The History of Memoir

A 16-year-old boy, lousy with lust and a certain lassitude, falls in with a fast crowd and, one evening, purloins the pears from a tree near his family’s vineyard. He and his gang aren’t particularly hungry; they sample a few and throw the rest to the hogs. That they’d done something forbidden made the thievery thrilling. “It was foul, and I loved it,” the narrator recalls of the lark. “I loved my own undoing.” At a juncture when memoir is being criticized for its confessional aspects, for falling into the realm of the therapeutic, the narcissistic and the lurid, for lapsing into so much navel-gazing, it’s worth looking at the genre’s antecedents. Augustine’s recollection of stealing pears may seem like tame stuff to modern readers, but in A.D. 397, when the aptly named “Confessions” was released, his sinful life and the internal spiritual struggle he revealed created both a stir and a genre.

Similarly, had Jean-Jacques Rousseau written his memoir (also titled “Confessions”) today instead of in 1792, one wonders if he would have landed a spot on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to dissect his decisions to reveal the most intimate and shameful details of his life, such as his sexual prowling, his abandonment of his children and his frequent need to go to the bathroom. During his time, fellow writer Dr. Samuel Johnson perhaps summed up the general reaction to the book best when he wrote to his friend James Boswell: “Rousseau, Sir, is a very bad man.”

The modern memoir is an offshoot of traditional autobiography, but though the two forms share the same umbrella, they claim different ground. The memoir tends to reflect a life organized by theme—drug addiction, for example, or illness—while autobiography is typically a linear catchall, a succession of facts plodding from birth onward. Differences aside, narratives about the self, however they are structured, tend to have a scratch to itch, a bone to pick, so the author selects those damning details that stick in the reader’s craw and make the story hard to shake. By confessing his own escapades and his conversion experience at the age of 32, Augustine’s grand ambition was to save Christianity from heretics and pagans and to “renew and exalt the faithful hearing of the gospel of man’s utter need and God’s abundant Grace,” notes his biographer, Albert Outler, in “Augustine: Confessions.” Likewise, the brilliant but paranoid Rousseau had already published several political tracts and novels that were immensely popular and that brought him into trouble with the authorities when, as a rebuttal to his critics, he penned a highly intimate memoir that exposed his search for integrity.

The power of the personal is evident in the lasting impressions both writers have made. Augustine’s writings are perhaps second only to the Bible in their influence on Christian thought. Rousseau, in laying out the entrails of his life, inadvertently helped launch the emotionalism of the Romantic Movement, which eventually led to the French Revolution.

To trace the arc of memoir through the centuries, from St. Augustine to Mary Karr, would require a book-length manuscript. Memoirists have typically been heavy hitters: Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, Ulysses S. Grant, Mahatma Gandhi, Bill Clinton, Gore Vidal, George Orwell, Leon Trotsky, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, Frederick Douglass, Black Elk, Helen Keller, Karl Jung, Jean-Paul Sartre and on and on. But look beyond the list of notables, and you’ll find a genre that practically guarantees a populist platform. “This is the age of memoir,” observes William Zinsser, in “Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir.” “Never have personal narratives gushed so profusely from the American soil as in the closing decade of the 20th century. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone is telling it.” Lorraine Adams, a columnist for The Washington Post, has dubbed this trend the rise of the “nobody” memoir.

What critics overlook is that many notables would have remained nobodies if it weren’t for their self-directed gazes. Moreover, the tradition of the nobody narrative is rich and stems from a reform impulse, a railing against the political by trotting forth the personal. Slave narratives, such as Harriet Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” were commissioned to highlight the inhumanities of slavery and sway the public with the specificity of the experiences related. Since the 1960s, groups marginalized or overlooked by society have made their way to the center by the power of one person’s personal story. In “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” the young Maya Angelou begins to pee down her legs in church and knows she can’t hold it because “it would probably run right back up to my head and my poor head would burst like a dropped watermelon, and all the brains and spit and tongue and eyes would roll all over the place.” With this, we are running out the church door with her, and the release becomes metaphoric and multilayered, an almost joyful triumph over death, and no matter what our race, we can’t help but be tucked into the skin of a little girl growing up black in the South.

The nobodies of the world have no doubt been inspired to write by the recent successes of memoirs by average people. Literary timelines will mark the mid-1990s as the period of the genre’s revival. Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club,” published in 1995, offered a memoir as dark and funny as any piece of fiction—except this stuff was real— and it sat on The New York Times bestseller list for a year. In 1996, Frank McCourt, a high school teacher who grew up poor in Ireland, published a memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” that went on to earn him a Pulitzer Prize. When you look at our tendency these days to interface with technology rather than each other, perhaps the surprise is not that memoirs are flourishing but that anyone would question the trend. Neuropsychologists are discovering that the impulse for story is likely hard-wired into our brains. The less we talk to one another, the more our personal narratives—our confessions, our dark sides, our recitations of the things we do in secret—will seek other ways to emerge, finding voice in the genre of memory.