When Memory Speaks: Exploring the Art of Autobiography


J ill Ker Conway, one of our most admired  autobiographers—author of The Road from Coorain and True North—looks astutely and with feeling into the modern memoir: the forms and styles it assumes, and the strikingly different ways in which men and women respectively tend to understand and present their lives.
In a narrative rich with evocations of memoirists over the centuries—from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and George Sand to W. E. B. Du Bois, Virginia Woolf, Frank McCourt ...

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When Memory Speaks: Exploring the Art of Autobiography

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J ill Ker Conway, one of our most admired  autobiographers—author of The Road from Coorain and True North—looks astutely and with feeling into the modern memoir: the forms and styles it assumes, and the strikingly different ways in which men and women respectively tend to understand and present their lives.
In a narrative rich with evocations of memoirists over the centuries—from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and George Sand to W. E. B. Du Bois, Virginia Woolf, Frank McCourt and Katharine Graham—the author suggests why it is that we are so drawn to the reading of autobiography, and she illuminates the cultural assumptions behind the ways in which we talk about ourselves.
Conway traces the narrative patterns typically found in autobiographies by men to the tale of the classical Greek hero and his epic journey of adventure. She shows how this configuration evolved, in memoirs, into the passionate romantic struggling against the conventions of society, into the frontier hero battling the wilderness, into self-made men overcoming economic obstacles to create an invention or a fortune—or, more recently, into a quest for meaning, for an understandable past, for an ethnic identity.
In contrast, she sees the designs that women commonly employ for their memoirs as evolving from the writings of the mystics—such as Dame Julian of Norwich or St. Teresa of Avila—about their relationship with an all-powerful God. As against the male autobiographer's expectation of power over his fate, we see the woman memoirist again and again believing that she lacks command of her destiny, and tending to censor her own story.
Throughout, Conway underlines the memoir's magic quality of allowing us to enter another human being's life and mind—and how this experience enlarges and instructs our own lives.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Memoirs often include events and thoughts that reveal the author's perception of how they see themselves, frequently excluding known aspects of their lives. Omissions, or a narrow focus, lead Conway (True North; The Road from Coorain) to state that autobiographical writing "is the most popular form of fiction for modern readers." To illustrate the selectivity of memory, Conway considers the literature of the genre in its multiple guises. She examines distant memoirs (St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass) with great sensitivity for the cultural climates in which they were written. In these and in the broad-ranging excerpts from more recent autobiographies (Lee Iacocca, Ellen Glasgow, Gloria Steinem, Frank McCourt, Jean-Dominique Bauby, Kathryn Harrison), Conway shows a particular interest in discovering how these books reflect the views of their eras, thereby giving a historical perspective on our own. She notes that, overall, womeneven the most publicly assertivedemur when writing their lives, rarely expressing accomplishments, decisions, even agency for their actions, although historically, men do. "Few of us," notes Conway, "give close attention to the forms and tropes of the culture through which we report ourselves to ourselves." Conway's small gem is a landmark in eliciting fresh contemplation of the inchoate complexity of memory's manifold voices. (Mar.)
Looks at the modern memoir, the forms and styles it assumes, and the strikingly different ways in which men and women tend to understand and present their lives. Draws on the writing of authors including George Sand, Virginia Woolf, and W.E.B. Du Bois to illuminate the cultural assumptions behind the ways in which we talk about ourselves, and traces the different narrative patterns of mythic journey and mystic relationship in men's and women's autobiographies. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Chicago Tribune
[Conway] considers the stories we tell about ourselves and the cultural assumptions that shape the telling.
Deborah E. McDowell
To paraphrase William Gass, subjectivity is now everybody's subject....Conway sets out to answer just why....to explain how conventions of gender have historically dictated the archetypes that men and women summon when writing their lives.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
In this erudite essay, former Smith College president and Australian expatriate autobiographer Conway (The Road from Coorain, 1989; True North, 1995) makes a smart but less than convincing case for the construction of identity through the writing of life stories. Conway is interested in why Westerners in particular are so enamored of autobiography and memoir. She argues that the gender wars, imperialism, and all manner of hegemonic brainwashing have not only shaped our views of ourselves, but determined how we express them. In describing the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank McCourt, and Frederick Douglass, among others, Conway traces how males set the standard for identity by the way they chose to represent themselves and women. The male archetype developed in two basic forms, Franklin's "capitalist hero," or economic man, and Rousseau's "secular hero," or introspective moral genius. The female, by contrast, was a romantic heroine, a creature of dangerous sexual powers and meager intellectþat least as male writers portrayed her. Because their stories were written by men, females were a mere projection, until they began to write their own diaries and make what Conway calls "conscious acts of rebellion" wherein they could create themselves as they really were. In Conway's theory, this same method of projection then imposed and disseminated the idea of the "other" on non- Westerners. This too, according to Conway, has begun to correct itself, as more original voices emerge through the liberating trends of postmodernism. Unfortunately, Conway takes us one step too far from experience to make her claims satisfying. This book is, as shesays, invoking Lacan, a book about us looking at ourselves while looking at ourselves in the mirror. Worse, she imposes her convictions about gender wars and imperialism on the evidence rather than deriving them from it, presupposing her points rather than proving them.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679766452
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/28/1999
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 205
  • Sales rank: 1,017,206
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Jill Ker Conway grew up in Australia, graduated from the University of Sydney in 1958 and received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1969. From 1964 to 1975 she taught at the University of Toronto and was vice president there before serving for ten years as president of Smith College. Since 1985 she has been a visiting scholar and professor in M.I.T.'s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. In addition to her two memoirs, she has edited Written by Herself, two volumes of women's autobiographical writings.

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Table of Contents

1. Memory's Plots 3
2. The Secular Hero 19
3. The Romantic Heroine 40
4. Imperial Stories 60
5. Feminist Plots 87
6. Assertive Women 109
7. Different Stories 127
8. Grim Tales 151
9. Word and Image 176
Notes 185
Bibliographical Note 192
Index 197
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Interviews & Essays

Before the live bn.com chat, Jill Ker Conway agreed to answer some of our questions:

Q: In When Memory Speaks, you discuss the difference in the way men and women tell their personal histories. Will you summarize this idea?

A:  Yes, indeed. In When Memory Speaks, I treat the history of the genre of autobiography from the point of view of how the archetypal life plot for a male or a female evolved historically and why this gendered characteristic has been common for the writing of autobiographies and memoirs until very recently. In the book, I start out with the writing of St. Augustine and contrast that with early memoirs written by religious medieval women, and from there I move to the arrival of a secular culture and the importance of romanticism in shaping the way women and men tell their life stories. And then I deal with the emergence of many different modern social types: businessmen, engineers, scientists, women professionals like social workers and librarians, and I try to help the reader understand what was thought appropriate in each period for a man or a woman to say about themselves.

If you read the book from beginning to finish you have a sense of how the standard life plot for a male or female evolved over time and of what is happening to it in contemporary writing. Because of the arrival of gay and lesbian memoirs and the postmodern concern with treating the life experience of very young people as important, we really have a blurring of those gender categories in contemporary writing -- but they're very clear in the past.

A second theme of the book is my speculation about the moral and intellectual consequences of accepting the conventional life plot for a man or a woman in thinking about their life in any given historical period. To make that a bit clearer, if a woman sees herself as a romantic heroine, to whom things happen, she is really passive and is courted by a romantic male figure and is childlike in many ways, because she's not seen as rational and instrumental. If she accepts that life plot and looks at her experience through that kind of telescope, she will not see her own agency in what happens to her, and she won't reflect much on the moral consequences of her own actions. I'm a person who's keen to encourage women to rewrite their history and their life story, moving it out of romantic categories and seeing themselves as actors and shapers -- very actively -- of their own world.

That's long for a short book!

Q: Will you talk about the literary plot of young women today? They seem to be more conscious of their own agency.

A:  Yes. Since the '60s and '70s people have grown accustomed to women telling a very different story from the romantic one, and I think the starting point for that new kind of treatment comes in memoirs from people like Gloria Steinem in the United States, and the same thing can be said of the writing of a number of Australian and British feminists. Nonetheless, we see the persistence of the romantic self-definition today in the memoirs of women who are in their 60s and 70s and aren't really shaped by the feminist movement. Right at the moment we have this troublesome pattern of victim memoirs written by relatively young women, like Mary Gordon's The Shadow Man about her father or Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, and I find those very troublesome because they actually are returning to a rather sick romantic notion of the female as victimized by society. So I'm not really sure what form contemporary autobiography will eventually take, but it certainly has the potential for a lot of change.

Q:  I spoke with Anna Quindlen, a graduate of Barnard College, a women's college, and she had an interesting point about the reception of men's and women's writing. She was asked once why her columns in The New York Times were always so opinionated. She observed that when women's writing is strong it's said to be opinionated, but when men's writing is strong it is said to be strong or intellectual -- it's as though women are not supposed to voice their opinions. Do you think women's autobiographies are received differently than men's?

A:  Yes, very definitely. I think True North, the second volume of my memoirs -- which is about me as an adult woman and deals with my ambitions professionally, my political battles in the academic world, and the major choices that I made which shaped my career and its outcomes -- is received and read very differently from the first volume, which is about a young woman growing up in Australia. The difference in reception is that people don't like women avowing ambition, and their attitudes to women who are politically astute are often very negative. So, in that sense, I think the reception is quite different. Now, if that were the account of a man's life, people would say, well, naturally, that's a very interesting story.

Q:  At what point does one sit down and decide to write a personal history?

A:  Well, for me, I'd been thinking about it for a long time. It's a common trait of expatriates to look at one's life in chapters -- as the childhood experience where you grew up and the reasons for leaving and then the life after that. So, I'd been thinking for quite a long time about writing a memoir that dealt mainly with my parents and the experience of growing up in that desolate and remote part of Australia. But of course, I was a full-time university administrator for 15 years in midlife, so I couldn't get to it until I left Smith. The actual motivations, the actual triggers were rather specific things, but the deep motivations came out of my scholarly life. So I'll start with the superficial ones and move into the more profound ones. I actually sat down at my computer to start The Road from Coorain about the three hundredth time some American told me how much they liked the movie "Crocodile Dundee." And it's about the typical Australian male hero, who could be seen as socially dysfunctional: He can't bond with people, lives in the wilderness, is engaged in a fairly violent sort of life hunting animals, and isn't bonded with women, isn't involved in a family, isn't engaged in nurturing anyone, has no civic virtues, and so on. I grew up in the outback of Australia with a lot of people like that. And I think their predicament is quite sad, not something that sentimentalizes a kind of noble savage.

So I thought that I would like to write a narrative about the Australian outback that has a woman heroine, my mother, and is told in the female voice by me, and which lets the reader see what life is like for those lonely, isolated, dysfunctional males. In my story, of course, the one I work with most closely finished up hanging himself in a fit of terrible depression. So, that was the immediate stimulus. The second one was that I'd just finished up my ten years at Smith and before that five years at the University of Toronto as an administrator, and I found out I'd lost my prose style. I'd had a fine one before -- I'd gone to Harvard and gotten a Ph.D. -- but 15 years of academic administration made me write just bureaucratic prose, you know, memorandums to the board of trustees, things that are pored over by the college lawyers, and so on. I found I just couldn't get my old style back. Then I thought, I have to write something that's really very close to the bone to recover it, and the obvious thing was to do that memoir of childhood and growing up, and I think my style came back. So that was the second immediate motivation.

The deeper ones were really three: I had found as president of Smith that women often had a real crisis thinking about their life after college. I don't mean to suggest that young men don't, too, but they can read a lot of memoirs -- how I discovered DNA, how I created the Ford Motor Company, how I created the Chrysler Corporation, how I became President of the United States -- and they are a kind of map that young men can look at and think about the future. But the memoirs of women that I could give my women students were not in that mode; they were couched in romantic form. And what they really told the young woman was to wait around until she bumped up against some great cause that she could make a commitment that was like a romantic commitment to, and then her life would unfold. Not that she would make it and shape it but that it would unfold for her, and that's very troublesome for any energetic young college junior or senior who's hell-bent to set the world on fire. So I thought I would like to write a narrative about a young woman's life which was not cast as romance, which makes quite clear the importance of men as well as women in my life -- my father, my brothers, teachers, lovers, my mother, an important array of friends -- but it's really focused on the development of this young woman's inner emotional and intellectual world and her understanding of the major important issues in life and finally, through education, developing the capacity to act on that knowledge. So when The Road from Coorain ends, it ends not with a triumphant male hero getting on a plane to conquer the world but with a young woman who's really very troubled and has been forced to pick up and go look for a more congenial environment by the kind of sexism that was prevalent in Australia. The way I wrote it was meant to be very energizing, because the narrative picks up toward the end, picks up pace because the reader realizes that I will get away and that I will make a break for it. That was a motive that structured the way I began and ended the narrative and many of the ways in which it is structured in chapter four.

And the second deep concern was to be able to write a book with a strong feminist message that wasn't a polemic, because I think our language has become so politicized, especially with the debate about abortion and pornography, and most people just switch off today when they are presented with another polemical discussion of feminist issues. I just wanted to make the reader, male or female, feel the injustice that circumscribed my mother's life and that led to my leaving Australia. I didn't want to hit them over the head with it; I wanted them to feel it in the heart and understand what basic fundamental issues of justice feminism is about. So that was a second motive.

The third is more complex still: I wanted to be able to tell a story that was not a polemic and was not a romance but that had central to it some very strong female figures. But their strength is not subtracted from the males. So many people see the issues of feminism as a zero-sum game in which if women are strong then man are the losers, and I wanted to describe a world in which that wasn't the case.

Q:  In your book, you refer to autobiography as fiction. How so? That seems to go against our traditional categorization.

A:  Well, it's fiction in the sense that the narrator controls the narrative, decides when it will begin and end, which structures, what it means, and it's fiction in the sense that it gives the reader a false sense of closure on a life that's still going on. The narrator's point of view could change dramatically subsequently and yet the reader has a sense of finality on the last page, or should if the narrative works. And it's fiction in the sense that you cannot tell everything, the total ebb and flow of experience and sensation, so you impose a structure on it and it's yours, and somebody else might impose a very different structure on the very same events.

On the other hand, it's not fiction in the sense that the events that the author describes really did occur in a really finite time and place, and if the memoirist is gifted at evoking social and cultural context, that's not fiction -- it's taken from the world around us. So it's a curious hybrid. I'll give you an example of what controlling the narrative can do: I end The Road from Coorain as I'm walking out to the plane to leave for the United States, and it's clear that I'm traveling alone. I'm not on a quest for a romantic partner; I'm on a quest for an intellectual life and a world in which I can live it without conflict with everyone else. I think what the reader takes from those closing pages is a sense of aloneness and hope, but if I had ended it two years later when I met and married my husband, that would have turned it into a romance and people would have said, Oh, that's how the story ended! So you can see how the structuring of the narrative gives the author control over what the reader will take from it.

Q:  At a reading once, Frank McCourt was asked how he could so accurately describe so many childhood events from memory. He replied that he simply did not have that many things to remember. Do you think that our memories will be jeopardized by information overload?

A:  Such an interesting question. People always ask me, did I keep a diary, because I remember the details of childhood and growing up so precisely. The answer is no, I never did. But I have a very strong, detailed visual memory, so if I sit down and call up a scene in my mind's eye, eventually all the details will fill out. I think it's the strong visual memory which accounts for why and how I remember things. It is true that the world of my childhood was not a very complex one, and there weren't very many people to assimilate and understand, so in that sense I agree with Frank McCourt. But on the other hand, I think Freud was right, everybody can remember if they really try.

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