Origins of a Memoir/ Autobiography
I’ve read a lot of memoirs, autobiographies, personal essays, collected letters, and autobiographical novels in my life, but this is the first time I’ve studied the memoir/ autobiographical form as a genre. An interesting fact I learned right away was that the word “memoir” comes down to us from the Latin “memoria,” meaning memory or reminiscence, through the Anglo-French memorie in the mid-1500s, meaning “a note, memorandum, something written to be kept in mind,” to the first English usage of memoir in the 1670s, meaning a person’s written account of his life (Rasois). Nowadays, the words” memoir” as well as “autobiography” have become variously interchangeable between the two. When I first began researching this genre of literacy, I thought I had a pretty vague, but still decent, understanding of the two words distinctions. I believed a memoir referred to an account of a portion of the writer’s life, focused not only on the writer, but also on the people who were influencing it and that an autobiography dealt solely on oneself and referred to the writer’s whole life. Later, I found a very particular definition, or point of view, of a memoir that caught my attention. “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life,” said Gore Vidal, “while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, and facts double-checked” (Vidal 37). It struck me solely due to the how different he defined each literary term, not coinciding with mine. It is generally agreed the author of the first memoir was St. Augustine, a Catholic theologian who lived during the tail end of the Roman Empire. In his Confessions, Augustine details the many sins of his youth in a Tom Sawyerish, bad-boy-stealing-apples way. The climax comes with his reading of St. Paul and subsequent conversion to orthodox Christianity and a life of chastity. Augustine also established a fundamental convention of the genre, the rationale, the point up front where the author...
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