When Memory Speaks (Magill Book Reviews)
Jill Ker Conway, former president of Smith College and a visiting scholar and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), is well known for the two volumes of her autobiographical writing: THE ROAD FROM COORAIN (1989) and TRUE NORTH (1994). WHEN MEMORY SPEAKS: REFLECTIONS ON AUTOBIOGRAPHY demonstrates her ability to theorize about the genre to which she has contributed. WHEN MEMORY SPEAKS is a history of autobiography and, as the subtitle indicates, a thoughtful book about self-portraits. Believing that everyone is an autobiographer because we all engage in inner conversations which give meaning to our lives, Conway identifies her audience as general readers and encourages these readers to find their own voices, examine cultural assumptions which inform ideas and actions, and assume responsibility for their actions—what she frequently calls “agency.”
As she has noted in the introductions to her two-volume anthology WRITTEN BY HERSELF (1992, 1996), Conway contrasts the approaches of men and women in writing their self-portraits. For men, she describes a pattern derived from the classical Greek myths in which an Odysseus-like character undertakes an epic journey of adventure, achieves his goals, and asserts that he has succeeded through his own agency. For women, Conway sees a different pattern, one in which the writers typically downplay a sense of agency in their own lives and successes, not believing in the control they have over their own destiny and accomplishments.
To exemplify these contrasting patterns, Conway examines, usually briefly, a number of classical and contemporary autobiographies. Her most compelling examinations are those of contemporary autobiographies like Frank McCourt’s ANGELA’S ASHES (1996), Mary Karr’s THE LIAR’S CLUB (1995), and Kathryn Harrison’s THE KISS (1997). Conway’s insightful comments about these and other contemporary autobiographies, plus her provocative reflections on the art of autobiography, make this book a significant contribution to the large body of literature about autobiography, a genre which Conway appropriately describes as the most popular form of fiction for modern readers.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIV, February 15, 1998, p. 967.
The Chronicle of Higher Education. XLIV, March 27, 1998, p. A23.
Kirkus Reviews. LXVI, March 1, 1998, p. 314.
Library Journal. CXXIII, March 15, 1998, p. 64.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, April 19, 1998, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, February 9, 1998, p. 84.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, March 1, 1998, p. 1.
Women’s Review of Books. XV, July, 1998, p. 15.
When Memory Speaks (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Jill Ker Conway is a practitioner and theorist. She practices the art of autobiography, having published two highly praised self- portraits—The Road from Coorain (1990) and True North 1994)—and she theorizes about that art in her two- volume anthology of works by female writers, Written by Herself (1992-1996), and in her wide-ranging history of autobiography, evocatively entitled When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography. These complementary roles also overlap, when, for example, she concludes When Memory Speaks by referring to her first memoir, in which she narrates the story of growing up in Australia and dealing with her father’s enigmatic death. By asking questions about that death, and about the practice of autobiography, Conway connects the abstract with the concrete, the writing of autobiography with her own specific life story.
Questions inform Conway’s historical study of autobiography. She begins her book with a series of questions, the first one being the most general and most personal: “Why is autobiography the most popular form of fiction for modern readers?” Announcing that her answer is a book written for “the general reader,” Conway also asserts that her focus is cultural history—that is, the cultural assumptions of gender, race, and societal attitudes that influence both the writing and reading of autobiography. From beginning to end, When Memory Speaks compels the reader to reflect upon his or her own life as an autobiographer, for Conway believes each person is an autobiographer, pondering the details of life. Since few people pay much attention to this inner reporting of the self to the self, she uses her history of autobiography as a vehicle to call attention to the opportunity for the reader to become autobiographer.
In her historical overview of autobiographical writing, Conway contrasts the approaches of men and women in writing their self- portraits. For men, she notes, the pattern is derived from the classical Greek myths in which an Odysseus-like character undertakes an epic journey of adventure, achieves his goals, and asserts that he has succeeded through his own agency. This pattern takes various forms through the history of autobiographical writing, beginning with St. Augustine’s classical model of conversion and continuing with memoirists, romantics struggling against social conventions, frontier heroes battling the wilderness, self-made men succeeding through luck and pluck, and modern heroes searching for identity and a connection with their past. For women, Conway sees a different pattern, one derived from the writings of mystics such as Dame Julian of Norwich and St. Teresa of Avila. In these self-portraits, female writers typically downplay a sense of agency in their own lives and successes, not believing in the control they have over their own destiny and accomplishments.
In chapters that demonstrate these contrasting approaches to self-reporting, Conway describes “the secular hero” versus “the romantic heroine.” The former includes Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, W. E. B. DuBois, Lee Iacocca, and James Watson—men who took charge of their lives, achieved significant results, and acknowledged their own skills and ingenuity in accomplishing their various goals. Unlike these secular heroes, the romantic heroines conceal agency and concentrate on their inner lives, as demonstrated in the self-portraits of Mary Rowlandson, Margaret Cavendish, Rachel Plummer, Anna Cora Mowatt, Harriet Jacobs, Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, Ellen Glasgow, Gloria Steinem, and Vivian Gornick.
Using this set of contrasts as the framework for her historical overview, Conway explores what she calls new versions of the secular hero and the romantic heroine— exemplified by autobiographers such as David Livingstone and Gertrude Bell. For this new hero and heroine, imperial adventures inspired them to write their personal histories, which demonstrated a series of encounters between the Western culture and what was viewed stereotypically as the culture of the “other.” Through these meetings, the autobiographers, both male and female, not only reported on their own exploits but also captured the imaginations of those who vicariously experienced these exciting and usually exotic travels.
The new romantic heroine sought to tell her own story through one set of strategies, but another kind of female autobiographer demonstrated a different approach. In this case, the...
(The entire section is 1859 words.)