Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)
Aside from the intellectual or political merits of the arguments made in Hunger of Memory, the autobiography deserves attention on purely literary grounds. When it appeared in 1982, it received favorable notices in all major American journals and newspapers. Rodriguez was praised for the grace and clarity of his language and for his ability to communicate his deep understanding of the role and uses of language in the formative stages of an individual.
As a cultural document, Rodriguez’s autobiography differs sharply from the works of other American minority writers such as Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965) and Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets (1967). Their stark realism and the graphic language with which they chronicle the violent process of growing up in an urban ghetto contrast sharply with Rodriguez’s cool, erudite approach. While they recount the frequent terrors experienced in slum neighborhoods, Rodriguez refers to his own domestic situation as “Middle-Class Pastoral.” Rather than feeling fortunate for having escaped from the bonds of his youth, Rodriguez is nostalgic for that lost time.
To a large extent, from a literary perspective, Richard Rodriguez’s positions appear distinctive because the biographies of many members of minority groups in this country contrast sharply with his own. His views tend to conform to those of several prominent social scientists, both black and white, who insist on an emphasis on class, not only race and ethnicity, as an important social determinant. Rodriguez’s book adds a powerful voice to their argument.