Definition of Memoir
A memoir is a collection of memories that someone writes about his or her own life. While the memories can be public or private—and are often a mix of the two if the memoirist is a famous person—a memoir is understood to be as factual as memory permits. Indeed, there was a controversy when James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces was labelled as memoir, and later revealed to be fictional in part.
The word memoir comes from the French word mémoire, in which it means “memory” or “reminiscence.”
Difference Between Memoir and Autobiography
The definition of memoir is very similar to that of autobiography; in fact, many consider memoirs to be a subset of the of autobiography. There is a key difference, however: an autobiography can cover an entire span of a life, whereas a memoir is usually centered on a specific part of a life. The memoir might cover an important turning point in a person’s life, or a particularly memorable story or group of touchstone events.
Common Examples of Memoir
Though memoir is a specific genre within the bounds of written work, there are many examples of memoirs which are very famous. This can be because the writer is already a famous person, or because the memoirs describe a particularly moving part of the person’s life which speaks to others. Here are some of the most famous memoir examples that have become part of cultural consciousness:
- Henry David Thoreau’s Walden
- Elie Wiesel’s Night
- Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love
- Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father
- Cheryl Strayed’s Wild
Significance of Memoir in Literature
There have been examples of memoirs ever since Julius Caesar wrote an account of his experience during the Gallic Wars. The popularity of memoirs has risen and fallen over the centuries. There are many examples of memoir from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and from the twenty-first century. Perhaps memoir is most popular as a form in the modern day, however. This could be because of the advent of the internet and the ease with which we are able both to research our own stories and to publish them.
Examples of Memoir in Literature
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
(Walden by Henry David Thoreau)
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is an account of his time spent living simply in nature by Walden Pond. His project stemmed from his transcendentalist philosophy to experiment with self-sufficiency. The above excerpt is one of the most famous quotes from the book, and is often taken as Thoreau’s mission statement, in a sense.
As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
(A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway)
Ernest Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast covers his time as a young man living in Paris in the 1920s. Though he was a struggling journalist at the time, he describes his experience with delight in the details, as shown in the above excerpt. His memoir also includes his interactions with other famous expatriates such as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, among others.
The human louse somewhat resembles a tiny lobster, and he lives chiefly in your trousers. Short of burning all your clothes there is no known way of getting rid of him. Down the seams of your trousers he lays his glittering white eggs, like tiny grains of rice, which hatch out and breed families of their own at horrible speed. I think pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice. Glory of war indeed!
(Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell)
As a young, idealistic man, George Orwell went to Spain to fight fascism. His experiences there informed his later ideas on war and , which he fictionalized later in his 1984. His memoir Homage to Catalonia decries the horrors of war, many of which most of us don’t even consider if we have not been in battle.
I was putting one foot in front of the other, like a machine. I was dragging this emaciated body that was still such a weight. If only I could have shed it! Though I tried to put it out of my mind, I couldn’t help thinking that there were two of us: my body and I. And I hated that body.
(Night by Elie Wiesel)
There have been countless fictional and autobiographical accounts of the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night is among the most famous, revealing the terrifying events he endured as a teenager in concentration camps.
It’s dark on Atlantic Avenue and all the bars around the Long Island Railroad Station are bright and noisy. We go from bar to bar looking for Dad. Mam leaves us outside with the pram while she goes in or she sends me. There are crowds of noisy men and stale smells that remind me of Dad when he comes home with the smell of whiskey on him.
The man behind the bar says, Yeah, sonny, whaddya want? You’re not supposeta be in here, y’know.
I’m looking for my father. Is my father here?
(Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt)
Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes describes his childhood of poverty in Ireland and, later, his young adulthood in Brooklyn. In the above excerpt, young Frank looks for his father in a bar. As an adult writer, and as adult readers, we read the sadness of this experience into it, knowing that his innocence is lost a little due to his father’s irresponsible behavior.
I have a history of making decisions very quickly about men. I have always fallen in love fast and without measuring risks. I have a tendency not only to see the best in everyone, but to assume that everyone is emotionally capable of reaching his highest potential. I have fallen in love more times than I care to count with the highest potential of a man, rather than with the man himself, and I have hung on to the relationship for a long time (sometimes far too long) waiting for the man to ascend to his own greatness. Many times in romance I have been a victim of my own optimism.
(Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert)
Elizabeth Gilbert had written a few novels before her memoir, but none were as popular as the huge breakout Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert details her divorce and decision to travel to Italy, India, and Indonesia to find new purpose in her life. Her straightforward, witty, and incisive writing , along with her themes of self discovery made this book one of the most popular memoirs of all time.