When Memory Speaks: Exploring the Art of Autobiography

When Memory Speaks: Exploring the Art of Autobiography

by Jill Ker Conway
     
 

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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…  See more details below

Overview

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.)
Booknews
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:
9780307797230
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
06/08/2011
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
224
Sales rank:
1,181,324
File size:
2 MB

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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