Ben Yagoda begins his self-explanatorily titled Memoir: A History with a remarkably sardonic recap of the ’00s in memoirs, a furiously annotated list of inane trends (Dog memoirs! Rock muses telling all!) and celebrity drivel. “The first autobiography ever written, according to some counts, was Saint Augustine’s Confessions,” he explains. “Since then, noteworthy spiritual autobiographies have been written by Saint Teresa of Ávila, Jonathan Edwards, Cardinal John Henry Newman, and, in our own time, Denise Jackson.” It’s a nicely timed low blow, and the chapter lets Yagoda get most of the snark out of the way early. Briefly but concisely, Yagoda traces the various strains of memoir over the centuries and convincingly argues how little has changed: Arguments about self-indulgence, narcissism, and autobiography’s obligation to “truth” have shifted little.
Yagoda is generous with excerpts and decently comprehensive, but Memoir: A History has a few problems. Most notably, there’s the occasional forced attempt at interjecting the vernacular (for presumably moronic readers) where it doesn’t belong, as with Yagoda’s commentary on Abelard’s eloquent description of his castration as having “cut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow.” Yagoda adds “Ouch.” Such annoying grace notes diminish in frequency as the history progresses. In its broad outlines, Memoir is casual and designed for the general reader rather than the English-major historian: Anyone who’s done academic time will recognize the contours of Yagoda’s history of early Protestant conversion confessions, slave narratives, Rousseau’s effect on the literary world, and so on. While the story may be familiar, it’s illuminated by quotes from more obscure volumes.
Yagoda is at his best when he’s diving deep into the archives. In a standout chapter on “mid-century memoirs,” he resurrects not only such dimly-remembered cultural touchstones as Life With Father, but unintentionally revealing volumes long since left to their particular zeitgeists. Example: Ruby Berkley Goodwin’s It’s Good To Be Black, an absurdly upbeat 1953 book welcomed with predictable relief by the establishment press. (Kirkus deemed it “a personal narrative which substitutes dignity for sensationalism,” laying the basic terms of conservative racial arguments for the next 50-plus years.) Skimming slightly below the surface of his subject, Yagoda doesn’t delve as deep as he could, which—for better or worse—befits the current crop of interchangeable, dime-a-dozen memoirs he ends with. As a brief history and diversion, though, it fits the bill.