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When Memory Speaks Paperback – February 22, 1999

ISBN-13: 978-0679766452 ISBN-10: 0679766456 Edition: Reprint

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (February 22, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679766456
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679766452
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,105,635 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"Why," asks Jill Ker Conway, "is autobiography the most popular form of fiction for modern readers?" As the author of two stellar memoirs--The Road from Coorain and True North--Conway would seem superbly qualified to answer her own question. Her initial premise is that naturalistic fiction has lost much of its power to enchant, that the cynical readers of our fin de siecle are unwilling to suspend their disbelief for a run-of-the-mill storyteller. Only the memoirist's factual frolics can truly engage us and satisfy our craving to be "allowed inside the experience of another person who really lived and who tells about experiences which did in fact occur."

This clear-cut distinction between the two forms is, of course, highly dubious, and Conway is quick to acknowledge the rather porous nature of autobiographical "truth." In fact, she argues, all memoirs tend to conform to certain narrative patterns. What's more, Conway classifies these patterns along gender lines: men produce epic adventures, in which the testosterone-driven protagonist battles against nature and society for control of his fate, while women are quicker to record the trials of domestic life and evolving consciousness. Conway draws on the entire history of autobiography for her discussion, from Saint Augustine and Germaine Greer to Vanessa Bell and Frank McCourt. (But what happened to Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, a title Conway echoes in her own?) At times her subjects stubbornly refuse to conform to the appropriate, his-and-hers pattern--suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst's My Own Story, for example, has the manly sound of "a series of communiques from a general in the field." Yet Conway's trawl through the history of the genre is full of brilliant insights as well as less known autobiographical gems, and no memoir-mad reader will want to miss it. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Memoirs often include events and thoughts that reveal the author's perception of how they see themselves, frequently excluding known aspects of their lives. Omissions, or a narrow focus, lead Conway (True North; The Road from Coorain) to state that autobiographical writing "is the most popular form of fiction for modern readers." To illustrate the selectivity of memory, Conway considers the literature of the genre in its multiple guises. She examines distant memoirs (St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass) with great sensitivity for the cultural climates in which they were written. In these and in the broad-ranging excerpts from more recent autobiographies (Lee Iacocca, Ellen Glasgow, Gloria Steinem, Frank McCourt, Jean-Dominique Bauby, Kathryn Harrison), Conway shows a particular interest in discovering how these books reflect the views of their eras, thereby giving a historical perspective on our own. She notes that, overall, women?even the most publicly assertive?demur when writing their lives, rarely expressing accomplishments, decisions, even agency for their actions, although historically, men do. "Few of us," notes Conway, "give close attention to the forms and tropes of the culture through which we report ourselves to ourselves." Conway's small gem is a landmark in eliciting fresh contemplation of the inchoate complexity of memory's manifold voices.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Dorion Sagan on March 4, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This book is a fascinating, clear, balanced, and informed look at what Conway calls "the most popular form of fiction for modern readers"--autobiography. Although Conway is drawn to modern themes of race and gender, she also has a keen critical eye, balances the popular with the less-well-known, and the present with the past. She focuses on meaning making, the way people see their own lives, and the lessons they draw for others from them. For better or worse (and often worse) she argues, the Homeric Greek hero on his action packed odyssey is archetype for meaningful autobiography. Church father Augustine in his Confessions (c. 400) internalized the action, chronicling his attempts to resist temptation and submit to the will of God.Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Confessions (1871) attempts to succeed on the temporal level, to be a worldly success in touch with self and emotions beyond society's external laws. Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography (1818) defines such worldly success in economic terms based on diligence and delayed gratification. The analysis of 19th century women's rights leaders such as Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are artfully analyzed through their autobiographies, as are colorful female personalities less obviously political such as stepbrother-abused Virginia Wolf (1882-1941) and the hilarious Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962)who was married four times (and had an affair with D.H. Lawrence) and wrote a four-volume memoirs entitled Intimate Memories. More familiar feminists such as Australian Germain Greer, Gloria Steinem ("full-time feminist leader, slipping into the role of caregiver for the feminist movement and unable to care for herself") are also analyzed with a critical focus of Conway's refreshingly non-monolithic feminism.Read more ›
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Story Circle Book Reviews on December 19, 2007
Format: Paperback
Jill Ker Conway, author of The Road from Coorain and True North, is one of our most widely-read and admired memoirists. Her books are praised for their graceful explorations of our most urgent questions of personal meaning: Where do I come from? What is my story? How has my past experience shaped me?

In When Memory Speaks, Conway turns her attention from her own life to the stories of other lives, looking at the modern memoir and the way it reflects our culture and ourselves. She isn't writing exclusively about women, but this is a help, for she uses the narrative patterns of men's stories about their lives to show how women's memoirs evolved, comparing and contrasting the forms. Using examples from the autobiographies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, David Livingston, Conway shows that men's stories typically involve the self-made hero who creates his life in conflict with social or natural forces. In men's memoirs, she says, the male hero reveals himself as acting upon the world in order to give it the shape and meaning he chooses.

Conway argues that until very recently, women's memoirs have shown quite a different pattern. They reveal the autobiographer as a "romantic heroine" who is acted upon, who seems to believe that she lacks control over her destiny and tends to censure her shaping role in her own story in order to satisfy her readers' expectations. Conway shows, for instance, that Jane Addams developed the the Hull House project after several active and energetic years of careful study of European social reform--and yet she writes about her idea in the passive voice, as if she were its agent, rather than its creator.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Mattie Montalvo on February 18, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A deep, thoughtful and wonderfully written look at women's autobiography. It stirs the cauldron
of memory and makes you want to open up locked away plans for writing. The author communicates
presence of Being in her work, and a touch of Grace all throughout. I have read many, many
books on autobiography, but this one ranks as my favorite. You won't be disappointed, and you
might be encouraged to write your own story.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Ann C on February 28, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book was made to order for my personal experience, former U.S.history teacher and current memoir writer with special interests in 19th and 20th century feminism. I have read most of the autobiographies Conway uses for examples and found her analysis of them as representative of the social eras that produced them brilliant. I especially enjoyed her original, brilliant take on Jane Addams, a specialty of hers since her thesis writing years. My own writing will be better for reading this book. I have loved all of Conway's books and am a fan of hers so I knew I would get serious scholarship informed by her own unique Australian/Canadian perspective.
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