Weinrebe Lecture: Richard Holmes, ‘The Biographer’s Other I’ on 18 February 2014

Nanette here for you with a delayed summary from Richard Holmes’ lecture from Tuesday 18th February. Full disclosure: I was unable to attend this lecture and have written this summary by listening to the unedited podcast of the event which will soon be edited and available on our Wolfson College Podcasts page  with the other Weinrebe lectures. If you missed the event I hope this summary can tide you over until you can listen to the podcast (and you should, because Richard Holmes has a lovely voice!).

Hermione Lee introduced Richard Holmes as ‘at once one of the most influential and distinguished of our biographers and one of the most innovative and pioneering’. And what did one of the most eminent biographers in the world do to begin his lecture? In a simple and humble way, he put our interest in life-writing (and human lives) utterly in perspective. Commencing his lecture with what he called a ‘litany,’ titled ‘Some Average Lifespans,’ he asked us to think of how precious a single human life is and also at once how insignificant it is.  His ‘litany’ of lifespans began by listing the Coriscan pine tree with a lifespan of three hundred years, then cited the Galapagos tortoise at one hundred and ninety years, then European homo sapiens at 70 years (20 years asleep ‘in brackets’), and on down through various species to the mayfly whose lifespan consists of a single day.

With this opening reminder of our place among the many species on our planet, Holmes then took us back through his own past in the first section of his lecture, which he titled, ‘Time and Identity’. He recalled his travels as an aspiring young writer, joking that the occupation of ‘writer’ in his passport was often misread as ‘waiter’. Drawing on the misinterpretation as a metaphor for what the biographer does, Holmes said writing a biography is in a sense ‘always waiting at someone else’s table’.

Moving from this apt comparison to the subject of the title of the lecture, ‘The Biographer’s Other I’, Holmes read from the opening of his early narrative on biography and travel, Footsteps (1985). He noted that even in this early book he was employing two forms of narrative: an immersive past tense narrative that recounted events with a feeling of immediacy, alternated with a kind of reflective present tense that created a distance between the past and the current moment, illustrated in the sentence, ‘I was eighteen’. So, as Holmes explained, the biographer’s other ‘I’ is actually a means for observing one’s subject while immersing oneself in the subject’s life and times. These various viewpoints stress that the bridge to the past is broken, subjective, and that biography needs to cross the bridge by other methods.

Upon reflecting on the ways in which a biographer might access the past, through travelling the paths of his subject, taking photographs of these places and attempting to make these connections across time, Holmes asked himself why does one choose particular biographical subjects? He realised that all of his subjects represented to him the principle of hope. Stevenson, Shelley, Coleridge, and the Age of Wonder all presented moments of overcoming challenges. The individuals were driven to change their lives and the Age of Wonder represented the hope that science has brought to us.

The second part of Holmes talk addressed the ‘subjectivity’ that is present in every biography. Holmes argued subjectivity has always been a great strength in biography, taking Boswell’s Life of Johnson as an example where Boswell’s dialogue and subjectivity are the key devices to opening up Johnson’s biography. Holmes pointed out other instances in which the biographical ‘I’ was a subjective and often sympathetic one. Drawing on an example from Johnson’s own Life of Richard Savage (1744) Holmes argued Johnson uses the rhetorical figure ironic chiasmus, or a reversal of terms, to describe Savage, but in doing so gives himself away. Holmes also mentioned Lytton Strachey’s portrait of Florence Nightingale from Eminent Victorians (1918) in which Strachey’s biographical ‘I’ takes over Nightingale’s voice, putting himself in the room with her, but giving her his own vehement language to describe the horrors of the hospital conditions. I think there is also an argument to be made here about this kind of projection of the biographical ‘I’ into the narrative as part of the modernist project of life-writing that the Bloomsbury group were interested in. If you’d like to read more about that, Laura Marcus delves with insight into Strachey’s biographical style in Auto/biographical Discourses (1994). Holmes’ final example of the biographical ‘I’ working with successful subjectivity was Wolfson’s own Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf (1996). Holmes mentioned both the opening and closing passages of the work as emblematic of effective and moving autobiographical interjections. Holmes quoted from the opening of the biography which itself quotes Virginia Woolf, ‘My God, how does one write a biography’ and from the final scene in which Lee allows herself to connect across time with the view Woolf would also have had: ‘My view overlays with, just touches, hers. The view, in fact, seems to have been written by Virginia Woolf. The lighthouse beam strikes round; the waves break on the shore.’

Holmes closed with a final thought on his concept of the ‘vertical footnote’ as an ideal place to put the ‘I’. It provides a way of including personal detail and allows the biographer to reach backwards and forwards within a chronological narrative without interrupting the pace of the main narrative.

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OCLW Lunch with James Hamilton: “Unrolling the Tapestry: Weaving Interrelated Lives in Books and Exhibitions” on 11 March

Matthew here, reporting on the final event of what proved to be an eventful Hilary Term 2014.  Over lunch on Tuesday, 11 March, the noted author, biographer, and curator James Hamilton gave a talk entitled ‘Unrolling the Tapestry: Weaving Interrelated Lives in Books and Exhibitions’.  Hamilton’s wide-ranging interests include art and science in nineteenth-century London, and he has written biographies of J.M.W. Turner and Michael Faraday as well as curated exhibits on Turner and Helen Frankenthaler.

His presentation moved fluidly between the personal/autobiographical and the historical/biographical, between individual lives and their relationships to the intellectuals and artists who shared their milieu.  He began with his own first encounters with visual art—he was drawn to pictures, he said, because they spoke without asking him to reply—and then discussed how that interest led to Turner, and in turn how his biography of Turner piqued his interest in Faraday.  As a biographer, he aimed to draw connections between these two lives, to weave them together.  Throughout his talk, Hamilton drew on the metaphor of weaving to show how a life becomes entangled with other lives and made a compelling case for a biographer’s interest in interconnection.

The metaphor of weaving in Hamilton’s title, both, as he noted when he began, includes both the sense of a finished product (a tapestry unrolling) and an unfinished process (weaving).  As Hamilton put it: a biographer follows the “thread” of a life.  On the one hand, then, a life yields up raw material for the biographer—thread for a tapestry.  On the other, though, a life is also complete: a finished picture of an individual.  The biographer’s fundamentally creative task is to shape a picture of the individual based on the finished life but nonetheless original.  In that vein, Hamilton voiced his belief that biographies need updating every generation or so, as aspects of a remarkable individual’s life take on new significance in light of contemporary events.

Hamilton took the metaphor of weaving one step further, to make a point about relationships and networks.  Turner, he points out, was not working in a hermetic environment: he was part of a vibrant cultural scene in London, made up of other artists, intellectuals, and scientists—like Michael Faraday.  These connections not only captivate the imagination, they are crucial to capture a complete picture of an individual’s life and a historical moment.  Hamilton said the name of the subject of his next book invariably comes up as he works on his current book.  So, after writing about Turner, Hamilton turned his attention to Faraday to uncover the threads running between Turner’s art and Faraday’s science.  Hamilton’s writing shows how an extraordinary artist and an exceptional scientist approached shared concerns in a shared cultural milieu.  He views his books, which examine artistic and scientific communities in London in the nineteenth century, as part of this process of weaving together lives to give a holistic portrait of an age.

Guest post: Jackie and Aristotle Onassis in ‘Pirates of the Aegean’

We are terribly excited to present to you the next edition in our series of guest posts. Here, the talented Oline Eaton (King’s College London) explores the implications of stereotypes in her work on biography. We look forward to hearing your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below!

Pirates of the Aegean

From http://goo.gl/Ph6UkE

Booker, Bob & George Foster – Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts album cover, 1968 (Image from http://goo.gl/Ph6UkE)

Halfway through the writing (which is far too simple a word as it’s more like an exorcism) of the third chapter of my biography of Jackie Onassis, I was surprised to see the emergence of a piratical theme. Images of rubies, treasures, pilfering, and plunderers studded the text, along with an embarrassment of similes involving semi-precious gems.

The imagery was vivid and the story read well, almost too well, which is why it struck me as off.

These pages covered the early months of Jackie’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, quiet months wherein she was often alone whilst Onassis, working to close a business deal, commuted to Athens. Not the stuff of high drama, so it was odd that the prose had the momentum of a swashbuckler.

Re-reading these pages, I realized that, though Onassis emerged from them as a colorful and memorable character, it was a character steeped in stereotypes.

While it was tempting to dismiss this as the fault of lazy writing and re-write the whole thing, as I’m doing a PhD that explores how we can re-tell Jackie’s story by engaging with the ways it has been told in the past, that wasn’t an option. And so I examined the story telling.

Jackie’s is a story with which I’m now intimately familiar. Why, then, was I telling this particular part of it in this particular way? There had to be a reason.

There was. I’d fallen back on this portrayal because, historically, it is how Aristotle Onassis has been depicted: as a pirate.

This image took root early. In 1954, two years before he and Jackie met, the Peruvian press reportedly called him ‘a whaling pirate.’ In 1963, when she was planning to vacation on Onassis’s yacht, we’re told JFK warned Jackie— in dialogue more evocative of a made-for-TV movie than real life— of the shipping tycoon’s pernicious ways. ‘Onassis is a pirate,’ John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, allegedly cautioned his wife. ‘That’s not just a turn of phrase. He is a real pirate.’

A real pirate! The image, presumably, stemmed from Onassis’s business success, to which—in America, at least—the stink of ill-gotten gains would always cling. Often, he would be identified as ‘The Greek Tycoon’, with the emphasis on his Greek-ness (an inaccuracy as he was born in Turkey) implying that Onassis’s success was the result of foreign and, therefore, not entirely legit tactics.

Pirates are, at times, romanticized, but make no mistake, his was a decidedly un-sexy business. In the press, the man was always found wanting: he was too short, too Greek, too rich, too ugly. In October 1968, the Italian publication L’Espresso celebrated his marriage to the former Mrs. Kennedy— a woman still, five years after her husband’s death, receiving letters addressed simply to ‘Lady Kennedy, USA’— by pronouncing the happy bride-groom a ‘grizzled satrap, with his liver-colored skin, thick hair, fleshy nose, the wide horsey grin, who buys an island and then has it removed from all the maps to prevent the landing of castaways.’

It’s unclear whether the writer found Onassis’s purchase of the island or his cartographical interference more repellent, but this screed from Italy captures the general vibe in America then. As Jackie’s sister, Lee Radziwill, observed shortly after the nuptials: ‘If my sister’s new husband had been blond, young, rich, and Anglo-Saxon, most Americans would have been much happier.’

Jackie was a national treasure and Onassis was Blackbeard come to plunder America’s queen.

Not surprisingly, this characterization of Onassis leeched into the biographies. In Kitty Kelley’s Jackie Oh! (1978), he is ‘an international buccaneer with a sixth grade education,’ whilst Lee Guthrie’s Jackie: The Price of the Pedestal (1978) casts him as ‘a modern pirate, a Mediterranean womanizer, social climber, and shipping tycoon who also happened to be one of the richest men in the world.’

http://foto.libero.it/alcyon57/foto/tuttelefoto/aristotele-onassis

Aristotle Onassis, Brazil, 1967 (Image from http://foto.libero.it/alcyon57/foto/tuttelefoto/aristotele-onassis)

Sarah Bradford’s America’s Queen (2000) seemed to auger a more nuanced portrayal when she introduced him in her text as an Odysseus figure, a comparison Onassis himself was evidently wont to make. Unfortunately, when her narrative arrived at the marriage to Jackie, Bradford reverted to the old trope, flatly declaring, ‘Onassis was a pirate,’ and, a few lines later, again referencing ‘Onassis’s piratical image and jet-set baggage.’

As Jackie’s biographer, it’s tempting to give into this notion of Onassis as pirate—his biographical baggage, if you will—not because it makes for easy story telling, but because it aligns so well with my sense of who Jackie might have been.

She liked calculated risks and adventure. She was, repeatedly, attracted to successful men of dubious repute and questionable character. Upon her death in 1994, George Plimpton wrote: ‘I’ve always identified Jackie with pirates […] Her father looked like a pirate. She married a pirate, Ari Onassis.’

In her story, the image of Onassis as a pirate makes sense. Which is likely why it’s been so frequently used.

But can we justify its continued use? Just as it’s an injustice to Jackie to impose Freudian readings on her remarriage and say she only married Onassis because he reminded her of ‘Black Jack’ Bouvier, so it seems equally unethical to reduce Onassis’s complex self to piratical imagery. What goes missing in such limited portrayals? In the forty years wherein Onassis has been nothing but a pirate, what aspects of his character have been obscured? What have we lost?

Never mind that Elizabeth Taylor called him ‘charming, kind, and considerate,’ an acquaintance declared him ‘a moral leper’ and a business associate said ‘He is black in his heart!’ I daren’t think he was all sweetness and light, but was he all bad? By and large, the biographical portrayals would suggest so, a circumstance for which the piracy imagery is, in huge part, to blame.

He’s always a tycoon, always a pirate, always misleadingly identified as Greek. And yet, how irresponsible and inhumane to suggest that’s the full extent of who he might have been.

———

Oline Eaton is a doctoral student at King’s College London. Her current work- a mix of theoretical and practical interrogations of biography- uses the Greek life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as a case study to experiment with a gossip-based, adventure-driven, reader-directed form of life narrative.

www.findingjackie.com

———

The OCLW blog is accepting guest submissions! If you would like to submit a guest post, please click here for details.

Call for submissions for our new series of guest posts. First up: Paul Murphy on turning points

Nanette here with some exciting news! The OCLW publicity team would like to announce a new series of life-writing guest posts and book reviews, for which we are now accepting submissions. Our guidelines are as follows:

  • Style: a critical style (not necessarily academic), which might include book reviews and explorations of research questions around broader themes within life-writing. We are not opposed to you having fun with your topic and an up-beat humorous tone appropriate to a blog would also be welcome.
  • Word limit: approximately 500-1000 words
  • About you: a brief intro, a link to your own blog/website
  • NB: We reserve the right to accept or reject submissions and we will not submit feedback
  • Updated: Send submissions to the publicity team in an email titled ‘Guest Blog Post Submission’ to our new email address: oclw(at)wolfson.ox.ac.uk
  • We look forward to hearing from you!

To begin, below we have some reflections from Paul Murphy on what it is like to write a biography about a literary hero, and on exploring the feeling of having that hero fall in one’s esteem.

——

I had never been much interested in biography until life intervened. Redundancy. Divorce. Bereavement. I then did feel a need to seek out truths, journey into the past, find myself through others.

I have just completed a book* about Laurie Lee. The 1930s, before, during and after the Spanish Civil War, changed him forever. I first read his memoir As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning as an adolescent.

It tells the tale of a walk made through Spain in 1935 and into the eye of a perfect storm of a civil war. In April 2012 I set out to retrace his journey, to better understand a man who had always been a hero. During the journey, I realized I was also looking for myself, and grieving for a father who had died years before. I came to understand that heroes can have feet of clay and that writers and fathers often lie. 

I recently attended the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing Weinrebe Lectures. It was fascinating to listen to Blake Morrison and Richard Holmes discussing the many forms that the “I” can take in Biography: both writers having influenced my book. Despite protests from university tutors and publishers, I had chosen to write my life of Lee in the only way I felt I could, through the prism of my own life experience and my Spanish journey. I open my book by going to a point high above the place where Lee first set foot in Spain and describe his arrival as if it were happening before my very eyes. I then suggest that he looks up at me and our eyes engage.

It is important for me to feel a connection with my biography subject, even if it is a fictional one. It is a two-way process. Alain De Botton wrote of Proust:  ‘A genuine homage to Proust would be to look at our world through his eyes, not look at his world through our eyes’.

I cannot change Lee through my journey but he has changed me. I need to share a space with my subject even if I cannot redeem the time difference in occupying such a space. The occupying of the same physical space seems to sharpen the senses.

The turning point in my book occurs in Valdepenas. Lee describes it as an oasis of gentility in a harsh desert. I found it run-down and depressing but it is what happened next in Lee’s account that seemed to hit me hard.

Lee had written in his memoir of an encounter with an under-age prostitute in a brothel in this town run by the girl’s grandfather:

The girl’s wandering finger, tipped with precocious cunning, seemed the only thing left in the world, and moved absently about me, loosening knots in my flesh, then tying them up again.

When I first read this passage, I got caught up in the beautiful prose. I  missed what the episode was telling me about Lee as a person.

I had stopped at an old bodega in the town. A perfect place, I imagined, for the siting of a 1930s brothel to sate male needs with a steady supply of young female grape pickers on tap. I rewrote the scene:

He coughs, spits, shuffles across on his board, strong gnarled wrists propelling him along, reaches up high, slips the latch and lets the customers in. Encarnacion lies with Julio, mute but not unresponsive, examining her hands and feet, scratched by the rough vine roots. Round and round goes the wine press mangle, squeezing, crushing, draining the skin, till finally leaving it lifeless, limp, spent.

She goes to Lorenzo, the English boy. It is quick. She likes him for that.

The candle has burned to the stub, the customers have gone, she waits for the scrape on the ground, the pumping of thin, wiry wrists. She waits for him to come for her as she knows he will.

I felt for the first time that I was judging Lee rather than observing him. I had gone from being a detached member of the audience to an active member of the players on stage. It did not feel good.

My journey was motivated by personal loss and grief but driven also by a strong emotional connection and empathy with Lee. Richard Holmes, a great believer of placing the self centre-stage when tracking heroes, says of those whose footsteps we follow in, ‘If you are not in love with them you will not follow them-not very far anyway.’

As a writer, attempting a first biography, I see now that this turning point was critical to my book becoming biography. The ‘girl’s wandering finger’ had shaken me out of a sense of sentimentality that had enveloped me over the years;I saw Lee for the first time as a man of imperfections, a flawed specimen. I had reached a biographical point of no return, moving away from a pre-biographic state to a place from which I could realistically endeavour to identify Hermione Lee’s ‘vivid sense of the person’. In the words of Richard Holmes I had arrived at ‘the moment of personal disillusion, the moment of impersonal, objective re-creation’. 

I have created a very personal portrait of Lee and accept the possible charge of unreliable narrator. Yet is not most biography the sum product of subjective third party narration? Blake Morrison confessed that he almost called his seminal book As If, on the James Bulger 1993 murder case, The Worst Thing I Ever Did. In an attempt to bring perspective to the actions of the perpetrators, he had taken us into the complex mind of an average young heterosexual boy’s mind, his own. He was charged with the sin of making the story about himself.

I have taken a risk too, in placing myself at the centre of my narrative alongside Lee, and have trusted in my ability to speak to, and perhaps for, a generation of smitten Lee followers.

 

Works Cited:

  • Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer.
  • Hermione Lee, Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing
  • Alain De Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life. 

*As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee. Publication date June 14 www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk

Laurie Lee Centenary www.laurielee.org

Paul Murphy Blog: www.thelittlesummerofthequince.wordpress.com

OCLW lecture by Paul Strohm: ‘Was there Life-Writing in the Middle Ages?’ on 6th March 2014

Hello there, life-writers, it’s Nanette again with a report on Paul Strohm’s lecture last week. To answer the question in the title of his lecture, Paul Strohm began with a qualified ‘yes’. He introduced us to the idea that some of the more obvious locations for life-writing in the Middle Ages are not necessarily the most productive. The early biographies tend to be classically inspired, accentuating respect for prior models and decorum over factual accuracy of the individual at hand. There was a strong desire that the biography be exemplary, with the didactic purpose of providing an example or model for its readers. Strohm called out Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne as a biography that emphasises the dignity of the monarch over the more humanizing details. Hagiography, or the lives of saints, is another specifically exemplary genre of narrative that follows very particular conventions of the life of the saint. Hagiography establishes each saint’s position in the community of saints: the life and passion of the saint, the life and miracles of the saint, the trials of the person on their way to sainthood. Eventually the lives of saints became free-standing vernacular narratives, but, Strohm argued, there remained a frame of expectations and the problem of generic decorum on medieval hagiographical and biographical writing that influenced what might be called the factual accuracy of the works.

The places to look, then, Strohm pointed out, are not hagiography or biography, but other genres in medieval culture. Documents of practice, record keeping about promotions, rank, payment stubs all offer titbits of life narratives. Historians may look at these documents as kernels of evidence, but they are still texts and objects which can be analysed in a literary way. Isolated facts can become narrative, and Strohm gave the example that in writing his biography of Chaucer he learned from documents like these that Chaucer was a customs officer on the waterfront, and was given a jug of wine daily on a Royal grant with the expectation that he would show up to work daily. These facts helped him to form a picture of Chaucer’s life: like many writers, he held down a day job and thus must have done his writing on his off hours.

Legal documents may present opportunities to find details and life narratives. Strohm told us the Latin ‘narratio’ (which only entered vernacular in the 16th century) belongs to the legal profession, as part of the art of persuasion in pleading a case. Medieval case histories are an interesting place to look for narrative, or for specific life details that could be more likely to be true than not. Strohm covered a few examples of these historical cases involving prostitution and deception. The philosophical treatise is another genre where life details and bits of narrative may be slipped in, as is the case with Thomas Usk’s Testment of Love. More relevantly to the literature-specialists and literary biographers, Strohm also argued that there were some life facts to be found in the literary work of John Gower, Robert Greene and Chaucer, providing Strohm with some fodder for his Chaucer biography. The problem with the literary ‘I’ in these works is that it is an amalgam of life and art, crossing ‘the bounds of making and making-up’. But if elements of a life represented to us in a literary work can also be corroborated by legal documents, it would be possible to construct a plausible narrative from the combination. Strohm’s thoughts here about the literary ‘I’ struck me as one of the best articulations of the problem readers encounter with literary memoir or any category of autobiographical fiction. One of the easiest traps a reader can fall into is that of assuming the literary ‘I’ equates with a personal, biographical ‘I’. But if we read carefully, we may find elements of factual ‘truth’ and certainly kinds of emotional, human truths in these literary representations of authors.

The questions and answer section covered a variety of topics from the assertion that there were no diaries per se in medieval England and that it would be extremely unusual to see a medieval biography that didn’t emphasise continuity of the subject’s life with past lives. An audience member raised the point that in Italy, however, things were different. Dante falls between the tendency towards writing within a tradition and expressing individuality with the lyric ‘I’. Strohm agreed, joking that there was probably a hundred year lag between medieval England and Italy. Another question raised the idea of changing notions of conscience, moving from a sense of communal conscience to individual conscience. Strohm replied that until the 14th century, the phrase ‘my conscience’ is never used in English and the word has a capital ‘C’, meaning it is common to all. From the 16th century, you get a sense of distinctive individual conscience. This tied in with another audience comment about the practice and influence of confession on life narrative, which Strohm agreed could be considered a generative form for life narrative as it would be created or shaped for the confessional. Strohm concluded by reiterating his argument that medieval writers often opened up with less self-consciousness about their lives when they were writing in alternative genres (which is why the legal framework becomes revelatory).

OCLW lecture by Tom Couser: ‘The Work of Memoir, or Why Memoir Matters’ on 4th March 2014

Nanette here with a report for you on Tom Couser’s lecture last week, which surveyed the recent history of memoir and the implications of the genre in our culture. This was our second lecture on the memoir form at OCLW this term (see here for Blake Morrison’s perspective on the genre); and I think we learned very different things about memoir as a genre. It was great to have an American perspective on memoir’s place in literature and culture as a form that celebrates identity. Couser opened his lecture by describing the cover design of his book, Memoir: An Introduction (Oxford, 2012). The cover represents a fingerprint on a page divided by black and white blocks of colour. It was, he explained, a visual key to understanding memoir: ‘identity (the fingerprint) in black and white’. Couser’s argument, as indicated by his title, was that memoir does matter, but that it matters more collectively, as a genre, than individually.

Much of Couser’s talk explored the inclusiveness of memoir, and he emphasised that memoir is in fact the most democratic of prose forms: there has been a boom in the genre which reaches audiences and writers both high and low. The form encompasses both ‘somebody’ memoirs (those written by the already famous) and ‘nobody’ memoirs (who might become famous because of their memoir). Somewhere in between these two categories falls the ‘literary’ memoir, which might be written by a nobody or a somebody.

But the backlash to the twentieth century boom of the memoir industry (‘industry’ was not Couser’s word, but one that might be applicable) brought charges of narcissism from novelists. In Couser’s view some of the only other genres to be denounced in their entirety like memoir are pornography and rap music. Narcissism is not the only charge against memoir; it is also accused of inaccuracy (a theme that was later explored by the audience’s questions). From the mid twentieth-century memoir became so popular as a genre that at least initially it seemed there was little fact checking done by agents or publishers, discrediting the genre.

The egalitarian element of memoir has also been noted in early versions of the genre, particularly in the nineteenth century. Defining the category of ‘nobody’ memoirs had me thinking about Emily Dickinson’s famous lines, ‘I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody, too?’, arguably an early version of literary, lyric ‘nobody’ memoir. Dickinson’s poetic speaker shuns the appearance of being a ‘frog’-like ‘public’ somebody, while in nineteenth century New England, celebrities both literary and political were certainly trumpeting their names to admiring audiences. I think Dickinson speaks to some of our suspicion of celebrity memoirs in general, and certainly to the claim of narcissism. Tom Couser cited a review by William Dean Howells, an American author and a friend of Mark Twain’s, in which Howells called memoir ‘the most democratic province of the republic of letters’. While reiterating that memoir matters because it is democratizing, Couser pointed out that this is also why some disdain it. And yet, memoir is a threshold genre, a gateway to the literary, straddling the border between literary, non-literary and sub-literary. It is also a potentially literary form as part of the wider genre of life-writing, which Couser understands as a term that explains how much of our lives is caught up in telling our lives. To Couser, life-writing takes the form of, among other things, the scrapbook, celebrity gossip magazines, reality TV, email, social media networks and gossip.

Recalling that early versions of the novel form involved works of fiction that portrayed themselves as truthful narratives, such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Couser noted that the novel and the memoir developed symbiotically in the eighteenth century. Using first person narrative, diaries and epistolary forms, the classic early British novel didn’t so much imitate life as it imitated life-writing. Couser explained that across the Atlantic, early American life-writing appeared in the form of spiritual conversion narratives by Puritan writers, and later in slave-narratives, many beginning with the same five words: ‘I was born a slave’. Later versions of American memoir broached themes of immigration/assimilation, the civil rights movement, and memoirs on rights movements in general. Couser’s personal experience of the life-writing in the 1960’s was that he couldn’t think of another time when so many people were reading the same books. The experience of these populations has successively become part of the public record through the genre of memoir. Memoir has served as the threshold through which ordinary citizens make their claim for equal rights.

The question and answer section was lively and full of debate about the different ways we read memoirs, how much we can trust them, for their accuracy and truthfulness, as historical sources and as literary works. A historian argued that letters tend to be more accurate as records of historical events because they are written more recently than memoirs, which tend to look back with hindsight on events. Couser replied that all memory is inherently unreliable and that hindsight also brings unconscious or conscious justification of one’s actions. And letters do prove useful as evidence of a relationship or emotional life. Further questions continued to elaborate on this theme, reflecting on whether readers expect memoir to be true. Couser answered that readers do expect truthfulness, or they become angry and feel betrayed by a made-up memoir, particularly in the case of recovery narratives, where a reader has an emotional investment in the example of the author’s recovery.

And by email the discussion on this subject continued with audience member Jeremy Wilson’s thoughts:

“A historian questioned the merit of memoir compared to contemporary letters. I saw his point (as both a biographer and editor of letters) but don’t entirely agree. Letters – provided they are not “written for publication” – can give a valuable immediate account of, and reaction to, historical events. But they may be knee-jerk reaction rather than considered opinion, and they may be slanted to accommodate (at least) the opinions of the recipient.

In different memoir accounts (to avoid the plural “memoirs”) of the same historical event, you can get a selection of personal views that may give a far more accurate overall impression (Example? Maybe the assassination of President Kennedy?). Yes, there’ll always be some way-out contributions; but an intelligent reader should be able to question those.”

Jeremy’s thoughts here on memoirs providing different impressions of a single event, which might give more comprehensive view of the event as a whole, ties in with Couser’s argument that memoirs are particularly important collectively rather than individually.

Further questions explored the boom of memoir in the publishing business and the peak of the boom, and the difference between autobiography and memoir. Couser’s take on the two genres was that they’re both difficult to define, but that autobiography implies the full life will be explored, whereas memoir foregrounds memory itself and could focus on an aspect or specific relationship within a life. Final questions centred around memoir’s status as a democratic genre, and whether literary memoirs could still be considered democratic, and on the similarities in English and French between the French terms les mémoires d’ (meaning the memoirs of) and  le mémoire (meaning the memoir). The concept of the plural ‘memoirs’ evokes a more comprehensive work, more like autobiography. Couser’s talk provoked many questions and discussions, which were continued over a drinks reception in the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium Foyer.

KCL event: Life-‘writing’ of the Moment: King’s College London, 18 March

The next speaker in KCL’s series on ‘Performativity and Life-Writing’ is KCL’s own Alexandra Georgakopoulou, who will be speaking on ‘Life-“writing” of the Moment: The Sharing and Updating Self on Social Media’ at the upcoming Department of English Research Seminar. All welcome!

18 March 2014
18:30-20:30
King’s College London
6.01 Virginia Woolf Building

A more detailed explanation of the event, including an abstract, can be found here: