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Sunday, July 16, 2006

On misery and memoirs

An essay on memoirists by Benjamin Kunkel published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review resonated with me. I even love the title Misery Loves a Memoir.

Kunkel sees a marked contrast between many contemporary memoirs (including recent "invented" memoirs) and earlier ones. He says Wordsworth's heroic argument was "that the theme of an individual's growth could claim all the dignity and moment traditionally accorded battles in heaven or on earth." Growth, not just recounting loss, abuse, mistreatment, failure (or making them up)...but learning from them.

He goes on to say that "The best and most Romantic memoir an American has produced is "Walden -- though nobody calls it one. But it is: Here is what I did with a few years of my life and how I feel about it now."

I've always loved this account of Thoreau's sojourn in the woods and for many of the reasons Kunkel mentions in his essay.

Kunkel's main problem with many modern memoirs is their tendency to dwell on bad experiences (real or fake) without even imagining the possibility of self-improvement. Of growth...


  1. I saw that, too; it was a good one. I tried to read Walden when I was in high school but I had to stop because it was my dad's old copy from school and every time I turned a page it would fall out!

  2. I loved reading this because I always think of OWP as a memoir! I feel so lucky that throughout my younger adulthood, and the first ten years of my son's life, we visited Walden Pond on an average of twice a week. It remains one of my husband's favorite 'swimming holes'.

    I'm reading Thoreau's Letters to a Spiritual Seeker right now and greatly enjoying them. But my favorite so far is still Faith in a Seed

  3. Jordan: not much more frustrating than pages falling out...I've had that experience once or twice.

    Acey: I envy you the experience of seeing Walden Pond on such a casual basis. I've only seen pictures. I will check on the other works you mention as I'm not familiar with them. Oh, and thanks for the link you sent! (Acey sent this link to Thoreau's blog. :)

  4. Funny that we both wrote about the article. Obviously Kunkel has struck a chord :)

  5. Stefanie: Yes, and I was delighted that someone else had read and commented on it. It adds to the pleasure when "discussion" is available!