Sibling Rivalry: History and Memoir

By Louise W. Knight

Here is the dilemma: history is cross with memoir for not being more like history. It is easy to understand why. The two interpretive modes have their differences. Memoir interprets a personal past; history a collective one. Memoir, being told in the first person, is irrevocably subjective; history, being written in the impersonal voice, is ostensibly objective; memoir is a mind, writing, frozen at a point in time; history, though it often fails at the task, aspires to transcendency.

These tensions are, in a sense, those of a sibling rivalry, since history and memoir share memory as their mother muse. Memoir, as its name implies, is memory’s uncorrected report. History relies on memory too, less obviously. Beyond government documents, verbatim transcriptions, and eyewitness accounts recorded as events unfold, history’s other primary sources are memory’s products—miscellaneous notes, letters, diaries, interviews and other oral histories, oral traditions, and, of course, memoir.

History bereft of memory’s gifts would have far less to say.

The tensions erupt most intensely in the form of history’s grumpiness about memoir’s relationship to objective truth. History wants memoir to serve its purposes and finds memoir’s frank subjectivity and notorious unreliability irresponsible. How dare it misremember a fact? How dare it fail to include this other fact, so relevant to the case? How dare it make a claim that cannot be documented by a second source? How dare it distort history’s version of reality? Memoir will never satisfy history’s demand for objective truth. But is history justified in its categorical distrust of memoirs? Perhaps history should look again.

Memoir is rich with insights history can use, if history approaches it with the right questions. Because memoir is first and foremost a text written by a living human being about her past and read by another living human being, the truths it is best equipped to reveal are either cultural or interpersonal.

Cultural truth springs from context—from historical, literary, and intellectual developments, including the memoirist’s own. To explore cultural truth, we might see the memoir as a snapshot of the memoirist’s worldview at the time it was written, or as a piece of literature influenced by culture. The second kind of truth memoir specializes in is that created between human beings—in this case, between memoirist and reader. To explore relational truth, we might see the memoir as an argument the memoirist has shaped to persuade the reader, or as a portrait of the memoirist's subconscious. Arising out of an interest in cultural and relational truth, the four frameworks of "snapshot," "literature," "argument," and "psychological portrait"—others of course could be proposed—cast fascinating light on memoir.

The snapshot framework, which is really about the memoirist’s intellectual history, flows out of a recognition that people’s ideas change over time. Here the memoir is a reliable record either of what the memoirist believed or what she wished others to think she believed at the time when she wrote it. It is not a reliable record, however, of what she believed earlier in her life, even though the memoirist usually presents those beliefs as if she remembers them accurately. The challenge for the historian or biographer is to examine how well the memoirist’s recollections align with the evidence other sources can provide. Absolute proof is often not possible, but common sense can be the stand-in judge. To take only one example, because Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s memoir, Eighty Years and More was written when she was 82, it provides, in the words of Ellen Carol DuBois (editor of the 1993 edition), “Stanton’s ultimate perspective on freedom for women, the principle to which she dedicated her life.” In each of the two biographies of Stanton we have to date, one by Lois Banner (1980) and the other by Elisabeth Griffith (1984) the author’s task is to trace how that perspective changed over the course of Stanton’s life, and consider the memoir’s version as quite likely distorted by our common human tendency to forget what we first thought once we have changed our minds.

The literary framework pays attention to the role of culture in shaping a text. Some times the memoirist is conscious of these influences, and embraces them as part of a rhetorical strategy. She knows she is imitating or borrowing from certain works, and her knowledge and intentions can be documented. Lois Rudnick, editor of Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Intimate Memories (1999), argues that Luhan has “embedded her memoirs” in “one of the paradigmatic genres of American literature,” the “conversion narrative.” At other times, the influences may be subconscious or more purely theoretical. Literary scholars interested in slave narratives, for example, find patterns across the genre and feel no need to document that one memoirist read the work of another. The genre stands authoritatively as a cultural construction, as Sidonie Smith (in American Women’s Autobiography, 1992), among others, has explored.

The rhetorical framework—the memoir as argument—flows out of an awareness that the author has intentions in writing the text, among them a desire to persuade readers to find her memoir moving and believable. This frame acknowledges that the “narrative persona” (as Vivian Gornick calls it) through which the memoirist speaks is not a real person but a construction designed to serve the author’s rhetorical purposes. Others call this “intentional self-presentation.” The memoirist’s use of a narrative persona does not mean she is being dishonest or trying to hide her “true self.” The rhetorical frame understands that no author can write a good book—that is, one in which its readers trust the honesty of the author’s voice—unless she knows how to create a narrative persona, whether the voice is in the first, second, or third person. As Gornick observes in her fascinating book, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (2001), “In nonfiction, the reader must believe that the narrator is speaking truth.” As a memoirist herself, her challenge was to create this “truth-speaking persona,” which she describes as a “narrator who was me and at the same time not me.” She explains, “We pull from ourselves the narrator who will shape better than we alone can the inchoate flow of event[s] into which we are continually being plunged.”

The psychological framework stems from the irrevocable fact that the memoirist is a human being, subject to the forces that shape human nature and to the emotions and compulsions that result. The memoirist herself will hold views about human nature and interpret her life in the light of those views, but the historian or biographer may see other things in the memoir that the memoirist cannot see. For example, a particular pattern—such as a fear of commitment or a compulsion to travel—will raise questions about underlying causes that psychological insight can help answer. In the case of Jane Addams’s memoir, Twenty Years at Hull-House, for example, I was compelled by her frequent references to death in a wide variety of contexts to consider in my biography Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy (2005) whether her loss of her mother at age two might have left a permanent scar and what influence that early tragedy may have had in her life.

In sum, the questions best asked of a memoir are the questions best asked of a text created by a living human being about her past. The historian’s view of the memoir as a failed source of objective truth ought not pollute the memoir’s reliability for these other purposes. A reviewer’s categorical criticism that a biographer “relies too much on the memoir” shows a naiveté about the different ways a memoir can serve as a source. It is not the memoir per se that should be distrusted. If the scholar is exploring one of the questions that arises from one of the above four frameworks, for example, would it not make sense for her to rely a great deal on the memoir? Finally, these frameworks, or others that might be proposed, do not have the ability to cancel each other out. Any memoir can be interpreted through all four frames, even if each, considered alone, would seem to contradict the truth of the other. This is what the humanities is all about: the belief that human truth is a many-layered mystery that logic cannot fully unlock.

To be sure, there remains the task that history cannot shirk: can the memoir ever be trusted to provide accurate claims of fact? When a memoir describes an event in a person’s life, or a friendship, or the memoirist’s purpose in taking a certain action, is there any way to assess the reliability and accuracy of the description? Or must it be assumed that if the event or friendship or action cannot be confirmed by another source, that the memoirist was writing fiction? Historians have been known to reach such conclusions—to argue, for example, that an event mentioned in a memoir could not have happened since no letter exists to confirm it. Here common sense seems to have departed the scene. Are not our own lives full of events that are undocumented? Did Aunt Sally not visit because we failed to write our mother the news, or because our mother discarded the letter we sent?

The scholar must be skeptical but there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water, that is, there is no reason to reject a factual claim made in a memoir simply and only because it came from that source. The key to evaluating a memoir’s accuracy on such matters is to marshal the facts that provide the context. Perhaps the most impressive case of the historian restoring a memoir to the respect it deserved as a legitimate historical document is Jean Fagan Yellin’s investigation into Harriet Jacobs’s remarkable memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. The text had long been dismissed as inauthentic, until Yellin’s detective work proved otherwise. In her preface to a new edition of Incidents (1987), Yellin explains that two things persuaded her that Jacobs had written the text about her own life: her knowledge that the book’s editor, abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, would not have been willing to publish a fictional slave narrative “for fear of harming the cause”; and her reading of a set of letters between Jacobs and abolitionist-feminist Amy Post. Further research provided more direct verifications.

History has no choice but to turn to memoir. Given that, it should not spurn memoir’s gifts. For whenever these quarreling siblings can form a respectful partnership, memory, the muse they both rely on, will smile and the broader community of the humanities will be enriched.


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