When Memory Speaks

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.