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Memoir: A History

Read this Web-Exclusive Book Review by Evelyn Renold.

In an author's note at the start of her new memoir, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession, Julie Powell announces that what she has written is "faithful to my heart, but occasionally fuzzy in the odd physical detail... Other participants in the events recounted… undoubtedly remember things differently; from them and from the reader, I ask for… patience and understanding."

Given the recent national uproar over memoir writers with SMS (Selective Memory Syndrome), you can see why Powell (of Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously fame) would issue a disclaimer. The kerfuffle peaked in 2006, when disclosed that whole chunks of James Frey's rough-and-tumble "memoir," A Million Little Pieces, had been fabricated. Oprah Winfrey, who had selected Frey's work for her televised book club, invited the author on her show—and eviscerated him on-camera.

As Ben Yagoda notes in his illuminating if occasionally pedantic Memoir: A History, Frey-style suspicions quickly tainted other writers and titles. Among them was Love and Consequences by one Margaret B. Jones, who had passed herself off as a half-white, half-Native American girl living in an African-American foster home and delivering drugs for a gang in South Central L.A. As it turned out, the entire tale had been made up by an affluent 33-year-old white woman named Margaret Seltzer.

Seltzer belongs in a special pantheon of all-out impostors, right up (or down) there with Clifford Irving, who in 1969 created, out of whole cloth, an "autobiography" of billionaire Howard Hughes—and served 17 months in a federal prison for the misdeed. Such blatant fakery is easy to condemn. But as Yagoda suggests, even the best-intentioned memoirists may traffic more in Colbertian "truthiness" than truth.

You can blame that in part on what Sigmund Freud identified as the capriciousness of memory. Later psychologists, Yagoda points out, went even further, establishing memory as "contaminated not merely by gaps, but by distortions and fabrications that inevitably and blamelessly creep into it."

Memoir: A History begins with a nod to the current vogue for memoir, which the author chalks up to modern "narcissism[,] less concern for privacy, a strong interest in victimhood and a therapeutic culture." The result, according to Yagoda, has been a virtual eclipse of the novel.

Faithful to his book's title, Yagoda steers us from the earliest autobiography—quite likely the fifth-century Confessions of Saint Augustine—to such modern exemplars as This Boy's Life (1989) by Tobias Wolff, The Liar's Club: A Memoir (1995) by Mary Karr, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) by Dave Eggers.

Some of his most compelling material along the way spotlights the intersection of memoir and novel. Daniel Defoe, recognizing that "human beings respond powerfully to narratives that are (or make credible claims to be) true," published novels written as if they were autobiographies—notably Robinson Crusoe in 1718 and Moll Flanders in 1722. Later novelists—from James Joyce to Sylvia Plath—would turn "the stuff of their lives into fiction," mostly because it was unacceptable for them to tell their stories any other way.

Then, in the mid- to late 1960s, "the autobiography—like so many other things in American life—broke loose," Yagoda writes. Led by the autobiographies of such prominent African Americans as Dick Gregory and Malcolm X, the new memoir was grittier and more realistic, and it often used "supercharged" language. Plath's fictionalized novel The Bell Jar was published in 1963; thirty years later, Girl, Interrupted "would tell the same story of female adolescent mental illness" in memoir form, using author Susanna Kaysen's real name and her actual case records. Full disclosure came to be not just accepted but expected.

Like a literary anthropologist, Yagoda devotes a good deal of energy to cataloguing and categorizing the various memoir forms. Among those he deconstructs are the spiritual memoir, the slave memoir, the captivity memoir, the disability memoir, the celebrity memoir, and the addiction memoir. Also featured is "shtick lit," in which writers tackle "an unusual project with the express purpose of writing about it." (Think any book subtitled "One Man's Quest to…" or, going back to 1960, John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me.) Yagoda forges some intriguing links in the course of this exercise, but the extensive labeling has a numbing effect.

Still, Memoir: A History abounds with savory tidbits such as these:

* Jimmy Carter rivals both Maya Angelou and Shirley MacLaine for sheer fecundity—the trio has published 24 memoirs among them. (MacLaine wrote nine, Carter eight, Angelou seven.)

* In 1825, English courtesan Harriette Wilson charged her clients 200 pounds each to exclude their names from her memoir. Only the Duke of Wellington refused to pay, famously telling her, "Publish and be damned."

* Mark Twain chose to have his memoirs published posthumously because, he insisted, that was the only way to be truthful.

* Perhaps the first "behind-the-scenes celebrity-underling narrative" was written by Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker—and confidante—Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley.

* In her 1973 memoir Pentimento: A Book of Portraits, playwright Lillian Hellman apparently invented a woman she called Julia; their ostensible friendship became the basis for the movie Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave.

* James Frey originally wrote A Million Little Pieces as a novel. Finding no buyers, he repackaged it as a "memoir"—with the disastrous results detailed above.

Conspicuous by its absence here is any reference to Yagoda's own personal foray into memoir-writing. A journalism professor and the author of two books on writing, he also helped write All in a Lifetime, the 1987 autobiography of impish sexologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. How entertaining it might have been to read about their collaboration—and how instructive to learn how Yagoda himself handled the "moral ambiguities" that hover over the modern memoir.

Evelyn Renold, a writer and editor in New York City, was the executive editor of Lear's magazine and the Senior Deputy Editor at Good Housekeeping. She previously reviewed Ken Auletta's Googled: The End of the World as We Know It for AARP The Magazine Online.

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