Memoir (from French: mémoire: memoria, meaning memory or reminiscence), is a literary nonfiction genre. More specifically, it is a collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public or private that took place in the author's life. The assertions made in the work are understood to be factual. While memoir has historically been defined as a subcategory of autobiography since the late 20th century, the genre is differentiated in form, presenting a narrowed focus. Like most autobiographies, memoirs are written from the first-person point of view. An autobiography tells the story of a life, while memoir tells a story from a life, such as touchstone events and turning points from the author's life. The author of a memoir may be referred to as a memoirist.
Historically, memoir has been defined as a subcategory of autobiography. While the art of memoir is nonfiction and written from the first-person point of view (much like autobiography), memoir is differentiated in form from autobiography. Rather than summarizing a life in whole, the memoir offers a much more narrow form. An autobiography tells the story of a life, while memoir tells a story from a life. Memoir is more about what can be gleaned from a few years or a moment in the life of the author, than from the author's life as a whole. In his own memoir Palimpsest: A Memoir, the author Gore Vidal writes about the first 40 years of his life. In narrative, he gave a personal definition of the art of memoir. "A memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked."
The term memoirs has often been used to describe works that are more properly defined as autobiography, than the literary memoir. Memoir has been used interchangeably with autobiography or "memoirs", generally referred to in the possessive, "my memoirs" or "his memoirs", which were much like a collection of different memories from the author's life and thrown together. Katharine Hepburn's book, Me: Stories of My Life, has often been referred to as Hepburn's memoirs. Hepburn herself warns the reader that the book fails to follow a pattern common with the memoir. She refers to the book as "stories of [her] life. And when I say stories I'm afraid I mean flashes—this—that—no no the other thing."
Memoir has been written since the ancient times, as shown by Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico, also known as Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. In the work, Caesar describes the battles that took place during the nine years that he spent fighting local armies in the Gallic Wars. His second memoir, Commentarii de Bello Civili (or Commentary on the Civil War) is an account of the events that took place between 49 and 48 BC in the civil war against Gnaeus Pompeius and the Senate. The noted Libanius, teacher of rhetoric who lived between an estimated 314 AD and 394 AD, framed his life memoir as one of his literary orations, which were written to be read aloud in the privacy of his study. This kind of memoir refers to the idea in ancient Greece and Rome, that memoirs were like "memos", or pieces of unfinished and unpublished writing, which a writer might use as a memory aid to make a more finished document later on.
In the Middle Ages, Geoffrey of Villehardouin, Jean de Joinville, and Philippe de Commines wrote memoirs, while the genre was represented toward the end of the Renaissance, through the works of Blaise de Montluc of France. Until the Age of Enlightenment encompassing the 17th and 18th centuries, works of memoir were written by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury; François de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac of France; and Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon, who wrote Memoirs at his family's home at the castle of La Ferté-Vidame. While Saint-Simon was considered writer possessing a high level of skill for narrative and character development, it wasn't until well after his death that his work as a memoirist was recognized, resulting in literary fame.
From the eighteenth century
Over the latter half of the 18th through the mid-20th century, memoirists generally included those who were noted within their chosen profession. These authors wrote as a way to record and publish their own account of their public exploits. Authors included politicians or people in court society and were later joined by military leaders and businessmen. An exception to these models is Henry David Thoreau's 1854 memoir Walden, which presents his experiences over the course of two years in a cabin he built near Walden Pond.
Twentieth-century war memoirs became a genre of their own, including, from the First World War, Ernst Jünger (Storm of Steel) and Frederic Manning's Her Privates We. Memoirs documenting incarceration by Nazi Germany during the war include Primo Levi's If This Is a Man, which covers his arrest as a member of the Italian Resistance Movement, followed by his life as a prisoner in Auschwitz; and Elie Wiesel's Night, which is based on his life prior to and during his time in the Auschwitz, Buna Werke, and Buchenwald concentration camps.
With the expressed interest of preserving history through the eyes of those who lived it, some organizations work with potential memoirists to bring their work to fruition. The Veterans History Project, for example, compiles the memoirs of those who have served in a branch of the US Military – especially those who have seen active combat. Many public libraries give Memoir Writing classes that are geared towards senior citizens.
- Vidal, Gore (1995). Palimpsest: A Memoir, Random House, page 5. ISBN 978-0679440383
- Barrington, Judith (1997). Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, Eighth Mountain Press, page 19. ISBN 978-0933377417
- Hepburn, Katharine (1991). Me: Stories of My Life, Knopf, page 5. ISBN 978-0679400516
- Saintsbury, George (1911). Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy, Duc de, In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica, 24 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press, pp. 47, 48.
- e.g., http://www.wickedlocal.com/scituate/news/x529239934/Library-offers-memoir-class
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