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Way, way back in the day, before memoirs lost its s, when all the memoirs that had ever been written could fit in a couple of modest bookcases, the form represented a brilliant innovation in genre. Or so it seemed to Samuel Johnson. Writing in 1759, he observed that the best kind of biography was one in which “the writer tells his own story.” Such books benefited from their authors’ total command of the subject, Johnson argued: “Certainty of knowledge not only excludes mistake, but fortifies veracity. … [T]hat which is fully known cannot be falsified but with reluctance of understanding, and alarm of conscience.” (Dr. Johnson, meet Mr. Frey.)
Notable autobiographies were written in the late 18th century (by Casanova, Rousseau, and Benjamin Franklin) and in the 19th (by John Stuart Mill, Ulysses S. Grant, and many, many hundreds of others), and along the way, the word autobiography was invented; the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is from 1797. The first recorded instance of memoir-bashing—so familiar to contemporary readers—came the very next year, from the pen of the German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel:
Pure autobiographies are written either by neurotics who are fascinated by their own ego, as in Rousseau’s case; or by authors of a robust artistic or adventurous self-love, such as Benvenuto Cellini; or by born historians who regard themselves only as material for historic art; or by women who also coquette with posterity; or by pedantic minds who want to bring even the most minute things in order before they die and cannot let themselves leave the world without commentaries.
In other words, memoir writers are egotists, exhibitionists, and/or self-indulgent narcissists. Now, where have I heard that before? The 1820s saw a memoir boom comparable to the one we have been experiencing for some 15 years, and it drew similar-caliber gunfire. In 1825, Henry Mackenzie waggishly defined autobiography as “the confession of a person to himself instead of the priest,—generally gets absolution too easily.” Four years later, an anonymous author in Blackwood’s Magazine opined that the form should be the province of people of “lofty reputation” or who have something of “historical importance to say”—not of the “vulgar” who try to “excite prurient interest that may command a sale.”
But in the 19th century and into the early 20th, memoirs were still sparse enough to be viewed, in the Dr. Johnson mode, as a promising innovation. In the 1870s, the English literary critic Leslie Stephen (Virginia Woolf’s father) accompanied his huzzah with a prophetic fancy: “Autobiography … is so generally interesting, that I have frequently thought with the admirable Benvenuto Cellini that it should be considered as a duty by all eminent men; and, indeed, by men not so eminent.”
Across the Atlantic several decades later, William Dean Howells expanded on the theme, expressing his “wish that more women would write their own lives” and stressing that he “would not restrict autobiography to any age or sex, creed, class or color.” Howells wanted even the most “obscure or humble” citizens to set their memories down and take their
place with any other in this most democratic province of the republic of letters. In fact, we should like to have some entirely unknown person come out with his autobiography and try if it will not eclipse the fiction of the newest novelist.
Howells’ encomium marked the apogee of memoir love. As publishers have sent autobiographies forth, first in a stream, then in a flood, critics have tended to start with Schlegel’s complaints, then add new ones. George Bernard Shaw was the first (to my knowledge) to play the veracity card. “All autobiographies are lies,” he wrote. “I do not mean unconscious, unintentional lies; I mean deliberate lies. No man is bad enough to tell the truth himself during his lifetime, involving, as it must, the truth about his family and friends and colleagues. And no man is good enough to tell the truth in a document which he suppresses until there is nobody left alive to contradict him.”
Not only did the number of books increase, but their focus changed—from the outer life to the inner. In 1956, V.S. Pritchett correctly ascribed the “tremendous expansion in autobiographical writing,” in part, to the “dominant influence of psychological theory.” He hadn’t seen nothing. Through the ‘50s and ‘60s, the volume of autobiography production grew steadily, though it was still understood that the great majority of them would be written by secretaries of state, movie stars, quarterbacks, business leaders, and other eminences. But then the form opened up, just as Howells and Stephen had hoped. One noteworthy development was that such writers as Frank Conroy, Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Joyce Maynard kicked off, rather than concluded, their careers with memoirs. (Paul Fussell noted in 1970, “Twenty years ago, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time would have been costumed as a first novel. Today it appears openly as a memoir.”) Brothers Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff’s memoirs were not their debut books, but both attracted notice and strong notices, and in their subject matter—Geoffrey’s The Duke of Deception revolved around their con-man father, Tobias’ This Boy’s Life their abusive stepfather—paved the way for the next big trend, the hard-luck memoir.
In 1994, after the trend had started accelerating but before it went into the warp speed at which it even now varooms, critic William Gass wrote the classic anti-memoir screed in Harper’s. He had a few choice words for celebrity autobiographers—”celluloid whores and boorish noisemakers whose tabloid lives are presented for our titillation by ghosts still undeservedly alive.” But he saved the bulk of his scorn for the genre itself:
Are there any motives for the enterprise that aren’t tainted with conceit or a desire for revenge or a wish for justification? To halo a sinner’s head? To puff an ego already inflated past safety? … To have written an autobiography is already to have made yourself a monster … Why is it so exciting to say, now that everyone knows it anyway, ‘I was born … I was born … I was born’? ‘I pooped in my pants, I was betrayed, I made straight A’s.’
The years since this was published have seen the test of Howells’ notion: that there is an intrinsic value to an “obscure or humble” person writing a totally frank account of his or her life. What Howells could not have foreseen was how often—whether it was Kathryn Harrison and her father; or Joyce Maynard and her old, weird boyfriend (in her second memoir); or Elizabeth Wurtzel and her drugs; Michael Ryan and his dog; Augusten Burroughs and his foster family; or James Frey and his variegated mishegas—the humbling would have come by means of mental illness, substances, or abuse. So, in addition to echoing Gass on memoirists’ mean, narcissistic motives, critics have ripped them for unseemliness and betrayal.
Thus James Atlas in 1996: “Why this pull toward the anatomy of self? In part, it reflects a phenomenon pervasive in our culture—people confessing in public to an audience of voyeurs. In an era when ‘Oprah’ reigns supreme and 12-step programs have been adopted as the new mantra, it’s perhaps only natural for literary confession to join the parade. We live in a time when the very notion of privacy, of a zone beyond the reach of public probing, has become an alien concept.”
Thus Daphne Merkin in 1998: “Ours is a culture addicted to exposure, to ‘outing’ ourselves and others.”
And thus Michiko Kakutani, in the midst of last year’s great Frey dust-up: The “memoir of crisis” is a “genre that has produced a handful of genuinely moving accounts of people struggling with illness and personal disaster but many more ridiculously exhibitionistic monologues that like to use the word ‘survivor’ (a word once reserved for individuals who had lived through wars or famines or the Holocaust) to describe people coping with weight problems or bad credit.”
The points are made and remade, and yet the memoirs keep coming. They seem to satisfy a need, in readers as well as writers. Maybe the admirable Benvenuto Cellini had it right. Let a billion memoirs bloom!