From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Yagoda, biographer of Will Rogers, presents a spirited account of a form of writing that since its inception has been one of the most contested and most popular. Without dwelling too heavily on the genre's most recent scandals, Yagoda begins with the fifth-century Confessions of Saint Augustine
, still cited as a prime example. Autobiography, Yagoda says, helped give rise to the invention of the novel in 1719 when Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe
, written by himself. While this fictional memoir helped usher in real accounts of, among other things, adventures on the high seas and capture by hostile Indians, it is memoir's fraught relationship with the truth—which implicated both readers (who took Robinson Crusoe
to be a true tale) and writers (embellishing or inventing particularly sordid episodes in their lives)—that explains the memoir's longevity, popularity and breadth, says Yagoda. In a fascinating break from his chronological study, Yagoda explores the fluid definition of truth and whether, given memory's malleability, it's possible to achieve it in any memoir. With its mixture of literary criticism, cultural history and just enough trivia, Yagoda's survey is sure to appeal to scholars and bibliophiles alike. (Nov.)
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The number of memoirs published over the last four years increased 400 percent, and literary and cultural critic Yagoda wanted to know why. His quest resulted in an astute and entertaining history of autobiography, the most maligned, exploited, downright scandalous, yet irresistible of genres. Yagoda ponders the vagaries of memory and the difference between inner truths and hard facts. He traces the tradition back to the fifth-century classic The Confessions of Saint Augustine; designates Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini’s as the first “utterly modern” memoir; and praises the autobiographies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Frederick Douglass. On the contemporary front, Yagoda identifies categories ridiculous and sublime, including misery, addiction, canine, eccentric-mother, outlaw, and redemption memoirs. Fake memoirs, including James Frey’s, get fresh treatment, as does the indictment of memoirs as merely narcissistic and whiny. Yagoda is at his peppery best as he resurrects overlooked memoirs and chronicles the profound impact courageous memoirs about race, religion, sexuality, mental illness, abuse, and many other sensitive, once taboo subjects have had on our collective social conscience, inspiring and sustaining positive change. --Donna Seaman