and The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever

Richard Ben Cramer
"A shrewd and witty history of memoir sweeps us from Julius Caesar to James Frey. Our guide, Ben Yagoda, is always fine company, with just the right word, kindly good judgment, and another great story coming up on the next page. It's a splendid journey."-- (Richard Ben Cramer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of What It Takes: The Way to the White House)

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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