Jean Jacques Rousseau
One of the great pleasures of teaching is that it forces you to learn your subject very well indeed. I’m currently getting ready to teach a course called “The Acquired Wisdom Book Club: Memoirs of Aging.” Doesn’t sound like a box-office hit in the age of tweets and tumblr, but I’m told the break-even number have signed up and the course is a go. Thank heavens for Baby Boomers and their self-awareness.
I’ve read a lot of memoirs, autobiographies, personal essays, collected letters, and autobiographical novels in my life, but this is the first time I’ve studied the memoir form as a genre. Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History
and Thomas Mallon’s A Book of One’s Own
(on journals and diaries) are two delightful sources.
Do you know, for instance, what the difference is between an autobiography and a memoir? Nowadays these words are used pretty much interchangeably, but once a memoir referred to an account of a portion of a life and an autobiography dealt with the whole thing. Another distinction that has faded is that a memoir once focused on other people while an autobiography was all about the self. A.E Hotchner’s Ernest Hemingway: A Personal Memoir (1966) has a little Hotchner and a lot of Hemingway in it. By contrast, Artie Shaw’s intriguing The Trouble with Cinderella (1952) is a classic autobiography. Artie is obsessed with how Artie got to be Artie.
The word memoir comes down to us from the Latin memoria, meaning memory or reminiscence, through the Anglo-French memorie in the mid-1500s, meaning “a note, memorandum, something written to be kept in mind,” to the first English usage of memoir in the 1670s, meaning a person’s written account of his life.
According to Google Labs’ amusing Ngram Viewer
, which charts word usage in English books from 1800 onward, memoir
was a much more popular word until about 1919, when autobiography
passed it and became the dominant term.
Two Kinds of Truth
There are two waggish definitions of memoir I like. “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life,” Gore Vidal wrote in his own 1995 memoir Palimpsest, “while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.”
But Will Rogers sees it differently: “Memoir means when you put down the good things you ought to have done and leave out the bad ones you did do.”
Vidal and Rogers point up a key issue for memoirs – the awkward matter of truth. Memoirists span the universe on this one. Some make a real effort to be accurate, while others would say that the truth, such as it is, is created in the writing – that how they tell their stories offers a kind of truth in itself, whether or not this coincides with such facts as can be discovered.
Confessions – Spiritual and Otherwise
It is generally agreed the author of the first memoir/autobiography was the Catholic theologian who became St. Augustine and who lived near the tail end of the Roman Empire in what is now Algeria at the turn of the fifth century. In his Confessions
Augustine, who eventually became the bishop of Hippo, details the many sins of his youth in a Tom Sawyerish, bad-boy-stealing-apples-way. The climax comes with his reading of St. Paul and subsequent conversion to orthodox Christianity and a life of chastity.
Augustine also established a fundamental convention of the genre – the rationale, the point up front where the author explains why he’s writing his story and why it’s worth reading. Here’s Augustine on the roots of his writing (remember he’s a theologian so he doesn’t hesitate to address the Lord directly):
Narrow is the mansion of my soul; enlarge Thou it, that Thou mayest enter in. It is ruinous; repair Thou it. It has that within which must offend Thine eyes; I confess and know it. But who shall cleanse it? or to whom should I cry, save Thee? Lord, cleanse me from my secret faults, and spare Thy servant from the power of the enemy. I believe, and therefore do I speak. Lord, Thou knowest. Have I not confessed against myself my transgressions unto Thee, and Thou, my God, hast forgiven the iniquity of my heart? I contend not in judgment with Thee, who art the truth; I fear to deceive myself; lest mine iniquity lie unto itself.
“I believe, and therefore do I speak.” That’s the nub of it for memoirists ever since, be they spiritual or otherwise.
One of the best rationales ever belongs to Richard Norwood, an English Puritan, who in 1640 introduced his spiritual autobiography with the immortal sentence: “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners of whom I am chief.” The genre got a boost with the rise of the Puritans in England in the 1600s because each individual was expected to keep close track of his or her spiritual state. The masterpiece of the genre in that era is John Bunyan’s nicely titled Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, or The Brief Relation of the Exceeding Mercy of God in Christ to his Poor Servant John Bunyan (1666).
The Novel Connection
The Puritan spiritual autobiography had a heavy influence on the English novel in its early years. When Daniel Defoe, probably the first Englishman to make his living by writing, was cranking out voluminous prose in the early 1700s, there was not such a clear distinction as we have nowadays between fiction and nonfiction. Defoe’s first big hit Robinson Crusoe (1719) purports to be the true first-person account by Crusoe of his adventures while marooned on a South Sea island. Defoe weathered criticism that Crusoe was a hoax – that is, made up – and continued to write a series of novelistic autobiographies. A subsequent hit was his Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1722), the first-person story of a low-born woman’s up-and-down life in England and America.
It’s easy to see that the early English novelists – Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Smollett – are following the pathway set by Defoe in presenting their novels – Clarissa, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy – as a series of letters, a history, or an autobiography – all fiction in the guise of fact.
Meanwhile, in America the hit genre was Indian captivity narratives. These are the accounts of white settlers taken prisoner during Indian raids on frontier settlements who lived to escape and tell about their ordeals. The public seemed to have an inexhaustible appetite for the lurid details. The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, (1682) was a best-seller from its publication onward for well over a century. And, of course, the line of the captivity narrative leads directly from Mary Rowlandson to such contemporary versions as Patty Heart’s memoir of her time with the Symbionese Liberation Army, Every Secret Thing (1982), and the New York Times reporter David Rohde’s story of his seven months as a prisoner of the Taliban, A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides (2010).
The Good, the Bad, and the Guilt-Ridden
It was the shocking Frenchman Jean Jacques Rouuseau, however, who takes the prize for the first modern autobiography with his aptly titled Confessions
(1770). (The reference to Augustine is no coincidence; Rousseau’s is the secular humanist version of a spiritual life.) Rousseau wrote, “I will speak the truth, I will do so unreservedly; I will tell everything, the good, the bad, everything, in short.” And he meant it.
Modesty is probably not a virtue for a memoirist. Rousseau is certainly not afflicted with it. Here’s his opening:
I have entered upon a performance which is without example, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I mean to present my fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature; and this man shall be myself.
I know my heart, and have studied mankind; I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality, and whether Nature did wisely in breaking the mould with which she formed me, can only be determined after having read this work.
This quest for the unadulterated, warts-and-all truth of his unique existence sets the standard for revelations of every autobiographer since. Rousseau detailed the sources of his own sexual proclivities – common enough at the time but surprising to see in print – and he also pointed the finger at his own moral guilt. In particular, there’s an incident that he keeps coming back to: as a young man, he lied and had a servant girl dismissed for a petty crime, thus seeding a guilt that conditioned the rest of his life.
Rousseau seems an appropriate spot to draw the veil on memoirs for today. I’ll return to other varieties of modern memoirs in a future post.
Meanwhile, are there any memoirs/autobiographies you treasure?