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  • Gina Masucci MacKenzie (bio)
The Bloomsbury Group Memoir Club
S. P. Rosenbaum
James M. Haule, ed.
Palgrave Macmillan
216 Pages; Print $32.00

Together, the Bloomsbury Group and its offshoots were responsible for some of the most important artistic, particularly literary output of the early to mid-twentieth century. The remarkable work of these authors, painters, critics, and notably one economist, changed Western practices of literature, art, and economics. The original group membership included, but was not limited to, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vanessa and Clive Bell, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, and Desmond and Mollie McCarthy. The meetings and work of this group are well documented and analyzed; however, little exists about an important subsidiary of this coterie, the Bloomsbury Memoir Club.

The new book by S. P. Rosenbaum, edited with Introduction and Afterward by James M. Haule, The Bloomsbury Memoir Club aims to document and examine the work of this literary offshoot. As Haule explains in his introduction, much of the book was composed, at least in extensive note form, by Rosenbaum before his death in 2012. Haule, after Rosenbaum’s death, received the notes, and, in many cases, first chapter drafts from Rosenbaum’s wife, to pursue and potentially publish. Haule explains that what he read was:

…Pat’s voice not just telling the story of one of the most fascinating association in the history of English letters, but also explaining it, linking the papers they presented with the work of their lifetimes, work rightly see as critical to our understanding of literature and politics and history of in the early twentieth century.

The Bloomsbury Memoir Club does accomplish at least half of what Haule claims Rosenbaum’s drafts do; it falls short, however, at making enough significant connections and analysis to be a completed text. Ultimately, the book is a great start to the understanding of a significant body of work, but it leaves the reader wanting much more critical analysis and biographical connection than it provides.

The book’s first chapter, “Outlines” begins with the assertion of the importance and proliferation of memoir in our own times. We need only to look at the New York Times Best Sellers list to see the truth of this statement; there is a certain self-indulgence to the writing of memoir, particularly by the young, that seems to correspond, so nicely, to the age of the selfie and the narcissism of the tweet, yet counter-balance to the allusion that Snapchat actually disappear in three seconds. While those social media expressions may be the poor-man’s memoir, there are still great works of memoir being written, and those, in part, are the legacy of the Memoir Club. Rosenbaum glosses the different types of autobiographical writing: confessions, apologies, and memoirs, pointing out that:

[T]here is not much confession or apology in Memoir Club memoirs; they did not bear witness to the past or try to exorcise it. And they were not nostalgic. Sharing recollections for the amusement of intimate friend was their abiding purpose, which distinguished them from many memoirs today.

What Rosenbaum writes seems to undercut what the next four and half chapters of his text achieve, as they summarize the content and extol the virtues of the memoirs read in club meetings. These memoirs, as described and cited, were not simply anecdotal or amusing tales. They were and are important sketches of topics that many in World War I and post-War Western Europe wanted to avoid: sexual abuse, homosexuality, and colonialism. As Lytton Strachey was eager to show in his great work, Eminent Victorians (1918), there was still a desire to cover over the difficult topics with bustles and gingerbread. The memoirs which Rosenbaum discusses unlace the corsets of the club. They are the real selfies of their time and, for that, they are brilliant.

Rosenbaum, however, does little to explore that. His work, for the most part, merely summarizes the memoirs presented and gives a moderate amount of context and connection between the memoirs presented, the more full autobiography of the authors, and the social norms they wished...


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