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Sojourns in the Land of Memory

by Patricia Hampl

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-393-04738-5
Publisher: Norton

Those tired of the reductive view of autobiography as voyeur’s toy will welcome these investigations on the form’s redemptive powers and link to history. In her collection, memoirist Hampl (English/Univ. of Minnesota; Virgin Time, 1992, etc.) offers as subjects a range of autobiographical writers, including Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Czeslaw Milosz, Edith Stein, Anne Frank, and St. Augustine. She links them through her introductory essays, in which she plumbs the importance of memoir, which provides readers with “the deeply satisfying sense of being spoken to privately” and offers writers the chance “to find not only a self but a world,” a world they discover by telling “their mind, not their story.” In discussing her subjects” minds, Hampl reveals her own: She is a poet, a pilgrim, someone old enough to have loved a Vietnam draft resister and have lost friends, whose memory she appropriates for her writing. Like many essayists, she is more memorable for her epigrammatic observations than her arguments. Readers need not accept Hampl’s analysis of Sylvia Plath’s poetry or of her own life to allow her belief in “the primacy of the first-person voice in American imaginative writing.” Disagree with her easy contention that “Religion is typically too constrained by the systems and institutions that claim it,” but accept that “To write one’s life is to live it twice.” For, as she says of St. Augustine’s Confessions, what matters is the mind at work: “Consciousness, not experience, is the galvanizing core of a personal story.” Dogged and various in her explorations on memoir, she gives weight to her belief in the intellectual need in our culture to become ’sophisticated about the function of memory.”