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.