A History

By Ben Yagoda

Riverhead Books. 291 pp. $25.95

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Reviewed by Helen Epstein

I was looking forward to reading a history of memoir. It's such a rich history, its roots tangled up with spiritual confession, genealogy, biography, family history, the personal essay.

Many different kinds of writers - poets, novelists, essayists, historians, journalists - have been attracted to the genre. So has a wide range of nonprofessional writers - including military men, courtesans, explorers, addicts, politicians, cooks, gamblers, movie stars, and jocks.

They have professed a variety of motives for their work: correcting the official history, leaving an ethical will, clearing their names, exacting revenge, effecting reconciliation or commemoration, sharing a recipe for success, leaving behind a document of witness.

If you believe that the memoir form is a scourge of modern times, riddled with fraud, narcissism, gimmickry, and opportunism, you are likely to enjoy this often flippant history of memoir.

If, however, you believe that memoir is a serious literary form, you may concur in my opinion that Memoir: A History reads like a survey-course text that undergraduates must endure - a catalog of names, dates, and titles an inch thick and a mile wide.

Ben Yagoda, a journalism professor at the University of Delaware, adopts a conversational, informative tone as he lays out the territory. He notes that the words memoir, memoirs, and autobiography have been used interchangeably to mean "a book understood by its author, its publisher, and its readers to be a factual account of the author's life." Since one author's criteria for memoir are another's for autobiography, Yagoda quotes both and wisely avoids getting bogged down in definitions.

Less wisely, he chooses an approach that is, he writes, "not thematic, theoretical, generic, psychological, moral, or aesthetic, but historical. . . . Pride of place goes to books that memorably or notably did a significant thing first and thus changed the way the genre was conceived."

Casting the widest possible net over the genre - as though one could write a history of the novel by putting Harlequin romances, mysteries, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, the marketing of fiction, and centuries of vanity publishing in one basket - he draws few distinctions between memoirs by professional, nonprofessional, or self-published writers or those packaged by agents or editors.

St. Augustine, Alan Greenspan, Maya Angelou, Rousseau, Gertrude Stein, O.J. Simpson, pet owners, former slaves, relatives of celebrities, survivors of adversity, and people who invented their experiences are all thrown into the same pot.

Yagoda's history covers 16 centuries in fewer than 300 pages. In three pages, he gives a nod to the fragments of Greek and Roman antecedents of autobiography and moves from Julius Caesar's military Commentaries and St. Augustine's spiritual Confessions to Peter Abelard's "misery memoir" of love and castration. A chapter later, we're reading about "the greatest memoir of all time," by Jean Jacques Rousseau, who in 1764 began writing his Confessions. Why is Rousseau's the greatest memoir of all time? Hard to say, since its four salient features, for Yagoda - a belief in total frankness and honesty, an emphasis on the inner life and emotions, significant attention to childhood and youth, and a recognition that mundane matters could be as earthshaking as a grand battle - are true of many memoirists before and after Rousseau.

Since he has chosen a chronological rather than thematic strategy that focuses on Western (largely Anglo-American) tradition, Yagoda shies away from exploring motives for writing or reading memoir or literary choices that authors made. He occasionally discusses how memoir has influenced the writing of fiction (starting with 18th-century writer Daniel Defoe), but not how it has influenced biography or history or even travel writing.

Sporadically, Yagoda makes reference to typology: "the captivity narrative, " for example, introducing relatively obscure American colonist memoirs such as The Sovereignty & Goodness of God, together, with Faithfulness of his Promises Displayed, published in 1682 by Massachusetts settler Mary Rowlandson, captured by Narragansett Indians: "On the tenth of February 1675 . . . [their] first coming was about sun-rising; hearing the noise of some guns, we looked out; several houses were burning, and the smoke ascending to heaven," Rowlandson writes. She then describes in a few sentences the fate of some of her neighbors. I would have liked more text here (as elsewhere), as well as more about who Rowlandson was, and why and for whom she believed she was writing. Yagoda, relying heavily on secondary sources, does not say. He's content to note that subsequent "captivity memoirs" include slave narratives, hostage narratives, and contemporary narratives of political prisoners all over the world, rather than probe an exemplar in depth and give the reader a taste of the memoir itself.

Throughout his history, Yagoda is admirably inclusive of work by women, including such celebrated writers as Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein. But he's in such a hurry, he's often reductive, and when he comes upon a significant historical development, like the development during the Renaissance of glass mirrors that made possible the self-portrait, he doesn't have time to explore its implications.

Did the mirror influence memoir? Did self-portraiture develop differently in the literary, visual, and performance arts? He offers little cultural or political or technological context.

The most intriguing parts of this book are quotes from established writers such as H.G. Wells, who contended: "As mankind 'matures,' as it becomes more possible to be frank in the scrutiny of the self and others and in the publication of one's findings, biography and autobiography will take the place of fiction for the investigation and discussion of character."

The result is an overview that names many memoirs, but offers few explanations of their popularity over many centuries and in many cultures. Although Yagoda refers to memoir hoaxes and frauds throughout the centuries, he offers few insights as to why a writer would labor to pass off his fiction as fact.

Memoir: A History manages to be exhaustive while leaving out the passionate heart of the genre.

It manages to make memoir boring.