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  • Memoir as Metaphor
  • Robert Coles (bio)
David Willis McCullough , ed. American Childhoods. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987.

There are many ways, of course, to study history, and this book surely offers a rather unique and engaging one—through the self-descriptions of an assorted number of American men and women, of various times and places and backgrounds, who have chosen to make a return of sorts: back to childhood. Not that children don't themselves resort to reminiscence, or efforts at autobiography. I have heard elementary school children narrate stories of their lives. Recently, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a decidedly working-class city, a girl of nine told me that she has lived "a lousy life." She saw my eyebrows lift, and did not await my request for information: "Every day takes hours and hours to end. I keep waiting for my daddy to come home, but he doesn't." I had been told of her father's terrible bad luck. He had been run over by a car driven by a drug-crazed neighbor, had become paralyzed from the waist down. He had, thereafter, become terribly depressed, and refused to see his wife, never mind their children. An already quite shaky marriage had, for all practical purposes, been ended-though not in one child's mind. She was holding on to memories for dear life; or maybe, holding on to wishes or dreams-because her teacher told me facts that seemed to contradict the child's autobiographical statements, her implied version of her experience with her father. "The father was abusive," the teacher told me, and for a few minutes after that all too contemporary word, "abusive," was used, I heard the melancholy, even horrifying details, as they had been documented by a social worker-hence my eventual conclusion, in this instance, anyway: autobiography as yearning.

The editor of this volume, David Willis McCullough, dares take up quite explicitly matters which the child just mentioned prompted me to consider as I got to know her and her life's story, one already filled with [End Page 141] dramatic moments, with plenty of "disorder and early sorrow," to draw upon a phrase once used by Thomas Mann. McCullough offers this provocative remark of Joseph Heller: "Most people I've met who have a penchant for reminiscing about their childhoods are looking back on an unhappy one." McCullough goes on to remind us that, nevertheless, such pain and suffering has been somehow redeemed—the older writer as a survivor. Still, there are costs, and perhaps one price many of us pay for the troubles we've experienced as children is a certain reluctance on our part to acknowledge them fully and directly. McCullough tackles that issue quite boldly: "Which brings up the subject of lies or 'stretchers,' as Huck Finn called them in his autobiography." The editor's next comment is surely worth quoting: "It is very possible that there are more stretchers—and more varieties of stretchers—in this book than in any other book published this season." But those "stretchers" don't worry the editor; he dares say that "childhood is largely a state of mind," and so, "facts as such are not all that important"; indeed, he argues that "what someone thinks happened in his childhood, did happen."

Such a line of thought is well worth our consideration as we go through these accounts of childhood written by a most diverse group of Americans—Benjamin Franklin and John Adams and Davy Crockett of yore, and writers such as Alfred Kazin, Eudora Welty, William Jay Smith, Gloria Steinern, Richard Rodriquez of our time, the second half of the twentieth century. No question a good writer can entrance us with stories about his or her life just as he or she can present us with a story that is not called "personal" or autobiographical. Yet, even as this book's editor wants to equate "childhood" with its possessor's "state of mind," we may also wonder whether any story, no matter the claims of its author, is other than autobiographical—in the sense that it is, inevitably, a product of his or her mind, and yes, "the state of mind" that prompts...


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pp. 141-143
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