Plains Folk

My Life


If you’re not writing one, then perhaps you ought to think about it, because everyone else is. A memoir, I mean. An autobiographical work telling all, or all you want to tell, about your life.

I got to thinking about this type of literature when I was asked to give a talk about Eric Sevareid as memoirist. Most people remember Sevareid for his nightly commentaries on CBS TV news, but before that, he was a World War II radio correspondent. His memoir, Not So Wild a Dream, starts with his boyhood in Velva, North Dakota; carries through the war; and gives Sevareid’s hopes and vision for a better world to come following that terrible conflict.

This line of thought led me to a new book, Memoir: A Short History, by a journalism prof from Deleware, Ben Yagoda. He has a lot of fun poking fun at the silly memoirs produced by all-too-famous and all-too-ordinary people in recent years, as well as the simple profusion of such writing. Maya Angelou and Jimmy Carter have produced eight memoirs each!

The prairies have produced their fair share of memoirists. I remember a few years ago I was on a talk radio show to discuss George Armstrong Custer’s book, My Life on the Plains. The host, a friend, nevertheless likes to throw a tricky question into any interview situation. It happened that former president Bill Clinton had just published his book, My Life. The host therefore asked how Clinton’s work compared with Custer’s?

I had read just enough of Clinton’s to respond that both authors were rather self-centered individuals who had won fame but then been discredited by personal mistakes; that both autobiographies were partial confessions of errors and faults, but largely arguments that the authors had learned from their mistakes and achieved personal growth; and that both wrote their books in order to win back public affection.

Such memoirs as Custer’s and Clinton’s teach us not to trust memoirists too much. Sometimes they lie, sometimes they misremember, sometimes they just make things up. When people start writing these things they seem to come unstuck from the usual standards of veracity. For a half-century people have treated Wallace Stegner’s prairie memoir, Wolf Willow, as if it were a compilation of fact, whereas it is a work of imagination.

Then, too, when memoirists write about their early years, their recollections are limited by the child’s capacity to comprehend the world. For instance, one of the great memoirs of the plains is Sod and Stubble, by John Ise. This story of a Kansas homestead is particularly notable for its sympathetic view of the author’s mother, Rosie. Well, John Ise had polio as a boy and was largely confined to the house and yard, near his mother. It was his tragically limited scope of observation that made the memorable memoir.

I am not, currently, writing a memoir. Unless you count this column, which is, after all, week after week, my life on the plains. Unlike Custer, I don’t claim to be improving myself, but then, look what happened to him.

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