Author shines light on the history of the memoir

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In the 1920s, fiction outsold nonfiction 4-to-1; in the 1960s, the ratio was reversed. Ben Yagoda charts the genre of memoir-autobiography over its 2,000-year history to make sense of that change.

He begins with Julius Caesar and moves through St. Augustine, the unfortunate Peter Abelard, the humanist Aeneas Sylvius (Pope Pio II), the rogue-artist Benvenuto Cellini, the philosopher Rousseau and others before arriving at his principal focus, the American memoir. Yagoda maps the various subgenres: conversion narratives, the novel disguised as an autobiography, captivity narratives, slave memoirs, criminal narratives, women's autobiography, immigrant memoirs, travel-adventure-disaster memoirs, and our contemporary contribution, misery memoirs: tales of poverty, mental illness, addiction, gender and racial prejudice, war and sexual abuse...

... Yagoda astutely traces the rise of the autobiographical hoax. He notes that people read memoirs because they offer a kind of pseudo-intimacy, but the genre attracts readers only inasmuch as it claims to be true. If the claim is doubtful, interest collapses. He states and convincingly illustrates: "The past four decades will probably be remembered as the golden age of autobiographical fraud."

He does not speak here of memory lapses (a subject he treats brilliantly in Chapter 5), but of outright mendacity. Our hunger for the literal, our world of blogs and tweets, our dismissal of all bounds of privacy and seemliness, have reduced fiction to the status of "painting in the age of photography – a novelty item." But even photos, our former standard for truthful representation, can be Photoshopped. As Yagoda warns, "In any society where a particular currency has high value and is fairly easily fashioned, counterfeiters will quickly and inevitably emerge."

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