In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. G. Thomas Couser of Hofstra University explains how memoir is often the precursor of social change and the increased acceptance of minority groups.
Thomas Couser is a professor of English and the founding director of the disability studies program at Hofstra University where his teaching interests include Native American literature, life writing such as autobiography and memoir, and disability studies. His work has been published in numerous articles and books, including his 2009 work, Signifying Bodies: Disability and Contemporary Life Writing, and most recently, Memoir: An Introduction. He holds a Ph.D. From Brown University.
Dr. G. Thomas Couser – Memoir and Social Change
One way of looking at memoir--the more familiar one--is to think of it as a literary genre, a form of “creative nonfiction,” the “fourth genre” taught in MFA programs alongside the traditional three: fiction, poetry, and drama.
But memoir can also be looked at another way: as the most literary form of something most of us engage in, actively or passively, all our lives. So memoir’s weakness, from an aesthetic point of view--its location on the border between the literary and subliterary--is its strength, from a different vantage. William Dean Howells said it well, over a hundred years ago, calling it “the most democratic province in the republic of letters.” It’s an inherently democratic genre, accessible to nearly everyone and thus inclusive of many different kinds of people. It’s the genre that best expresses our individualistic, egalitarian ethos.
In American literary history, memoir has long functioned as the threshold genre through which various minorities and marginalized populations have gained access to the realm of literature. Consider the antebellum slave narrative, which first empowered African Americans to tell their lives. In the late twentieth century, memoir surges have tracked successive rights movements: the Civil Rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the gay rights movement, and the disability rights movement. Of these, the last most vividly illustrates the genre’s accessibility; in recent years memoir has issued from people whose conditions were once believed to utterly preclude self-representation--locked-in syndrome, Down syndrome, autism, and early Alzheimer’s.
Of course, as its critics claim, much memoir is self-aggrandizing, trashy, and not worth your time. But before you dismiss memoir in its entirety, remember that it has served historically--and still functions--to make visible lives that once were lived in the shadows--or were considered not worth living, let alone writing.