Wednesday, March 18, 2015

In praise of memoirs

Legal historians often use memoirs—by litigants, legal professionals and social movement activists—as raw materials for our larger narratives. Few of us reach into the scholarship on memoirs as a genre, although the Journal of Law and Society's special issue on "Legal Life Writing" (March 2015) is a happy recent exception (see this earlier post). What literary scholars call “life writing” includes memoirs, autobiographies, diaries, letters, scrapbooks, and possibly family histories. As Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson describe it, life writing reflects “historically situated practices of self-representation.” I’ve been dipping into this literature for my own work on legal memoirs and family histories, and have come across some real gems. Here are my favorites. 

If you read just one thing on life writing, make it Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s superb book, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. This classic offers a "tool kit" of themes (ch.9) that will get you thinking even in your driest moments. Some highlights include: agency, audience, authority and authenticity, coherence and closure, evidence, identity, memory, online lives, space and place, trauma and “scriptotherapy,” and voice. Equally, the book provides a handy list of sixty sub-genres of life narrative (Appendix A), like autohagiography (!), war memoirs, and narratives of captivity, conversion, filiation, imprisonment, slavery, survival, travel, and war.        

Next in line for sheer utility is Margaretta Jolly’s Encyclopedia of Life Writing:Autobiographical and Biographical Forms. This reference work offers introductions to traditions rarely covered, like Australian aboriginal, Indian subcontinental and Bulgarian life writing. Unlike many in the field, Jolly has a lot to say about non-western traditions of life writing. Her book also provides a wealth of short overviews of more written-about topics like these: archives, gossip, memoirs, narrative, obituaries, oral history, photography, scandal, testimony, travel diaries, war letters, women’s journals, and life writing on disability, illness, and insanity.  

For two very readable surveys of life writing in the western world, have a look at G. Thomas Couser’s Memoir: An Introduction (more scholarly) and Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History (less scholarly).

Some of you may share with me an interest in the Middle East and South Asia.  Consider Martin S. Kramer’s meaty edited volume, Middle Eastern Lives: the Practice of Biography and Self-Narrative. As my reading shifted from memoir to family history (and oral history), I came across the thought-provoking work of two South Asianists. I recommend Judith Brown’s skinny book, Windows into the Past: Life Histories and the Historian of South Asia. Laura Bear combines historical and anthropological sensibilities in her work on oral and family history. See this article and her book, Lines of the Nation: Indian Railway Workers, Bureaucracy, and the Intimate Historical Self

On family history and Asian diasporas, I like the work of Rocío G. Davis, including her Relative Histories: Mediating History in Asian American Family Memoirs. 

We legal historians share many primary sources with literary scholars of life writing. In the past, we haven't often read across the disciplinary divide. But we should.