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 a public identity, a public competence. He says early in the book, in a passage emphasized by italics: “A primary reason for my success in the classroom was that I couldn’t forget that schooling was changing me and separating me from the life I enjoyed before becoming a student.” This is seminal insight. Any attempt to take the necesary pain out of education results in a bad education—whether by deferring the plunge into English, the public language, or by overemphasizing “creativity” and “originality.” The best synonym for “primary ’education,’” Rodriguez observes, “is ’imitation.’” Education does not come naturally; rather, it “requires radical self-reformation.”
This last point deserves more emphasis, for the perceptions that underlie Rodriguez’s critique of bilingual education (and not that topical issue itself) are crucial to his richly suggestive autobiogaphy. In one sense, Rodriguez emphasizes, “education is a long, unglamorous, even demeaning process—a nurturing never natural to the person one was before one entered a classroom.” It is for this reason, as the pioneering studies of Walter Ong have shown, that many cultures have developed what Ong calls “chirographically controlled” learned languages, languages “always learned with the assistance of pen and ink” in contrast to the “mother tongue.” Among these learned languages were Latin, Sanskrit, classical Chinese, classical Arabic, and Rabbinic Hebrew. For centuries, all students in these cultures (the students were usually exclusively male) had to master a public, learned language in sharp distinction from the private language of the home.
The unifying theme of Hunger of Memory is the “radical self-reformation” required by education. In Rodriguez’s case, this meant a gradual but steady distancing from his working-class Mexican parents and their world. The book is dedicated to them, a very lengthy dedication which, after expressing that sense of distance, concludes: “For her and for him—to honor them.” In a moving passage near the end of the book, Rodriguez quotes from a letter his mother wrote to him some years ago when an essay which was the germ of Hunger of Memory was published. She asks him not to write about their family and other personal matters: “’Writing is one thing, the family is another.’”
Just as his education is representative of the educational process, not atypical because of the great distance between his “background” and the public world in which he has achieved success, so the tug between public and private which Rodriguez feels as a writer has wide implications—about writing, about the nature of language, about contemporary American culture. He reflects that he will probably never try to explain his motives to his parents: “Like everything else on these pages, my reasons for writing will be revealed to public readers I expect never to meet.”
Those public readers will be grateful to Rodriguez for his sensitive reflections—never murky or pretentious—on what he is doing while in the very act of doing it. This self-reflective writing-about-writing will make his readers conscious of certain paradoxes in which they participate as readers: “The reader’s voice silently trails every word I put down. I reread my words, and again it is the reader’s voice I hear in my mind, sounding my prose.” This intimate communion can be achieved only through distance—the writer alone in his room, writing to strangers—and in a shared, public language. “Such is the benefit of language: By finding public words to describe one’s feelings, one can describe oneself to oneself.”
In a time when pretentious, jargon-ridden musings on all manner of self-reflective phenomena are all the rage, Rodriguez’s graceful illumination of certain paradoxes of language and communication is a breath of fresh air. Indeed, he has fashioned in Hunger of Memory an elegant “self-consuming artifact” such as the Renaissance poets he knows so well might admire. He has written a book which gradually catches up with itself, so that by the end he is reflecting on his writing as he is writing. He has written a book about deciding to be a writer, and he has become a writer by writing about it. He does all this without a touch of preciousness or self-consciousness.
Rodriguez’s style blends the formal and the colloquial; sentence-fragments abound in his conversational idiom, and he uses parentheses liberally, on virtually every page. “No longer would people ask me,” he writes, after the advent of Chicano consciousness, “as I had been asked before, if I were a foreign student. (From India? Peru?)” It is both a public and a personal style, distinctively that of Richard Rodriguez, whose readers—a multitude of strangers—will look forward to meeting him again.