A Brief History of Memoir-Bashing
It's almost as old as the memoir itself.
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Way, way back in the day, before memoirs lost its s, when all the memoirs that had ever been written could fit in a couple of modest bookcases, the form represented a brilliant innovation in genre. Or so it seemed to Samuel Johnson. Writing in 1759, he observed that the best kind of biography was one in which "the writer tells his own story." Such books benefited from their authors' total command of the subject, Johnson argued: "Certainty of knowledge not only excludes mistake, but fortifies veracity. … [T]hat which is fully known cannot be falsified but with reluctance of understanding, and alarm of conscience." (Dr. Johnson, meet Mr. Frey.)
Notable autobiographies were written in the late 18th century (by Casanova, Rousseau, and Benjamin Franklin) and in the 19th (by John Stuart Mill, Ulysses S. Grant, and many, many hundreds of others), and along the way, the word autobiography was invented; the Oxford English Dictionary's first citation is from 1797. The first recorded instance of memoir-bashing—so familiar to contemporary readers—came the very next year, from the pen of the German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel:
Pure autobiographies are written either by neurotics who are fascinated by their own ego, as in Rousseau's case; or by authors of a robust artistic or adventurous self-love, such as Benvenuto Cellini; or by born historians who regard themselves only as material for historic art; or by women who also coquette with posterity; or by pedantic minds who want to bring even the most minute things in order before they die and cannot let themselves leave the world without commentaries.
In other words, memoir writers are egotists, exhibitionists, and/or self-indulgent narcissists. Now, where have I heard that before? The 1820s saw a memoir boom comparable to the one we have been experiencing for some 15 years, and it drew similar-caliber gunfire. In 1825, Henry Mackenzie waggishly defined autobiography as "the confession of a person to himself instead of the priest,—generally gets absolution too easily." Four years later, an anonymous author in Blackwood's Magazine opined that the form should be the province of people of "lofty reputation" or who have something of "historical importance to say"—not of the "vulgar" who try to "excite prurient interest that may command a sale."
But in the 19th century and into the early 20th, memoirs were still sparse enough to be viewed, in the Dr. Johnson mode, as a promising innovation. In the 1870s, the English literary critic Leslie Stephen (Virginia Woolf's father) accompanied his huzzah with a prophetic fancy: "Autobiography … is so generally interesting, that I have frequently thought with the admirable Benvenuto Cellini that it should be considered as a duty by all eminent men; and, indeed, by men not so eminent."
Across the Atlantic several decades later, William Dean Howells expanded on the theme, expressing his "wish that more women would write their own lives" and stressing that he "would not restrict autobiography to any age or sex, creed, class or color." Howells wanted even the most "obscure or humble" citizens to set their memories down and take their
place with any other in this most democratic province of the republic of letters. In fact, we should like to have some entirely unknown person come out with his autobiography and try if it will not eclipse the fiction of the newest novelist.
Howells' encomium marked the apogee of memoir love. As publishers have sent autobiographies forth, first in a stream, then in a flood, critics have tended to start with Schlegel's complaints, then add new ones. George Bernard Shaw was the first (to my knowledge) to play the veracity card. "All autobiographies are lies," he wrote. "I do not mean unconscious, unintentional lies; I mean deliberate lies. No man is bad enough to tell the truth himself during his lifetime, involving, as it must, the truth about his family and friends and colleagues. And no man is good enough to tell the truth in a document which he suppresses until there is nobody left alive to contradict him."
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.