The Father of All Memoirs
What Edmund Gosse could teach today's memoirists.
In two sentences, Gosse moves from a freeze-frame moment to a span of decades: a heady move. Stepping back that way is risky. It can break the narrative mood and let the door open for banality and bathos. But if you can do it with a clear eye, as Gosse does, it suddenly raises the stakes of your narrative.
And indeed, reading Gosse today, you notice one big difference between him and the multitude of current-day tough-childhood memoirists: point of view. Gosse not only shifts back and forth between his current and former selves but spends a lot of time contemplating what his father must have been thinking; and because he's observing from a distance, his perspective can alternate among irony, pathos, humor, reflection, bemusement, and, once in a while, muted outrage. Today's memoirists, as varied and sophisticated as their writing sometimes is, work almost exclusively from a kid's-eye view.
The strategy has pluses and minuses. Take The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls' account of her childhood with an alcoholic and delusional father and a narcissistic mother. After a long time on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list, it's been on the paperback nonfiction list for 87 weeks, currently in the No. 3 position. Why? Well, it has a great first sentence: "I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster." But more important is that it's incredibly readable, and it's so readable in large part because it's presented exclusively from the young Jeannette's point of view. On Page 9, Walls flashes back to the age of 3, when, boiling hot dogs for herself as she normally did, she got badly scalded and had to go to the hospital:
The nurses and doctors kept asking me questions: How did you get burned? Have your parents ever hurt you? Why do you have all these bruises and cuts? My parents never hurt me, I said. I got the cuts and bruises playing outside and the burns from cooking hot dogs. They asked what I was doing cooking hot dogs by myself at the age of three. It was easy, I said. You just put the hot dogs in the water and boil them.
The vocabulary expands and the sentences get more complex as we reach her childhood and adolescent years. But Walls is always right there in the moment, never stepping back to reflect on what the heck was going on in her family. This approach helps generate drama, suspense, and empathy. In therapeutic terms, it could be seen as honoring what the victim went through. But it runs counter to traditional literary values of complexity, texture, depth: things that can make a book a classic.
The Glass Castle shows that the bad-childhood memoir is as commercially viable as ever, but the bar of badness is now so high as to barely be visible. At this point, for one of these babies to move off the shelves, there has to be weirdness on the level of alien abduction. Edmund Gosse, combining incident and character with wise and rueful meditation, suggests a possible way out. It isn't an easy feat to pull off, but for a modern memoirist looking to write a book that lasts 100 years, it's worth a shot.
Ben Yagoda is author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made and the just-published How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. He is a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware.