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MEMOIR by Ben Yagoda Kirkus Star


A History

by Ben Yagoda

Pub Date: Nov. 12th, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59448-886-3
Publisher: Riverhead

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. Yagoda also 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.