Essay: Misery Loves a Memoir By BENJAMIN KUNKEL The New York Times : July 16, 2006
It's no news, of course, that so many recent memoirs, good and bad, well or execrably written, deal with hurt and healing. But when so many memoirists are busy confessing to so much, we easily miss what the form has come to exclude. Contemporary memoirs tend to be either convalescent or nostalgic in mood. (It's as Augustine said in his "Confessions": "I remember with joy a sadness that has passed and with sadness a lost joy.") But is there nothing more to life than recovery and grief? Is there no idea of the good life we can sustain beyond the possession of health? To understand what's gone missing, it's useful to recall something about the turn of the 19th century.
It was then that secular autobiographies — we call them memoirs — first attained something like their contemporary prominence. There had been a few before 1800 (for instance those of Benjamin Franklin and Edward Gibbon, and of course Casanova and Rousseau), but in English it was Wordsworth especially, in "The Prelude," who discovered that the self could provide a "heroic argument." By this he meant that the theme of an individual's growth could claim all the dignity and moment traditionally accorded battles in heaven or on earth.
Wordsworth and the other Romantics took the form of Augustine's "Confessions" and threw out the devotional content. They retained the down-up shape of crisis and recovery, but instead of an accession to godliness the pilgrim came into restored wholeness and an awareness of vocation. Contemporary writers agree with Wordsworth on the supreme importance of "what passed within me," just as their direct manner was pioneered by him: "I speak bare truth / As if to thee alone in private talk." But how crabbed our memoirists' ambitions are compared to his! The maintenance of recovered health is a narrow vocation, and as for nostalgia, it's only nostalgia.
For the Romantics, you lost your way in life not when you began to take drugs, leak self-esteem or be ill-used by your intimates. For them, the crisis was immediate and general: to be a functioning adult in a corrupt society was to be far gone already. They sought a return not to mere sanity, but to a state of being that had scarcely yet existed. Psychologically and politically, the young Romantics were revolutionaries. Indeed, the culture of secular autobiography and the ideal of radical democracy emerged roughly together: now it was up to the individual to say what a good life might be and how society might allow one.
The best and most Romantic memoir an American has produced is "Walden" — though nobody calls it one. But it is: Here is what I did with a few years of my life and how I feel about it now. What Thoreau has to overcome during his time in the woods is not a lapse in mental health. His great problem is to escape the mental health of his neighbors, their collection-plate opinions, their studious repetition of gossip.
Thoreau isn't against self-esteem (he admires a friend who has learned to "treat himself with ever increasing respect"); but his main task is to lose his esteem for society in which "trade curses everything it handles" and the singular natural resource of time is wasted in barren productivity. Maybe he had vices out there in the woods, but that's not his concern, or ours. The overwhelming impression is of his philosophical ardor, which he tries to fuse with his practical ardor. There's not a note in the book of self-pity, or nostalgia. And why did he quit his cabin in the end? "It seemed to me that I had several more lives to live." 12Next Page » Benjamin Kunkel is an editor of n+1 magazine and the author of "Indecision," a novel.