I’ve never met Thomas Larson, but from reading The Memoir and the Memoirist, I’ve concluded that I’d love to talk to him. In this work he is thoughtful, he is tender toward women (read his “Acknowledgments”), and he isn’t afraid of the “f” word (that is, “feeling”). He draws on long [End Page 159] experience as a reader, writer, and teacher to describe and embrace the modern memoir before it becomes fussed over and codified by academics. Like a good memoirist, he navigates a central paradox: he is, of course, himself framing and defining the form, but not in a reductive way, not with jargon, and not from a remove.
Like Larson, I left a college English department to write, and have taught memoir to adults for years. My current office is at home. Reading his book reminded me of the conversations I used to have with colleagues down the hall, whom I miss. Simply put, Larson’s ideas broadened my understanding of the memoir enterprise. The first half of the book is especially compelling, with keen insights into what memoir writers attempt. Larson writes:“Memoir is a relational form.” The relation between the self and the family, and the self and the world are important, but the real spark in a memoir, according to Larson, comes from the writer examining the interplay between aspects of the self, especially “the remembering self and the remembered self ” (what Virginia Woolf called the “I-now” and the “I-then”). These terms clarify and provide a focus for the writer struggling to draft a work that represents some unruly part of a life.
We think of the past as fixed, but, Larson writes, our understanding of our past, even our memories themselves, change as we remember, and write. The remembering self, the I-now, evolves, and in turn the remembered self, the I-then, evolves. Larson writes, “To present the self as a person disclosing the mutability of the self is the work of memoir.”
If self and events are fluid, can we make things up? To Larson, memoir and fiction are distinct. He writes, “In my experience, nine out of ten memoirists will confess that they embellish their stories for dramatic effect,” an approach he sees as wrong-headed. “Emphasizing story won’t activate the disclosure of self,” he writes. “Emphasizing story, in fact, may subordinate the disclosure of self to the tale.”
Isn’t this attention to self odious and narcissistic, as so many have written? To Larson, “the memoirist seeks to know himself by individualizing that self—but not for ego alone. There is social purpose to adult development. . . . It may be that the desire for individual fulfillment is what predominantly drives a society to evolve.”
Larson doesn’t shy away from naming the difficulties memoir writers face. As he puts it, “telling the truth, to ourselves and to others, guarantees emotional anguish.” In his view, “anyone who wants to tell the truth soon learns the truth may not want to be told.” In fact, to Larson, “any means by which we record our lives is subject to question.” Nor does he shy away [End Page 160] from loaded subjects, like sexual obsession, sexual trauma, or mental illness. He treats the stories of men and women alike with fair-mindedness and sensitivity.
Larson’s quietly professorial ruminations on published memoirs, many of them well known, make up a significant portion of the book. He traces the history of the genre, beginning with “autobiographies” (his term—and a “male genre” in his view, a “great-person-turned-writer” genre) by thinkers such as Ulysses S. Grant, Helen Keller, Malcolm X, and Bill Clinton. Memoir, he shows us, is a newer genre, emerging out of autobiography in the 1980s as “a new kind of storytelling . . . in which the author chose a particular life experience to focus on.” Among the writers ushering in memoir, Larson identifies Vivian Gornick, Tobias Wolff, and Richard Rhodes.