Hunger of Memory (Magill's Literary Annual 1982)
Hunger of Memory is the intellectual autobiography of a young man still in his mid-thirties. It is an unusual book, difficult to categorize; it does not deliver the continuous narrative suggested by the word “autobiography” on the dust jacket, nor does it discuss except in passing the books and intellectual encounters which have shaped the author, as one might have expected from the subtitle: “The Education of Richard Rodriguez.” It is an unusually quiet book, unmarked by any violent or dramatic episodes. Indeed, the book’s climax is singularly undramatic: Rodriguez decides to give up a safe and promising academic career to write.
All of this suggests a book lucky to find a publisher, let alone a wide readership, no matter how well-written it might be. Yet Hunger of Memory, widely reviewed and widely discussed, has found that readership—has even become a cause célèbre, for all the wrong reasons. Rodriguez is Hispanic-American; he does not care to call himself “Chicano.” His parents were immigrants from Mexico. In Hunger of Memory he is highly critical of two government programs: affirmative action and bilingual education.
Because of this controversial stance, which he first took in several essays published prior to Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez is in demand as a speaker—to conventions of university administrators, to high school teachers of English, to women’s alumnae groups. He has been invited to appear on “The Merv Griffin Show,” “Today,” and other television talk shows. He has, he says, “become notorious among certain leaders of America’s Ethnic Left . . . the brown Uncle Tom, interpreting the writing on the wall to a bunch of cigarsmoking pharaohs.”
Those who were already opposed to affirmative action and bilingual education found in Rodriguez a stunning “minority” witness. Those who are ideologically committed to those programs have vilified him as a traitor. Neither side is much interested in the niceties of his quiet exposition, the evidence of his own experience.
Rodriguez is opposed to affirmative action because it does not address the root problems of illiteracy and low achievement, problems which begin at the elementary school level. Affirmative action, he says, takes a student such as himself who has already “made it” and makes it even easier for him. It is fundamentally unfair, as he must acknowledge in a bitter conversation with a fellow graduate student, a Jew, whose record is as excellent as Rodriguez’s—but who has no job offers, while prestigious schools are competing to offer Rodriguez a job. It was during this coversation, Rodriguez writes, that his “mind reared—spooked and turning—then broke toward a reckless idea: Leave the university. Leave.”
Rodriguez is opposed to bilingual education because he believes its proponents are mistaken about the fundamental nature of education. The purpose of education, he believes, is to provide students—whatever their “background”—with...
(The entire section is 1247 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
Hunger of Memory comprises a five-page prologue and six chapters of approximately thirty-five pages each. The six chapters that make up the body of the book serve to frame the narrative within a rather loose chronological structure. In the opening chapter, the writer/protagonist/narrator introduces himself to the reader while reminiscing about the time when, as a child of a family of Spanish-speaking Mexicans residing in the United States, he first experienced English-speaking society. This occurred when he began attending a neighborhood Catholic elementary school in Sacramento, California. The school’s population was predominantly white, as was the neighborhood where the Rodriguezes lived. The book closes with a description of the family’s annual Christmas gathering some thirty years later, when Rodriguez, now a Ph.D. candidate in English Renaissance literature with brilliant career prospects, acknowledges to the reader—and to himself—the extent to which his development and education have distanced him from his parents, particularly from his father, with whom he is able to share little more than nostalgic longings and inconsequential domestic details. This closing chapter is aptly titled “Mr. Secrets,” after the nickname given to the author by his mother in a tone of bittersweet reproach.
The middle section of Hunger of Memory provides additional autobiographical detail, but this material is deliberately vague. There is no orderly linear exposition to inform the reader; nor does Rodriguez identify by name the people who influenced him. Substantial portions of his life, such as his adolescence, are hardly mentioned. Instead, each component of the book, while acquainting the reader with an important stage, episode, or insight in the author’s development, is, more than anything else, a self-referenced, and often-repetitive discourse on an issue of broad sociological,...
(The entire section is 782 words.)
Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)
Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez differs significantly from many personal experience stories by thematically portraying and arranging Rodriguez’s life solely through the consequences of an education. In a prologue and six chapters, Rodriguez reveals how his education affected his social class, language, learning, religion, ethnic heritage, work, and family. Rodriguez opens Hunger of Memory with a prologue entitled “Middle-class Pastoral.” He begins his story thirty years after the chronological first event of the book and tells the reader that he is a dark-skinned educator, a part-time writer, a celebrated lecturer, and a successfully assimilated middle-class American man. Rodriguez begins with the end.
In his first chapter, entitled “Aria,” Rodriguez drops back to the beginning and describes his first day at school in Sacramento, California, when he was able to understand only fifty English words. “Aria” establishes the importance of language, as it reveals the strong, positive relationship that he shares with his family. Rodriguez describes himself as a “listening child” who soon distinguishes differences between his parent’s insecure, broken public English in a cold, alien culture and their confident, natural private Spanish in a warm, loving home. As a seven-year-old, Rodriguez begins developing his public English language, with its advantages of cultural assimilation, but he also begins to...
(The entire section is 509 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Diaz, R. “Thought and Two Languages: The Impact of Bilingualism on Cognitive Development,” in Review of Research in Education. X (1984), pp. 23-54.
Hakuta, Kenji. Mirror of Language: The Debate on Bilingualism, 1986.
Hortas, Carlos. Review in Harvard Educational Review. LIII (August, 1983), pp. 355-359.
Kirkus Reviews. L, January 1, 1982, p. 55.
Laosa, L. M. “Ethnicity, Race, Language, and American Social Policies Toward Children,” in Child Development Research and Social Policy, 1984. Edited by H. H. Stevenson and A. Siegel....
(The entire section is 138 words.)