memoir

memoir

[mem-wahr, -wawr]

History or record composed from personal observation and experience. Closely related to autobiography, a memoir differs chiefly in the degree of emphasis on external events. Unlike writers of autobiography, who are concerned primarily with themselves as subject matter, writers of memoir usually have played roles in, or have closely observed, historical events, and their main purpose is describing or interpreting those events.

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for other uses, see Memoir (disambiguation)

As a literary genre, a memoir (from the French: mémoire from the Latin memoria, meaning "memory"), or a reminiscence, forms a subclass of autobiography – although the terms 'memoir' and 'autobiography' are today almost interchangeable. The author of a memoir may be referred to as a memoirist.

Nature of memoirs

Memoirs may appear less structured and less encompassing than formal autobiographical works as they are usually about part of a life rather than the chronological telling of a life from childhood to adulthood/old age. Traditionally, memoirs usually dealt with public matters, rather than personal, and many older memoirs contain little or no information about the writer, and are almost entirely concerned with other people. Also, many memoirs deal with one certain moment that is stretched out to show emphasis. They tended to be written by politicians or people in court society, later joined by military leaders and businessmen, and often dealt exclusively with the writer's careers rather than their private life. Modern expectations have changed this, even for heads of government. Like most autobiographies, memoirs are generally written from the first person point of view.

Gore Vidal, in his own memoir Palimpsest, gave a personal definition: "a memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked." It is more about what can be gleaned from a section of one's life than about the outcome of the life as a whole.

Contemporary practices of writing memoirs for recreational, family or therapeutic purposes are sometimes referred to as legacy writing or personal history. Such products may be assisted by professional or amateur genealogists, or by ghostwriters.

Types of memoir

Memoirs have often been written by politicians or military leaders as a way to record and publish an account of their public exploits. In the eighteenth century, "scandalous memoirs", allegedly factual but largely invented, were written (mostly anonymously) by prostitutes or libertines: these were widely read in France for their vulgar details and gossip. In another vein, the pagan rhetor Libanius framed his life memoir as one of his orations, not the public kind, but the literary kind that would be read aloud in the privacy of one's study. This kind of memoir refers to the idea in ancient Greece and Rome, that memoirs were like "memos," pieces of unfinished and unpublished writing which a writer might use as a memory aid to make a more finished document later on.

Women writers have been prominent amongst those combining the memoir form with historical non-fiction writing. Examples include Jung Chang's Wild Swans. Maxine Hong Kingston's book The Woman Warrior is an example of a memoir that combines factual material with fictional material as it tells the author's story and the story of her family.

Some professional contemporary writers such as David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs have specialised in writing amusing essays in the form of memoirs. To some extent this is an extension of the tradition of newspaper columnists' regular accounts of their lives. (Cf. the work of James Thurber which often has a strong memoir-like content).

Another category of memoir is the eyewitness account of history by onlookers to major events or particular eras; Slave narratives (e.g. the memoirs of Frederick Douglass) fall into this category as do those by Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. <>

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