Most helpful critical review
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 7, 2013
This book was published in 1995 and contained 35 pieces of autobiography by as many writers. Most were excerpts from memoirs, a few were short stories included in full (Don Asher, William Kittredge and Barry Lopez).
The works ranged from an excerpt of The Education of Henry Adams in 1905 to pieces from 1993 by Barry Lopez and Chris Offutt. They were mostly from the 1960s to 90s, with works from the 1980s comprising nearly half of the collection. The oldest authors were Henry Adams (1838-1918), Hamlin Garland and the native American Left-Handed, the youngest were Tobias Wolff, Harry Middleton and Chris Offutt (1958-). Nine of the writers were women.
The editors tried to offer a variety of types of writing, themes and locations, ranging from straightforward descriptions to shifts between past and present, mixed with a few pieces that were humorous or philosophical. Works were set in many parts of the country, in the north, south, west and midwest.
For this reader, the standouts were an excerpt from Growing Up by Russell Baker, which used letters with skill to show how the Depression crushed his mother's hope for love and security. James Baldwin looked back at his father and himself in a rambling but moving section. Malcolm X described early turning points in his life, including a trip to Boston and disappointment with a teacher's hypocrisy. Richard Wright detailed his struggle to overcome the barriers thrown in his way to get an education and find new ways of seeing the world.
Tobias Wolff described scheming his way into prep school, while his brother Geoffrey's work focused on their con-man father. Anne Moody covered efforts at desegregation in the South amid turmoil and brutality. The excerpt by Henry Adams contained muddled, repetitive but still striking thoughts on the new century, as he struggled to grasp it from a historian's point of view. Hamlin Garland described farm life in the 19th century. I appreciated this anthology for including writers like these.
A number of the works focused on children as they began to find their way into the larger world or covered parent-child relations and an influential parent. Couples and authors' marriages received less attention. African-American experience in particular was covered in some depth (Hurston, Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Malcolm X, Moody, Wideman). But for a book published in the 90s, it might've been good to include a writer after the 1960s -- in addition to Wideman -- to show a more contemporary picture.
For me, the book contained a few too many pieces on growing up or working on the farm (Stegner, Kittredge), works that didn't really stand out (McConkey, Howard) or ones that seemed plodding and pretentious (Eiseley, Buechner). Writing that was even more varied would've been welcome. What it felt like to be poor and homeless in the present could've been described by Lee Stringer or someone writing just before him. Something could've described drug addiction (Junky by William Burroughs or The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll). Or violent family dysfunction (Shot through the Heart by Mikal Gilmore). Or war (World War II by James Jones, or something on Vietnam by Tim O'Brien, Ron Kovic or others); from this collection, a reader might get the impression that no American ever went off to fight. Something might've been included by Studs Terkel on Chicago or Lydia Lunch on Los Angeles.
Additional Hispanic-American writers like Luis Rodriguez would've been informative. Or even one Italian-American writer like Jerre Mangione, or a Japanese-American writer like Hisaye Yamamoto. Or something by a politician or major businessman. Or a description of religious experience (Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy) or -- since this was the US -- the immigrant experience (Achy Obejas, We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?).