My wife dreams of Brazilian cities: Salvador da Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, enormous South American cityscapes of sunlit beaches and anonymity. She hasn’t lived in Brazil since she was a child, and she still imagines those cities as entirely happy and unselfconscious”even childish. Places that seem to stand outside the curse of politics and history’s big ideas. Cities content in their sunshine to let the future be something that happens altogether elsewhere.
I dream instead of the prairie, when I long for escape from the life we’ve lived in Washington, Boston, and now New York”America’s busy east-coast cities, our home in the years since we were married in the small chapel at Georgetown after we finished college. A few years ago, when I was out west visiting my childhood home in Pierre, South Dakota, I drove up, in the late afternoon, to one of the river hills on the edge of town. Why is the sun so much bigger out on those plains than it is back east? Sitting on the hood of the car to watch the huge orange sunset beyond the Missouri, I thought: Here is where I ought to be, here is where I should stay”returning all those things that leaving here had turned.
Up north, down south, back east, out west: Our geographical prepositions have come adrift, even as we seem to have lost our national story. Some memory of their grandparents’ arrival in the Dakotas, some last lingering sense of the westward course of history since Columbus, made my parents insist we say back east and out west. Back was civilization, the old country, the origin. Out was the frontier, the undiscovered country, the goal.
In her early books about a child’s life on the frontier, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells of her family’s wanderings from a log cabin in the big woods of Wisconsin, to a little house on the prairie in southern Kansas, and on to a sod dugout on the banks of Minnesota’s Plum Creek. Her later volumes, however, chronicle her pioneer girlhood once her parents had settled down, at last, in a farmhouse near De Smet, South Dakota. And when an old Kansas neighbor visits on his way out to the new territory opening up in Montana”stopping by on his journey further west”the teen-aged Laura cries that her family should be moving too. I know, little Half-Pint,’ said Pa, and his voice was very kind. You and I want to fly like the birds.’
But for me, east is where I flew away to, and west is back toward home. When I think about abandoning the life I have these days, I imagine living on one of those dry Dakota buttes overlooking the river, alone with my family, miles from the nearest neighbor”a final refuge from the noise and rush, a perpetual anti-Washington, anti-New York. An anti-East, forever set apart and free.
Then I shake myself awake and remember that I’d probably starve to death attempting it. Perhaps my dreams of the prairie”my wife’s dreams of Brazil, for that matter”are merely the standard-issue reveries by which settled people imagine they might somehow throw off their responsibilities and make a change. Perhaps they’re merely daydreams of difference: the perpetual illusion that life might be lived down some entirely other path, the mirage that promises we can find what our spirits are missing simply by relocating our tired bodies.
But there is also a current in the mind that seems, inevitably, to pull fantasies about the future down into the dangerous eddies of the past. I know that what we might call second innocence ”our grown-up goodness, our adult perfection, if we could ever reach it”must be different from the first innocence we knew as children. What we lost when we were young is not what we should seek when we are old.
I know all that, and yet the logic of human imagination always joins what might be with what has already been, every possible future somehow dependent on the past. Anyone can cure a patient’s neurosis, an old psychoanalysts’ joke runs. All you have to do is travel back in time and change the way his parents were treated as children.
It’s in vain to recall the past unless it works some influence upon the present, Betsy Trotwood warns the young hero of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield : sound advice, but the damaged boy, Dickens’ most autobiographical character, cannot take it. We do so much in vain, attempting with memory to repair the broken past”as though we might arrange thereby a perfect future, as though the Eden we lost at the beginning is the same as the Heaven we must find at the end.
In looking back we perform a kind of simulated eavesdropping: a listening-in, as adults, on what we experienced as children, but this time, we imagine, with understanding. This time, getting it right.
So, what’s a memoirist to do? Every human situation, the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus once warned, is like a vase with two handles: If you have quarreled with your brother, you can grasp the handle which is the fact that you have quarreled, or you can grasp the handle which is the fact that he is your brother.
For a decade and a half, from the early 1990s on, America has seen the publication of innumerable memoirs and lightly fictionalized accounts of childhood. Such books as Mary Gordon’s The Shadow Man , Lois Gould’s Mommy Dressing , Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss , Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club , Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother , Jacki Lyden’s Daughter of the Queen of Sheba , Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes , and Michael Ryan’s Secret Life ”they appeared in such a ceaseless stream that even professional book reviewers felt flooded by them, and half the New York literary crowd swore they’d never read another, no matter what former best friend wrote it.
What’s interesting, however, is that all these books are gripping accounts, beautifully told, of strangeness, peculiarity, and unpleasantness. And they are all deeply determined to be revelatory , as though the truth that hides beneath memory’s evasions can be uncovered only by grasping what Epictetus would have called the handle of the quarrel: the quarrel of daughters with their mothers, the quarrel of brothers with their sisters, the quarrel of human beings with their existence.
Perhaps these recent authors are right in the way they approach memory. Some sixty years earlier, the nation suffered through a similar run of memoirs and lightly fictionalized books about childhood, from Betty Smith’s Irish Catholic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to Sydney Taylor’s Jewish All-of-a-Kind Family ”to say nothing of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s eight Little House on the Prairie volumes.
It is unfair, of course, to lump these books together. Clarence Day’s Life with Father , published in 1935, was wry”in those days’ approved New Yorker -y way”about being a child back in the 1890s. But the Gilbreth children’s Cheaper by the Dozen , published a decade later, seems oddly more old-fashioned, mostly because of its unabashedly Victorian worship of a dominating paterfamilias. (The authors’ father, Frank Gilbreth, was the engineer who helped create the fad for efficiency experts and motion studies in 1920s American business; therbligs , the engineering units in which the elements of a mechanical task are measured, derive from his last name spelled backward, more or less.)
Still, however much the old-style memoirs and novels of American childhood varied from one another, they had certain things in common: a similarity of conceit, a determination to be generally pleased with the past, only one handle picked in the choice of Epictetus. Does anyone still read these forgotten bestsellers? Bellamy Partridge’s Country Lawyer and its sequel Big Family , about being a lawyer’s son in upstate New York? Hartzell Spence’s One Foot in Heaven and its sequel Get Thee Behind Me , about being a preacher’s son on the Methodist circuit in Iowa? Spence went on, while editing Yank magazine during World War II, to coin the noun pin-up to describe the weekly pictures he published of Rita Hayworth, Hedy Lamarr, and other Hollywood bathing beauties. One doubts, somehow, that this is quite what his Wesleyan parents had in mind for him.
But, then, few of us are all our parents hoped we’d be. Though often dismissed as unbearably sentimental, the earlier American memoirs are not, in truth, much more sentimental than their later counterparts. Both typically accept the picture of larger-than-life parents dominating the adult writer’s memory of childhood. The newer books differ mostly by calling this a bad thing. In her 1997 memoir The Shadow Man , Mary Gordon, for instance, seems to believe that by being anti -sentimental about her father she can achieve the accuracy of the un- sentimental”as though black-tinted lenses will see more clearly than rose-tinted ones.
There is some dispute about who coined the description of bad biographies as adding a new terror to death. It may have been John Arbuthnot, describing the torrent of miserable, catchpenny books that eighteenth-century publishers issued immediately after the death of anyone famous. Regardless, the phrase ought to have been reserved for the way deceased parents have been treated in the recollections of childhood published over the last decade and a half. Who would risk bringing up literary children, if the reward is those children’s adding this new terror to their parents’ deaths?
A few years ago, reviewing for the Los Angeles Times a mild memoir by a woman who had adopted a disturbed boy, the poet Richard Howard wrote: I must acknowledge an interest, or rather a dismay, in discussing this family memoir,’ for from experience and observation I have come to regard the American Nuclear Family in the last fifty years as the enemy of individual determination, of personal autonomy”in short, as a disease.
It hardly seems necessary to point out that the old style of memoir held the opposite: Family was not the disease, but the cure. Probably that’s why most of those accounts of pre-World War II childhood were determined never to grasp the handle of the quarrel. Believing the moral order interwoven with the facts of the physical universe, memoirs like Kathryn Forbes’ 1943 Mama’s Bank Account imagine that suppressing nearly everything personally unpleasant about parents is truer to reality”simply for being the moral thing to do in a world in which morality itself is true. Believing instead that facts are utterly divorced from the values of the moral order, memoirs like Lois Gould’s 1998 Mommy Dressing hold that accurate reporting of the unpleasant is the only honest thing to do”at least in part because the fact of the unpleasantness loudly proclaims the honesty of the reporter.
Something self-serving exists in either form, of course. The whole idea of writing a memoir aims at a doubtful purpose, and autobiographies are rarely undertaken by the humble or the shy. But compelled to choose”forced to grasp only one of Epictetus’ handles”we should pick, I have come to believe, the old style as the more honorable. Every memoir of childhood is necessarily overshadowed by parents, and I could find, were I to turn my mind that way, stories of my father’s drinking, his pretension, his bounce.
But my father, being dead, is not here either to be triumphed over by my telling of those stories or to defend himself against them. The death of parents leaves their honor in their children’s hands, and the cruel accuracies we might fling in anger against them while they are alive seem even more wrong to use against them once they are gone. To the living, we owe respect; to the dead, only truth, Voltaire once opined. It’s a good line: high-minded, confident, sententious in the way only enlightened French philosophes could manage with any aplomb. But it also feels exactly backward, particularly about those we knew and loved. To squabble with our vanished parents about how they lived their lives seems more than a metaphysical nullity. It is, in fact, a moral failing.
If love is true”that is to say, a true thing: a really existing object to which the universe itself must bend”then there remains a place for reticence, and secrets swallowed, and the dead allowed to keep their darkness to themselves.
Memory may be our best tool for self-understanding, but only when we remember how weak a tool it really is: prone to warping under the narrative drive of storytelling, vulnerable to self-interest, susceptible to outside influence.
Here, for example, is a memory: To visit that hard South Dakota country in which I grew up”coming upon each little town with its water tower, its white houses, and its cemeteries filled with upright headstones”is to recognize what price the homesteaders really had to pay, for each of those towns was claimed from the plains, grave by grave. Inside are carefully planted trees and tended hedges, small square parks, right-angled corners with stop signs and streets laid out true to the compass: an aiming at an ordered life. Outside lies the wilderness: not the manicured wilderness of postcarded rain forests and picturesque mountain peaks beloved by the designers of national parks, but the real thing. A cold that kills. Pestilence and blight. Plagues of locusts and blackbirds. A summer heat that turns the high-banked cattle reservoirs first into mud pits, then into cracked-earth packets that fall to dust and blow away.
In most of my recollections of the prairie, the wind is blowing. Sheltered down between the river hills”picking chokecherries with my grandmother in the hollows by the cemetery or crawling with my friends through the gullies left by the flash floods”we felt it less. But out on the giants’ dancing plain, the wind seemed never to stop.
Sometimes in the fall the family would go rock collecting on the buttes north of town, looking for agates to tumble in the rock polisher we got for Christmas when I was six or seven. And I always wondered that my mother and father, even my sisters, didn’t seem to hear how much the dry wind was filled with hate, stunting the trees and twisting the scrub, gouging at anything that stood upright, scaling our skin and eyes, screeching in our ears cruelties and obscenities just beyond the edge of hearing. I always came home sick and trembling.
Except that, in fact, the wind often wasn’t north-northwesterly, grinding down against us from the Canadian plains. Leaping from a particular moment to some great universal claim about the way things always were, memory is false, even when it’s true”maybe especially when it’s true, maybe especially at the moment we think we’ve finally gotten the story right.
Partly that comes from the universal decay of reality that happens when we begin a story about the past, for everything runs a little smoother in the telling than it did in the living. I have a theory I sometimes put to friends late at night”one of those complicated theories you find yourself trying to explain only after you’ve had enough to drink that you can’t explain anything complicated”and it goes like this: Each time you tell a story, it loses 10 percent of whatever truth it still had left in it. The first time you explain what happened (while the highway patrolman takes notes, for instance), the story is probably around 90 percent in contact with reality.
It’s also not much of a story. It lacks a sharp beginning, sags in the middle, and sputters out to a weak conclusion. So, without really meaning to, just obeying the internal logic of the storytelling, you sand it off a little when you go over it again (while your lawyer grimaces and calculates the damages). You leave out what have come to seem the extraneous bits, you make your own role perhaps a little more central than it appeared the first time around, and you let stand out a shade more clearly the especially comic or dramatic moments.
And thus the tale loses in its second telling 10 percent of that 90 percent of the first telling, falling to around 81 percent accuracy. Tell a story ten or twelve times, and it’s only a third true. Tell a story fifty times, and the accuracy plummets down pretty close to zero” pretty close , but never quite reaching the absolute zero of pure fiction. The nice thing about this theory of truth’s geometric regression is that our anecdotes always retain some relation to the past as it actually happened, however diminishingly small that relation may become.
Meanwhile, somewhere along the line there enters the temptation to weave, into what actually was, a thread or two of what should have been. The French call it l’esprit de l’escalier , the wit of the staircase, the clever thing you ought to have said, which only comes to you on the stairs as you’re leaving, rather than back at the party when it might have done some good. And we aren’t lying”well, yes, we are lying, but we aren’t engaged in a full-blown, all-out deception for personal gain”when we let some of that esprit slip into a story the seventh or eight time we tell it. The story itself wants to run that way, and we find ourselves unable to thwart it.
So, in The Wind in the Willows , when Mr. Toad escapes from prison and returns at last to his friends, he tells Ratty all his adventures, dwelling chiefly on his own cleverness, and presence of mind in emergencies, and cunning in tight places; and rather making out that he had been having a gay and highly-coloured experience. And mark the sequel, twenty-odd pages later, when he tells the whole tale over again to Mole: The Mole was a good listener, and Toad, with no one to check his statements or to criticize in an unfriendly spirit, rather let himself go. Indeed, much that he related belonged more properly to the category of what-might-have-happened-had-I-only-thought-of-it-in-time-instead-of-ten-minutes-afterward. Those are always the best and the raciest adventures; and why should they not be truly ours, as much as the somewhat inadequate things that really come off?
The danger in all this”but, then, storytelling has lots of dangers. There’s something morally questionable about any activity that treats real human beings as pawns in a game whose goal is self-congratulation. How great, my God, is this force of memory, how exceedingly great! as the first great autobiographer, St. Augustine, observed 1,600 years ago in his Confessions . It is like a vast and boundless subterranean shrine. Who has ever reached the bottom of it? Preternaturally sensitive to the sneaks and shifts to which pride impels us, Augustine meant that word shrine ”for he knew the temptation to use the carefully patched-up stories of the past as offerings to the god of the self, worshiped at the inner altar.
For that matter, every dishonesty weakens reality by one effect or another. In a book called The Quintessence of Ibsenism , of all unlikely places, George Bernard Shaw remarks that people who routinely lie suffer from more than merely having their friends and family cease to believe them. A habitual liar eventually comes to think that everyone else must also be lying, and human interaction turns ghostly and unreal.
The worst danger, however, may be when we stop remembering just how much an exaggeration is exaggerated. Stories can reach back to change the shape of memory, even while memory is providing the basis for those stories. When I was very young, I was an escaper: a prison-breaker of toddlerdom, a Houdini of the stroller, a scaler of stairs, a mountaineer of the barriers with which parents try to cage their children. I remember it clearly.
Or, at least, I remember later hearing stories about it”so many stories, and there was a photograph of me as well, one or two years old, with one leg up on the edge of the playpen at my grandparents’ house in Rapid City. It’s not as though I have no genuine recollections of those days. I can still close my eyes and see , in perfect fragments of undatable memory, the towering look of my grandparents’ bookshelves. The long, parallel channels carved down the curved legs of the chairs, seen from under the dining-room table. The way the deep red in the borders of an oriental rug would blink, light to dark, dark to light, as I brushed the threads back and forth. But now I begin to doubt my vision of climbing from the playpen. I begin to suspect I have cobbled that would-be memory from listening to my father’s stories of my childhood”illuminated by a photograph and the few surviving flashes of early recollection.
It could easily have been something worse. During the 1980s, a kind of madness seized American pop psychology”and a great deal of serious psychiatry as well. Suddenly, nearly everyone you met or saw on television was in therapy to recover repressed memories. Is it significant that these were the years that set the stage for the more recent boom of unhappy childhood memoirs? A notion Sigmund Freud entertained briefly before abandoning it, the idea was resurrected decades later in America to become a national obsession. Major universities, teaching hospitals, and even the National Institute of Mental Health joined the craze for bringing forgotten horrors to consciousness. By 1991 commentators routinely claimed that half the patients in psychiatric care suffered repressed memories of abuse during childhood”a perfect circle in which the failure to recall abuse became proof that abuse had likely occurred.
The Harvard psychiatrist Richard J. McNally’s 2003 book Remembering Trauma is a good account of the movement’s mushroom growth and sudden collapse. It’s typically American to take an interesting but untested idea and blow it up into full-blown nuttiness”which is how the diagnosis blossomed into claims of repressed memories of Satanic orgies and experiments aboard extraterrestrial spaceships. Eventually, that nuttiness helped create a reaction against repressed memories in the late 1990s (aided by a national recoil from the widely publicized convictions of day-care workers for rituals of Satanic rape, on the basis of testimony from children whose memories had been recovered by prosecutors’ psychologists). A few large malpractice lawsuits followed, and the diagnosis rapidly faded away, leaving little to mark its passing”little, that is, but a vision of childhood as a land of horrors and tens of thousands of patients estranged from the families they had accused of sexually and physically abusing them.
Repressed-Memory Syndrome was only a brief episode in medical history, a classic instance of extraordinary popular delusion and the madness of crowds. It came, however, with a certain plausibility”or, at least, the appearance of plausibility”for it was, in one sense, merely an extreme version of a fairly common psychological transaction: blaming on the past the failures of the present.
Nearly every family I know has an adult sibling or two whose lives are dominated by memories of parents: all their stories and self-explanations looping back to some frightening or awkward moment of childhood. There is a disturbing quality about middle-aged people who still haven’t quite taken responsibility for their world, and I often feel a stern judgment welling up in me while I listen to them. A few human beings truly have been damaged irrevocably by their childhoods, but a rule might be posited for the vast majority of us: At fifteen, we get to blame our parents for the way we are; at thirty, there’s no one to blame but ourselves.
And yet, if a harsh judgment can be made here, I have to turn it on myself, for, like everyone else, I do it too from time to time: chewing on the past, mulling my parents over and over, gnawing at childhood for an explanation of the way I live now. South Dakota: Ah, yes, all my failures come from that strange, wind-blown world of South Dakota”or maybe from my eccentric relatives, or maybe from the endless cycle of divorces and remarriages that plagued my parents’ generation. And why not? If we could shove back into the past the causes of all our present anxieties and discontents, we might find them finished : There’s a reason we’ve been behaving in certain immoral and self-destructive ways, but that reason belongs to a different time, and now we’re free to move on.
And so each foray into childhood becomes a story, with all the usual temptations for shading the truth that storytelling offers”and also with the great additional temptation to blame the poison of the present on poisoners from the past: constructing not just a story but the story, the overarching master tale that explains everything away. The key, especially in the modern run of memoirs, is that the past gets explained away : lost somehow, used up, even while it is being recounted.
It is quite true what philosophy says: that life must be understood backward, Søren Kierkegaard wrote in his journals about the use of memory. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forward. Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with the thought that temporal life can never properly be understood. Caught in this whipsaw, unable to make past, present, and future cut in the same direction, I suppose I could turn my generally happy recollections upside down, coming to believe the most horrible ideas about my upbringing.
But those notions would have to be recovered from the same vague level of memory that makes me imagine I was a jail-breaking child. And the price would be parents and past made ugly and unhappy forever. The price would be childhood itself, explained away.
An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned, the Nobel prize-winning V.S. Naipaul once wrote, in a last grand defense of the traditional novel. But fiction never lies; it reveals the writer totally. If what we want is to make the past meaningful, then memoirs”in either their sentimental or their anti-sentimental form”may not be the solution to the modern writer’s peculiar situation.
Back in 1989, after the massive success of his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities , Tom Wolfe took to the pages of Harper’s magazine with a manifesto for the new social novel. In our weak, pale, tabescent moment, he claimed, there’s no one doing what Dickens and Balzac and Zola had done. We have plenty of talented writers, but the American novel is dying of anorexia, because those writers won’t go out and report on anything other than themselves. Looking around at the world of serious American literature, Wolfe saw a thousand authors all possessing a professional prose so finely honed it seemed capable of cutting to the heart of almost anything. And he couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t use it to carve up something important.
There have been some enjoyable childhood memoirs in recent years, of course. My own preference runs toward unpretentious Americana, like Homer Hickam’s Coalwood memoirs, especially Rocket Boys , and Terry Ryan’s The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less . Still, you understand Tom Wolfe’s complaint about the perfect preciousness and self-absorption of America’s high literary types. The sensitive setpieces of childhood memoir are their natural form”rehearsing old wounds in faultless prose, like precocious children picking delicately at the scabs on their pale knees.
In fact, the modern memoir was created the day the writing-teacher’s slogan, Write About What You Know, dandied itself up, bought some flowers, and went to call on Henry David Thoreau’s defense of autobiography at the beginning of Walden : I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives.
Thoreau may have been trying to make a joke”did anyone ever read Walden for the comedy?”but after a decade and a half of the modern run of memoirs, Wolfe’s protest seems more telling than ever: The last thing we need from writers is another simple and sincere account of their own lives; we’d love it if only they would go out to hear about people other than themselves.
Wolfe may have missed, however, the extent to which a specific kind of prose creates its own uses, the extent to which a particular style requires a particular sensibility. The problem, really, is that they write too well, our literary boys and girls. There’s hardly a writer now alive whose schooled prose cannot paint in sharp detail almost anything you’d care to name: a catastrophic train wreck, the death of a giant redwood tree, the way the tone-arm on a 1960s hi-fi would quiver just before it settled on the spinning phonograph record. Without being witty, they know what humor looks like on a page; without being wise, they know what shape an insight has. They know how to handle a gangster’s strongest curses, and they know how to capture a prima donna’s flightiest moods. They have a literary instrument ready to say almost anything. And they have almost nothing ready to say with it.
Our age, in other words, is an age of the literary academy, and it has all the virtues and all the vices Matthew Arnold promised when he urged English literature to build itself a counterpart to the Académie Française. Its virtues are a teachable consensus about what constitutes good writing and a single-minded concentration on the art of it all. Its vices are harder to describe precisely: a certain ennui that infects all highly stylized human activities, a prose that takes the form of revelation more often than it actually reveals anything.
It’s as though our authors have all been forced to absorb something as exquisite as, say, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek , a book of semi-mystical nature observation that’s been mandatory at writers’ workshops for years. And once an author’s been annie-dillardized, the prose gets finer and finer, and the subject gets smaller and smaller. In a column for the Wall Street Journal , I once described Alice Munro”whose collection of stories, The Love of a Good Woman , had just won the National Book Critics Circle award”as having a prose so fine it can barely lift anything heavier than a small cup of tea. There’s a description of a china cupboard in her story Cortes Island, for instance, so beautifully detailed and so profoundly pointless that it has to be read to be believed.
Except that perhaps it isn’t pointless. I begin to think that I have gotten this wrong”spent years, in fact, getting it wrong and railing against its practitioners for their cosseting of meaningless detail after meaningless detail. Dillard, Munro, and all the rest are not writing this way for no reason. They have some purpose in mind with those endless circumstantial tidbits, and they are making some attempt to solve the problem of modern writing.
Indulging an inventory of details is nothing new. Homer used it in the Iliad when he spent 296 lines cataloguing the Greek ships piled against the Trojan shore. If nothing else, it bulks up the text while the author is trying to figure out what to say next. More, such detail-studded prose is fun to write, and maybe even fun to read, in short bursts.
Here, for instance: Every fall in Pierre, to mark the end of the summer’s bare feet and sneakers, my mother would take us downtown to buy school shoes”those heavy, round-toed Buster Brown monsters that children used to wear: binding torture devices with slick tan soles that slid across the shoe-store carpet and needed a week’s scuffing on the curbs back and forth from school to make them walkable. By spring”snickered through piles of leaves, stamped in puddles, the winter’s first thin frosts shattered with their heels, salted with the de-icing on the neighbors’ snowy walks”the shoes had faded from their original chocolate-linoleum brown to a kind of colorless gray, the tape aglets on the ends of the laces long disappeared, the broken laces themselves knotted together down the tongue of the shoe, the once smooth brown toes roughened down to blotting paper.
But what advance is made by this sort of writing? All the endless focus on details in contemporary writing”it serves, mostly, as artistic expansion: the writer’s equivalent of what modern painters do when they blow up on large canvases the tiny brush strokes that classical painters once used to fill in corners of the background or the drape of a green velvet dress. A Victorian like Charles Dickens would have thrown away all this kind of thing in a passing paragraph to describe a waiter he wouldn’t even bother to name. Then he would have indulged a little facetiousness, then described in telling detail a few of the other waiters, then drawn a large moral, and then followed his story’s hero out the inn’s door, never to return.
Well, easy enough for Dickens. His prose is driven by the story he uses it to tell, and story is exactly what has become a problem for most high literature these days. Victorian novels dwell in a more complete world than ours, for they assume at least the possibility of what the scholastic philosophers would have called the unity of truth . Every art and every science has its own techniques and starting points. But in a universe of intelligibility”a world with a purpose, a goal for human life”we can feel the many arts and sciences bending toward a single, unified truth about human existence: the places that narrative wants to go, the judgments that ethics wants to make, and the brute facts of physical reality, all straining to become one. It is (or, at least, it is supposed to be) a world in which beauty is illuminated by morality, morality by rationality, and rationality by beauty.
One way to tell the literary history of the twentieth century is to follow the progression of an extremely bookish people who grew more and more uncertain, more and more diffident, more and more self-conscious, about the entire idea of telling a story or using the narrative finality of stories to convey unified judgments about society, history, or even themselves. How could we do what the Victorians had done, when we were quickly losing confidence that the way a story works reflects, in some measure, the way the world actually is?
The American memoirs from the middle of the twentieth century were still story-driven, or, at least, anecdote-driven”still confident enough in the completeness of the universe to assume that narrative is a motor by which truth can run. The newer memoirs are detail-driven instead. They have their own set of moral certainties, of course: some worse, and some better, than their predecessors’. Their prose, however, always tends to convey events with floods of particular circumstance rather than a storyline”using details like a great and inarticulate ocean, throwing wave after wave of sharply observed fact against the shore in the hope of washing down to sea a stranded meaning.
And why exactly shouldn’t we use this technique? Indeed, how could we use any other, these days? Details exist, in a way that stories don’t, apart from moral judgment. They swim beneath the messy world of virtue and vice, down in the clear, clean waters of the purely physical, as though what confronts us in memory is not the assailant’s pistol but merely molecules of blued steel arranged by some chance in a deadly way.
If stories are just about stories and contingent facts just about contingent facts”if, in other words, the moral order of meaningful narrative and the physical order of pure information can no longer be truthfully aligned”then honest writers have a responsibility to speak about only the fine details.
Those details can be used to draw a picture in such a way that readers will make moral judgments, of course. But the prose needn’t make those judgments itself. And as for the rightness and wrongness of the things described in such detail, that’s left a sort of epiphenomenon, a spume that plays above the facts”which is, perhaps, a perfect literary expression of the division the twentieth century suffered between the moral and the real.
I do not see clearly how to mend the rift between the moral and the real. Writers were once people who imagined that a king’s madness should call forth echoes in a disordered kingdom and a mad storm upon a heath, while their audiences were once people who believed that the stars themselves have a story to tell.
They both may have been righter than we are today with our demythologized details and our mistrust of sentimental stories. Those old melodramatic plots had to come from somewhere. Poetic justice, the sense of an ending, a tale with a moral like the clicking shut of a well-made box: Perhaps it isn’t that we look for them in life because we found them in stories; perhaps we look for them in stories because we saw them first in life. Forget ambiguity. The entire universe wants a neat and happy conclusion. Creation is God’s own cliff-hanger, the Perils of Pauline in six hundred billion installments, played across the stars.
And yet, the simple truth of autobiography is this: The accurate details of memory do not come naturally packaged into stories. You have to take a hammer and beat them into shape, a little.
Besides, our modern memoirists are describing lives that don’t actually feel story-shaped anymore, with some grand narrative marching from birth’s beginning to the moral of old age. And when our recent autobiographers try to force an overarching plot onto their childhoods, it turns odd and dark in their hands, just as the 1980s fascination with repressed memories always seemed to do.
I remember once climbing a hill with my grandfather on a warm October afternoon, up into that endless South Dakota wind. In truth, the wind may have been gentler than I recall it. When you’re five or six, and carrying a large paper kite against your chest like a lateen sail, a simple breeze feels like a giant’s hand that wants to pick you up and fling you back to the bottom of the hill.
Still, the details of that day remain perfect in memory. The heart-sinking dip and the upturn’s reprieve as the kite first found the wind. The burn of the twine as it raced between my thumb and the side of my fingers. The bright red diamond, crisscrossed with balsa sticks, against the pale blue sky, while the long knotted streamer spiraled below it. Then the slow, agonizing drift to the right I couldn’t halt, and the tangle with the cord of my grandfather’s own dark green diamond. Back and forth like a broken fan my kite whipped while my grandfather strained to bring them both down intact. But the string wouldn’t hold. A hundred feet of loose tether fluttered gently down from the sky, and the red paper kite dwindled in the distance, sailing east across the empty plains.
Maybe I remember this now because it seems a figure for the loss of meaning in contemporary writing, untethered from the earth. Or maybe I recall it in the way my wife thinks of Brazilian cities: as a metaphor for what we lost when we were young and why we need to revisit the past if we want to find some escape for the future.
Or maybe it stands, finally, only as a small set of incidental facts”detailed but empty, dense in recollection but signifying nothing. I don’t know. But I do see clearly at least one fact about modern memory: Those who pick up the vase of the past by the darker of Epictetus’ two handles have achieved no superior form of autobiography. Between the narratives of the old sentimental versions of family life and the details of the newer anti-sentimental accounts, we have still not found much of a way to write an American memoir or tell the story of an American childhood.
Perhaps we never will. The great tangle of weak words and warped memory and streamlined narrative offers no apparent solution. The knot will not be untied by any memoir or story”by any confession, for that matter, or affidavit, or psychiatric review. Greater and lesser honesty remains, of course: this happened, that did not. But untruth tinges all the threads. In the end, every sentence with the word I in it is a lie: self-justifying, self-righteous, self-conscious, self-sick.
Here, at last, is the theological point. Every story longs for closure, just as every human being hungers for understanding and every fact within us seems to ache for meaning. Locked down within ourselves, however, we cannot climb to the memory of memory”the place outside time from which to see time. The fact of God’s judgment is not merely a promise descending from above. It is the great human prayer, rising from below. Judgment waits for us, because we need it.
Last fall I thought again about my grandfather. On a visit down to Washington, I took my daughter to a playground near our old house in Georgetown, catching the western breeze to float the complicated polychrome fabric of modern kites out over Rock Creek Park. But after an hour, the wind sheered around to blow from the east, and while she struggled to hold the spool, her kite began to drift across the sky toward the impassible maze of the city’s houses and trees.
She seemed”oh, I can’t quite describe it. Tense, perhaps, but also confident somehow that we could pull her multicolored kite back in time. More confident than I had been, years before on that yellow prairie hill. As we carried my daughter’s saved kite back to the hotel, I remembered my own kite and the way my grandfather held my hand down the hill to the rose-brick house. Out of such pasts, what future? Let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.
Joseph Bottum is the editor of First Things . Portions of this essay previously appeared in the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal.