I. What is a Memoir?
“Memoir” comes from the French word for memory. It’s a genre of literature where the author writes about his or her memories, usually going back to childhood. Memoirs are typically written by celebrities, world leaders, pro athletes, etc. But anyone can write a memoir, and sometimes they turn out to be great works of literature even when the author hasn’t led a particularly unusual life.
Memoirs usually cover the entire span of the author’s life, but in some cases, they just cover the important parts.
II. Examples and Explanation
Saint Augustine’s Confessions is one of the most influential works of Christian theology, and it’s also a memoir. In the book, Augustine tells the story of his life and of how he found God after spending his youth wallowing in sin. The book has inspired countless people to recommit to their faith, and influenced the Western philosophical understanding of concepts like love, morality, and independence.
Tom Burgenthal, a Holocaust survivor who went on to become a judge on the International Court of Justice, wrote a memoir about his time in Auschwitz. In the book, Burgenthal tells the remarkable story of how he survived the death camp as a ten-year-old boy, and how this experience inspired him to work for the International Court to prevent other children from ever going through such horrors.
III. The Importance of Memoir
A memoir can serve all sorts of functions. The main one, of course, is just to tell a good story. A good memoir, like a good life, can be funny, sad, inspiring, absurd, and deeply relatable. By writing your stories down and figuring out their common themes, you can understand how you got to where you are today. In addition to telling a good story, memoirs can also send many messages:
- They can help support a particular political view (see “Propaganda,” section 6) or inspire the readers to change their view.
- If the public has a negative opinion on the author, writing a memoir can give him a chance to defend himself.
- On the other hand, writing a memoir is an easy way for a famous person to raise their profile and stay in the public eye.
IV. Examples in Literature
Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, by Julius Caesar, is one of the first major works of memoir. In the book, Caesar talks about his experiences fighting in Gaul. This was definitely a propagandistic memoir: Caesar presents himself as a conquering hero triumphantly marching through barbarian lands. This was intended to get people on his side against his enemies – both his external enemies (the Gauls) and the internal enemies who opposed his rise to the throne.
The philosopher Rousseau wrote an incredibly bizarre memoir about his experiences as a young man in France. Rousseau was an eccentric who frequently violated the rules of polite society in pretty extreme ways. Because he was a philosopher, many people expect Rousseau’s memoir to be a dry read, but they’re in for a shock! Some people see this as a kind of philosophical propaganda as well – Rousseau wanted people to disrespect authority and throw away their “civilized” lives in a return to “nature.” His memoir was an example of someone living exactly that way.
V. Examples in Popular Culture
David Sedaris, brother of the actress Amy Sedaris, writes hilarious memoirs about his bizarre family and the experiences he’s been through. His books (with titles like Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim) are structured with individual stories rather than a unified flow, but their common elements are humor, cynicism, and the surrealism.
In the comic book Watchmen, one of the major events in the story is when Nite Owl publishes Under the Hood, his memoirs of being a superhero. In the memoirs, Nite Owl reveals some uncomfortable details about his fellow superheroes, and this causes some of the major controversies in the book.
VI. Related Terms (with examples)
While there are some subtle differences between memoir and autobiography, they’re basically the same thing. In both cases, the author is telling his or her life story, though in the case of a memoir it might be more a collection of isolated incidents, whereas in an autobiography the memories are all united into a single story. In addition, autobiography covers the author’s entire life, while a memoir may only cover one especially important or interesting portion of it.
Propaganda is art or literature with a deliberate political slant. Not all memoirs are propaganda, but many are – they’re written with the intent of getting a particular political message across. For example, when presidents write their memoirs it’s to influence how history will think of them: these authors are trying to persuade the reader that they made the right decision while in office, and so their memoirs have a propagandistic side.
An anecdote is a short story about something that you’ve seen or experienced. A memoir might be described as a collection of anecdotes. However, there are other uses of anecdote, including in essays. An anecdote can help frame your argument or illustrate a particular point. Be careful, though! While anecdotes are useful for illustration, they’re not the same thing as data, and generally should not be used as evidence for what’s happening in society (unless no data is available).