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MemoirReview - Memoir
A History
by Ben Yagoda
Riverhead, 2009
Review by Joshua Gidding, Ph.D.,
Mar 9th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 10)

The title of this book is somewhat misleading; it aims at a history of false memoirs as well as true ones.  Moreover, the author can't seem to decide which history he is telling, or how to integrate both into a coherent history of the memoir as a literary form.  The approach is one of compilation rather than interpretation, long on facts but short on meaning, and the result is disappointing.  Ben Yagoda, a widely published journalist and professor of journalism, says he has spent "several years thinking and reading about the standard of truth in memoir", but the book doesn't read that way.  It's more of a hodge-podge of lists and summaries, sometimes interesting and amusing, but in the end unsatisfying.  A sentence in the "Acknowledgments" is telling: "This book was dreamed up by Geoffrey Kloske of Riverhead Books."  It shows.  The book reads more like an assignment dutifully carried out than the labor of love that characterized Yagoda's well-researched and always engaging earlier history, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made.  Indeed, the book on memoir seems to contain some overflow from the New Yorker book -- but none of its charm or cultural importance.  The author might have done better to follow his own dreams, rather than his editor's.

It's too bad, because there are parts that are quite interesting, such as the sections on slave narratives (both true and false), Grant's memoirs (he was diagnosed with throat cancer while writing them, and died five days after delivering the manuscript of the second volume), and the influence of Defoe on both the novel (a familiar story) and autobiography (less so).  We are introduced to the Indian imposter who called himself "Chief Buffalo Long Lance".  The son of former slaves, Sylvester Long ran away from home at 13 to join a Wild West show, and later was the great Olympian Jim Thorpe's classmate at the Carlisle Indian School.  After fighting in the Canadian in World War I and then working as a reporter in Calgary and Winnipeg, Long invented a past for himself as a Blackfoot Indian, including buffalo hunts and a tour with Buffalo Bill.  The first edition of Long's 1928 "autobiography" sold out, and was later translated into Dutch and German.  As "himself", Chief Buffalo Long Lance starred in a 1930 anthropological docu-drama titled "The Silent Enemy".  But Long's film debut was also his swan-song.  His co-star happened to be Chief Chauncey Yellow Robe, Sitting Bull's grandnephew, who exposed the fraud to the film's producers, and the following year Long shot himself in the head.

As the narratives of Chief Buffalo Long Lance and other colorful but spurious memoirists suggest, what makes the best story is not the same thing as the truth -- a truism that Yagoda nevertheless explores to good effect in the strongest chapter of the book, "Truth, Memory and Autobiography", which elucidates the conflicts between the capabilities of memory and the demands of narrative.  Successful narrative often requires the distortion of events, and research in the science of memory has discovered that patterns and situations are more important than facts.  Nietzsche was right again, as the apt epigraph to the chapter demonstrates: "'I have done that,' says my memory.  'I cannot have done that,' says my pride, and remains intractable.  Eventually -- memory yields."  (Unattributed by Yagoda, but it's Epigram #68 from Beyond Good and Evil.)  Memory "is itself a creative writer," Yagoda says, "cobbling together 'actual' memories, beliefs about the world, cues from a variety of sources, and memories of previous memories to plausibly imagine what might have been, and then, in a master stroke, packaging this scenario to the mind as the real one."  In the words of psychologist C.R. Barclay, "our autobiographical memories are 'reconstructions aimed at preserving the essential integrity' of our sense of ourselves and our histories."  Near the end of the chapter, Yagoda sums it up nicely: "Once you begin to write the true story of your life in a form that anyone would possibly want to read, you start to make compromises with the truth." 

The story of those "compromises", and their theoretical underpinnings, are the most compelling part of the book, and might have been expanded and developed to make up the more coherent whole that is lacking here.  To paraphrase Samuel Johnson (who managed somehow to be both a lover of the truth and a great raconteur), had Yagoda written often thus, it had been vain to blame and useless to praise him.  Unfortunately, the style of his prose is sometimes as slapdash as the content is desultory, with such infelicities as "generally generic", "edited an edition", "from the get-go", "nifty new widgets", "No problem!", "zero changes", and the interjection, while telling the tragic story of Abelard's castration, "Ouch."  We learn that Quakers produced the most spiritual autobiographies of any Protestant denomination, but there is no effort to ascertain the possible reasons for this.  We are told that Benvenuto Cellini's is "the first autobiography that feels utterly modern", but what constitutes this feeling, or its modernity, remains unexplained.  Looking at the numbers -- which he likes to do -- Yagoda gives us various figures on copies sold and percentages of increase, and lists 31 "celebrities who have been quoted as claiming to have written their opus 'without a ghostwriter'".  Just why these statistics are important he doesn't say.  The result reads more like a digest than a sustained analysis, which is ironic for a book that claims to be a history. 

But from the outset, Yagoda seems to have a narrow understanding of what constitutes history.  "My main approach," he tells us on p. 3, "is not thematic, theoretical, generic, psychological, moral, or aesthetic, but historical" -- as if a truly historical approach could not include all of these categories (and more).  He is dismissive of the writing of recent cultural theorists like Lacan, Foucault, Derrida and Barthes, "in which the traditional idea of truth has no value, and indeed is pretty much a bourgeois plot against the people."  While I am sympathetic to Yagoda's impatience with the far-from-perspicuous writing of Lacan and Derrida, this is hardly an adequate characterization of their work.  One thinks here of Coleridge's remark, in his own intellectual autobiography (the Biographia Literaria): "Until you understand a writer's ignorance, presume yourself ignorant of his understanding."  But there is not much time for understanding here; the author seems more interested in summarizing and compiling than interpreting.  It's a disappointing performance from a writer who knows and has done better.  The real history of memoir -- both true and fabricated -- remains to be written.

 

© 2010 Joshua Gidding

 

Joshua Gidding, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English, Dowling College, Long Island


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