When memory speaks : reflections on autobiography /

Main Author: Conway, Jill K., 1934-
Format: Book
Language: English
Published: New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Edition: 1st ed.
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Review by Booklist Review

Renowned autobiographer Conway, author of True North (1994), begins her penetrating and original analysis of our burgeoning desire to write and read memoirs with a provocative query: "Why is autobiography the most popular form of fiction for modern readers?" Her answer, a thoroughly engaging history of the modern memoir, covers many topics, such as the difference between the autobiographies of men, who structure their life stories according to the archetypal Greek hero, and women, who cast themselves in the role of the romantic heroine, who is passive until compelled to altruistic action by some external force. Conway insightfully compares and contrasts these two approaches in discerning discussions of the autobiographies of St. Teresa of Avila, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, and Jane Addams, to name just a few of her intriguing examples. She also offers theories about why readers are less passionate about fiction than they used to be, and why they turn to memoirs for reflections about what it means to be human rather than to works of history, psychology, and philosophy. --Donna Seaman

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Memoirs often include events and thoughts that reveal the author's perception of how they see themselves, frequently excluding known aspects of their lives. Omissions, or a narrow focus, lead Conway (True North; The Road from Coorain) to state that autobiographical writing "is the most popular form of fiction for modern readers." To illustrate the selectivity of memory, Conway considers the literature of the genre in its multiple guises. She examines distant memoirs (St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass) with great sensitivity for the cultural climates in which they were written. In these and in the broad-ranging excerpts from more recent autobiographies (Lee Iacocca, Ellen Glasgow, Gloria Steinem, Frank McCourt, Jean-Dominique Bauby, Kathryn Harrison), Conway shows a particular interest in discovering how these books reflect the views of their eras, thereby giving a historical perspective on our own. She notes that, overall, women‘even the most publicly assertive‘demur when writing their lives, rarely expressing accomplishments, decisions, even agency for their actions, although historically, men do. "Few of us," notes Conway, "give close attention to the forms and tropes of the culture through which we report ourselves to ourselves." Conway's small gem is a landmark in eliciting fresh contemplation of the inchoate complexity of memory's manifold voices. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

When memoirist Conway speaks on writing autobiography, everyone will listen. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

In this erudite essay, former Smith College president and Australian expatriate autobiographer Conway (The Road from Coorain, 1989; True North, 1995) makes a smart but less than convincing case for the construction of identity through the writing of life stories. Conway is interested in why Westerners in particular are so enamored of autobiography and memoir. She argues that the gender wars, imperialism, and all manner of hegemonic brainwashing have not only shaped our views of ourselves, but determined how we express them. In describing the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank McCourt, and Frederick Douglass, among others, Conway traces how males set the standard for identity by the way they chose to represent themselves and women. The male archetype developed in two basic forms, Franklin's ``capitalist hero,'' or economic man, and Rousseau's ``secular hero,'' or introspective moral genius. The female, by contrast, was a romantic heroine, a creature of dangerous sexual powers and meager intellectŽat least as male writers portrayed her. Because their stories were written by men, females were a mere projection, until they began to write their own diaries and make what Conway calls ``conscious acts of rebellion'' wherein they could create themselves as they really were. In Conway's theory, this same method of projection then imposed and disseminated the idea of the ``other'' on non- Westerners. This too, according to Conway, has begun to correct itself, as more original voices emerge through the liberating trends of postmodernism. Unfortunately, Conway takes us one step too far from experience to make her claims satisfying. This book is, as she says, invoking Lacan, a book about us looking at ourselves while looking at ourselves in the mirror. Worse, she imposes her convictions about gender wars and imperialism on the evidence rather than deriving them from it, presupposing her points rather than proving them.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.