In his new book Memoir: A History , Ben Yagoda takes on an embattled genre and its “million little subgenres.” What he finds is that much of what vexes us about memoir isn’t new. Literary confidence man James Frey has historical company in the still-unknown author of an invented sailor’s 1816 memoir. It turns out that writers have felt guilty about their literary navel-gazing since at least the 18th century, when most autobiographies began with apologies for the author’s vanity.
Yagoda covers a lot of ground in his survey, charting a path from Julius Caesar’s Commentaries to Six-Word Memoirs and PostSecret . Along the way he touches on early examples of some of contemporary memoir’s favored tropes. The juicy high-end, government-official-implicating madam’s tell-all, for instance, finds precedent in the memoirs of 19th century British courtesans, who omitted mention of their patrons only for a fee.
What impresses most in Yagoda’s book is not just the volume and variety of memoirs written recently but how long the genre has been part of our literary culture and how we have come to need and expect it. Our most accessible and democratic genre, it offered especially women and minorities the opportunity, long before the law did, to make their voices heard and circumstances known. Yes, there are countless bad, gushing, fraudulent, so-TMI memoirs. Yagoda leaves us better able to recognize the ones that don’t embarrass and even enlighten us.