If memoirs are always full of lies—and they always are—the measure of a good memoirist is how well she tricks us. Of course, all texts are slippery; it would be foolish to suggest that memoirists are amoral or immoral or evil. Often as not these “liars” shape their tales to drive home some larger point, deploying dubious strategies of “self-examination” to get at some greater meaning.
In some cases the greater meaning amounts to an aesthetic or political idea considered valuable by a group to which the memoirist belongs. Many examples of this can be found in the long tradition of the African-American memoir. On the contemporary scene, Maya Angelou has produced several separate accounts of her life; the progenitors of her books include the narratives of runaway slaves, Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist Up From Slavery (ghostwritten, it should be noted, by a white journalist), and the various memoirs of W.E.B. Du Bois. All express a distaste for the unfairness of white supremacism, and all to a greater or lesser degree use their “I” to broadcast that distaste; whatever their worth, each seeks to function, after Du Bois’s subtitle for his 1940 memoir Dusk of Dawn, as both “An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept” and an autobiography of an individual person....
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $29.95 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.