19 July 2012

On the Difference Between Autobiographies and Memoirs

I’ve been considering the difference between autobiography’ and ‘memoir.’ I’m reading Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liar’s Club. Interesting enough, but certainly not an autobiography. I have in fact read a great many autobiographies: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Henry Adams, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein (?), Seven Story Mountain, by Thomas Merton, The Confessions of St. Augustine, The Diary of Anne Frank, even Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt. I offer a class for teachers in autobiography. Teachers tell a lot of stories.
On the one hand, the autobiographies seem to be life story of individuals who have achieved some significant accomplishment in their lives other than the writing of their autobiographies. Henry Adams, of course, rises to the occasion as a member of an illustrious family that includes John, John Quincy, Abigail, and Charles Francis, each a significant figure in American history. I think that McCourt began his writing career with his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, and with its success continued to write until he had completed an autobiography with the publication of ‘Tis and Teacher Man. Merton’s autobiography offered a portrait of a life that had become fulfilled in spirituality and his move to the position of the hermit. Augustine wrote a great deal more than his confessions and was renowned for his work before its publication, and Franklin and Stein are famous figures.
I have chosen obvious examples, but there are others. I have read the autobiographies of the African-American historian John Hope Franklin (Mirror to America); the literary critics Wayne Booth (My Many Selves), and Terry Eagleton (The Gatekeeper), which he refers to as a memoir; the autobiography of philosopher Stanley Cavell (Little Did I Know); and the musician, Bob Dylan (Chronicles). The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a fictional narrative that recounts through the life of an exemplar the history of the African-American experience from the Emancipation to the Civil Rights movement. The Autobiography of Malcolm X was written with the significant assistance of Alex Haley.
For the most part the autobiographies told the story of an entire life, or at least one that has not as yet ended in death. Of course, one cannot write about one’s death except in imaginary terms. And the life told recounts the careers and thoughts of illustrious people: the autobiographies might be understood as exemplars or cautionary narratives told by people of some renown. By the social/historical position achieved as a result of their accomplishments, the autobiographers have something of their learning and wisdom yet to offer. I think that from the recounting of their lives in their autobiographies, I come to understand not only their lives and times but my own as well.
There are a flood of what are referred to as tell-all autobiographies by actors and performers who are prepared to reveal many of the sordid details of their lives to a) exact some revenge on those who have somehow slighted them; b) reveal how they have overcome great hardship to achieve great wealth and fame; and, c) to glamorize themselves and their achievement. For the most part these autobiographies give substance to the person where none before existed: an actor does not have a life worth telling simply because they played someone else’s life for a great deal of money. This present spate of ‘autobiographies’ seems to me mere products of vanity; often they are not even written by the subject himself.
A memoir seems to be an account not of a whole life but only of a portion of it, and the writer of a memoir becomes famous for having written it and not for having lived a life worth writing about. That is, though Mary Karr has written an interesting memoir, it is for having written it that she achieves her fame and not for the life the memoir recounts; her life finally might be understood as one not too unlike ours. The life she recounts is interestingly told, but does not achieve the status of an exemplary life; there was nothing about Mary Karr’s life that warranted its recounting except her ability to tell a good story.  In The Liar’s Club, it is the style and not the life that interests me, and were it not for her memoir, Mary Karr would have remained somewhat anonymous. 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm...I'm interested. Please describe this class you offer for teachers in autobiography.

I am a firm believer in "how" one teaches can be based strongly in how one was taught, "who" and "where" one is "at" and experiences one has had. Very importantly, YOU taught me that teaching and education must also be looked at from an historical perspective.

My mind is engaged...tell me more!

19 July, 2012 12:01  

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