The Age of Memoir Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Leger_Woman_with_Book(Review Americana, Volume 2, Issue 1, Spring 2007)

For the past year, I've been monitoring the New York Times' nonfiction paperback bestsellers, and I find that 80 percent (12 of 15) are either memoirs or autobiographies. It's true that because I write critically about memoir as well as teach and write the form, I'm partial. But memoir's popularity still astounds me. It's the literary form of our time. Why?

Americans are an impatient lot. We don't want to wait until we're old and grey to discover what has mattered to us. The memoir has evolved so that octogenarian or college student can use the form to examine the emotional truths of their lives. Unlike autobiography, memoir doesn't require swaths of time to pass before a writer attends to an illness, a joy, a tragedy. If you haven't already, read Joan Didion's sudden memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, the immediate telling of her husband's death in 2004.

Mother In Her Casket Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Mom Early 1940sPotomac Review Issue 39 Spring/Summer 2005)

Because the casket will be closed for the funeral, I want to view the disease-ravaged body of my mother as soon as the embalmer gets her ready. Five months from diagnosis to death. My brother Jeff and I were with her at the onset of the fast-metastasizing cancer but not at its end. We called every Sunday and she said, “I’m doing OK. You don’t need to come. Let’s wait and see.” The doctor’s phone message was abrupt, jarring. The plane flight, numbing.

Laid out, sunk in the plush bed, she seems trapped under gravity’s anvil. The burial dress my brother selected—white shirt, grey skirt, grey tweed jacket—is too big for her. Her hair done, her cheeks cotton-puffy, her glasses (why must she be buried wearing her glasses?) magnifying the willfulness of her eyes, as if she is holding them shut. Her hands are withered to bone, a blotchy yellowish-white. The left one is smattered with bruises from the chemo injections and bloodlettings she endured. A drooping mouth, flecks of dandruff, a strand of hair on her jacket—phantom life arrested in her skeletal agony.

The Other Man Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Improv_30(Written Spring 2003)

In the top-spinning passage of 30 years—after the sink of high school, one matchstick marriage, and two suddenly grown-and-gone children—I have kept few gifts. Giving up stuff to kids or AmVets just happens, and most of what isn’t given up is misplaced or lost, another sort of unloading. One piece I cannot lose—the maroon scarf that Roxanne knitted and sent me to California with, after I had dropped out of college during the Vietnam War and my draft number came up. I can’t get rid of that scarf, its slapdash clump laying in my closet all these years, sentenced to the pile of its tossing. My fingers still love to lace and heft and tug its six-foot long mesh, purl-knit, purl-knit, a shovel-full of cloth. The scarf feels defiantly alive: its mesh breathes; its weave has yet to unravel; its tensile wholeness might still coil to warm one neck as easily as it might hang another from the rafters.

I was twenty, Roxanne thirty-two. Students at the University of Missouri, we met one night, leaving the palatial library at closing time.

My Father, Bounding Down the Stairs Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

avery_selfportrait.1941(Written Summer 2002)

In Des Peres, a comfy St. Louis suburb where my family lived when I was a teenager, Saturday afternoons about two my father would, following his nap, suddenly bound down the stairs. From second story to first hung a stairway (for his stair-assault) in the middle of the house, leading up to three bedrooms and two baths. Above a plant garden Mother tended with high-intensity light, the staircase seemed to float like a cataract, its thick maple steps, wrapped with plush carpet, bolted onto ruler-thin, wrought-iron black railings. The effect of his flurry was noisily musical, a run on the xylophone, fingers danced across a counter. You heard then felt before seeing the rumble of my Swede/Czech heavy-set father barreling down those nine steps. Brúm-brum-brum-brum-brúm-brum-brum-brum-brúm, and he’d be down, bicycling cartoon feet, all-hands-on-deck hurry-up, each step taken with no-hands fearlessness in two seconds flat. Like an iron-wired marionette, the hanging stairway quivered in his wake.

Almost Beautiful: A Life of Nathanael West Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

14_4cover(The Gettysburg Review Winter 2001)

Impossible, he would have said, but he is flying. Air above, air below, sudden yet with a strange everlastingness. A splay of arms and legs, and still he is shooting higher, as in a scene from a novel or a movie script he has written, a back-lot stunt off a trampoline: the soldier’s life, from small-town romance to war in the trenches, has been told in flashbacks, then BOOM! a bomb blows his body skyward. Any moment now the director will bullhorn, “Cut.”

And yet this flight also feels larger, a world and time apart, novelistic. He is making mental notes already, everything expanding, not contracting—in the air.


The writer making notes is Nathanael West. He is a screenwriter for the motion-picture industry and the author, most recently, of a terrifying novel about Hollywood, The Day of the Locust. The story is about a group of misfits in Tinsel Town, drawn powerfully together until their amalgam of ambitions turns ugly. West has written four novels, but only this one concerns the people who “had come to California to die.” Each novel was published to small acclaim—and very few sales—during the 1930s, his decade of emergence.

He Could Always Teach: An English Professor's Education in Fifty Vignettes Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Weston-Self_Portrait(Compiled Spring 2000)


Herb Caen, the great San Francisco Chronicle columnist for close to fifty years, liked to retell an anecdote about our society’s estimation of its teachers. It seems Caen was having lunch one day with his cronies at Enrico’s Coffee House when the great novelist John Steinbeck joined them. Steinbeck had just arrived in the city on his trip west, a journey which would form the basis for one of his most beloved books, Travels With Charley, a road-trip adventure story starring Steinbeck and his poodle companion.

"When Charley and I were driving through the redwood country," the famous author said, "I looked around till I found the largest redwood in the area—an absolute beauty, probably two thousand years old, a considerable tree before Christ was born. And then I let Charley out of the camper so he could go and pee on that tree. Now I ask you, gentlemen, what is left in life for that dog?"

There was a silence which brought nods to the sublime. Nothing could top such a holy moment for Charley or the group. Finally, an advertising executive at the table named Howard Gossage said, "He could always teach."

"In Spite of Everything": The Definitive Indefinite Anne Frank Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

anne_frank(Antioch Review Winter 2000, Volume 58, Number 1)

The definitive edition of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, published in English in 1995, restored her original entries which her father, the diary’s compiler in 1947, had deleted from the first edition. Many of the new edition’s reviewers (Or is it readers? Can one "review" Anne Frank’s diary?) have expressed the standard adoring praise. In fact, one writer noted that even the reborn diary’s 30-percent more material "does not alter our basic sense of Anne Frank." I didn’t know we shared the same "basic sense" about her. What is meant, I suspect, is that despite the additions Anne remains a victim par excellence, whose afterlife must forever gather together—and give thanks to—the penitent rememberers of the Holocaust. But studied carefully, away from Anne’s iconolatry, the new edition disrupts this putative notion of her goodness. This version, in Susan Massotty’s brilliant translation, is an even more incisive and tangled human document in its final form than the text which preceded it. It is true that Anne’s anger with her parents and confusion with her own feelings were in the original diary. But now the definitive edition accumulates and intensifies so much more about her inner life that Anne’s self-scrutiny dissuades us from enshrining her "goodness" and challenges us to love her honesty. (Which is what all teenagers seem to want.) This complete text discloses an author whose artistic subtlety and autobiographical truth-telling alone can command reverence.

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