Ordinary Lives: Memoirs of American Woman

T he last half-century has seen the emergence of autobiographical writing as a major form among American women writers. Since the autobiographical tradition prior to this time belonged more to men than to women, women's voices, particularly "ordinary" women's voices, were relatively unheard. In addition, earlier autobiography was typically motivated by the desire of famous or "special" individuals to record and preserve significant thoughts and historically important experiences. Recent women's autobiographies, however, appear to grow most often from a writer's need to make sense of her life, to define herself by intellectually mastering her experiences, and to locate her place in a broader concept of history.

The six writers represented in this series bring widely varied personal contexts to their narratives. Their memoirs nevertheless share the common belief that the act of remembering and reexamining experiences through writing has both individual value and larger social significance. In constructing, rather than simply accepting, their life histories, they shape or reinvent themselves as they shape their texts. Each confronts inevitable change-usual or unusual, expected or unexpected-but manages through writing not just to endure, but to understand and grow. Their memoirs illustrate the power of personal quests to illuminate experience beyond themselves.

Kate Simon's classic memoir Bronx Primitive (1982) recreates her childhood as a Polish Jewish immigrant in New York during the years following World War I. Set against the background of the Tremont Avenue section of the Bronx, the book details the family culture and immigrant neighborhood of Simon's childhood, as well as her relationships with an autocratic father and a well-meaning, but essentially powerless mother. The vividness and candor of her account have made it for many the model of a well-written memoir.

On the surface, An American Childhood (1987) by Annie Dillard is a sunny, often endearing account of growing up in an idiosyncratic, well-to-do family in 1950s Pittsburgh. Yet, beyond the nostalgia it may inspire, it is the singularly compelling description of Dillard's awakening to the physical world and of the growth of her mind. Dillard underscored the difficulties of writing about one's childhood by saying, "You can't put together a memoir without cannibalizing your own life for parts." The "parts" she recovers are reconstructed with the maturity of a writer and naturalist whose memoir is one of the most celebrated of our time.

In Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968), Anne Moody recalls what it was like to grow up black in the South of the 1940s and 1950s. Her loss of innocence is marked by her courage as a young woman to challenge injustices during the early Civil Rights movement. Moody's autobiography is a landmark work in what has been called the "new literature of obscurity" of the late 1960s. Like Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land, it reminds us that the spotlight of truth can rest unforgettably on the "ordinary" life.

Natalie Kusz's Road Song (1990) describes the challenges and hardships that faced Kusz and her family when her parents decided to leave Los Angeles in the late 1960s and search for an alternate life-style on the Alaskan frontier. Soon after their arrival, six-year-old Kusz was savagely attacked by a neighbor's sled dog and nearly died. Her account of the physical and emotional struggles that followed this experience is notable not only for the fortitude it reflects but for its steady avoidance of self-pity and its lyrical voice.

Mary Clearman Blew's All But the Waltz combines memoir with personal essay in a vital, unromanticized account of her family's hundred-year history on the Central Montana plains. Interspersing snippets of her own story with a series of loosely connected ancestral narratives, Blew recreates and reconsiders the profound effects of a bleak, yet beautiful landscape on the human psyche. Her attempts to understand her own struggles in the context of inherited landscape and culture reveal the power of story to link people across generations and to inform experience.

Madeleine L'Engle's Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage is the memoir of her forty-year marriage to actor Hugh Franklin. In this moving and ultimately joyous book, written during the summer of her husband's final illness, L'Engle participates in her husband's dying, recreates their shared life, and contemplates life in all of its richness, adventures, surprises, and sorrows.

Suggested Further Readings

For further exploration of American women's autobiographies and memoirs, look for these titles at your local library or bookseller. The Wyoming Council for the Humanities cannot provide these titles for addition or substitution in this series.

Mary Clearman Blew, Balsamroot
Bebe Campbell, Sweet Summer: Growing Up With and Without My Dad
Lorene Carey, Black Ice
Veronia Chambers, Mama's Girl
Mary Crow Dog, Lakota Woman
Anne Ellis, Life of an Ordinary Woman
Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments
Doris Grumbach, Coming Into the End Zone
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, Farewell to Manzanar
Hettie Jones, How I Became Hettie Jones
Maxine Hong Kingston, Woman Warrior
Mary Karr, The Liar's Club
Madeleine L'Engle, The Crosswicks Journal
Mary McCarthy, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Cross Creek
May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude
Alix Kates Shulman, Drinking the Rain
Kate Simon, A Wider World
Susan Allen Toth, Blooming: A Small Town Girlhood

Background Readings in Women's Autobiography

Cahill, Susan, ed. Introduction. Writing Women's Lives: An Anthology of Autobiographical Narratives by Twentieth-Century American Women Writers. HarperCollins, 1994. (A fairly extensive bibliography is included.)

Rose, Phyllis. Introduction. The Norton Book of Women's Lives. Norton, 1996.

Gunn, Janet Varner. Autobiography: Toward a Poetics of Experience. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Jelinek, Estelle C., ed. Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism. Indiana University Press, 1980.

Pearlman, Mickey. Listen to Their Voices: Twenty Interviews With Women Who Write. Norton, 1993.

Retired Discussion Series

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