The leverage of persona in memoir

Childhood tales by Jeannette Walls, Harry Crews & Annie Dillard

A page turner . . .

Joining millions of others, I’ve now read Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle. Walls wins the prize for modern memoir’s most dysfunctional family, edging out even Frank McCourt. Yet her damaged father inculcated Walls’s belief in herself—he made her feel special even as she wore filthy rags. And her equally neglectful but uniquely disordered mother banned self-pity and enshrined art of all kinds.

Walls became a journalist, focused on celebrity profiles and gossip, before turning to memoir. She hardly muses on her childhood or tries to make overt sense of it beyond its powerful scenic depiction. A plucky girl, she responded to her plight seemingly without much pain or terror or introspection. In the book as in life, she lets shocked witnesses judge her parents.

I felt the strength and the weakness of that approach. The Glass Castle is event-driven, and far on the scenic end of the narrative continuum. Walls bares her Dickensian childhood, long a source of shame to her, she tells us at the outset, but little of her adult soul and almost none of the one she owned as a child. Other than a slim prologue and epilogue (annoyingly labeled acts) that are written from her adult perspective, we see the world only through her less comprehending girlhood eyes.

Francine Prose concludes her long, appreciative review for The New York Times Book Review this way:

At times, the litany of gothic misfortune recalls Harry Crews’s classic memoir, ”A Childhood.” The two books have striking similarities; both, for example, feature the horrific scalding of a child. But to think about Crews’s book is to become aware of those mysterious but instantly recognizable qualities—the sensibility, the tonal range, the lyrical intensity and imaginative vision—that distinguish the artist from the memoirist, qualities that suggest the events themselves aren’t quite so interesting as the voice in which they’re recounted.

”The Glass Castle” falls short of being art, but it’s a very good memoir.

A more typical response is Cindy’s (Cindy Reads) on her old blog Conversations with Famous Writers, who also conducted a Q&A with Walls, and generated 178 comments:

From page one, her vivid descriptions pulled me into her life. It was obvious where all the good reviews stemmed. This book was not simply good—it was phenomenal. The story as fiction would have been amazing, but since this is a memoir it is even more incredible. That someone could have lived as Jeannette did and not only survive, but flourish in her adult life is worthy of all awards and accolades.

This is why The Glass Castle has achieved bestseller status and why so many students love it. It grips kids, who naturally identify with Walls, while thanking their lucky stars that their parents, bad as they are, aren’t that bad. And they can rage and judge when Walls doesn’t (as when three-year-old Jeannette catches herself ablaze while cooking hot dogs, her indifferent mother painting in the next room, and when her father kidnaps her from a hospital’s burn unit).

Francine Prose is a bit vague in her ultimately damning review of The Glass Castle, but I presume that she’s faulting Walls for a weak narrative persona. Prose seems to be making Vivian Gornick’s famous distinction in The Situation and the Story between the events of a life, the mere “situation,” and its “story,” the meaning one has extracted and the truth one has come to tell.

I think that Walls and her legion of pleased readers would say that she embeds meaning in her scenes themselves. And of course Prose seemingly criticizes the very thing that has made The Glass Castle a bestseller, its headlong narrative and lack of musing. I share Prose’s view at least to this extent: I will not feel compelled to reread The Glass Castle to unlock its secrets, whereas I’ve returned several times to Tobias Wolff’s two equally scenic memoirs, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, which feature a sparingly reflective persona.

The richness of a narrative persona has become important to me, and much of its merit has to do with a writer’s ability to achieve a dual perspective. Increasingly the memoirs I enjoy most somehow convey at once the view of the writer at her desk and that of her younger self experiencing the life being portrayed. Norman Mailer said in Advertisements for Myself that the most powerful leverage in fiction comes from point of view, and I’m starting to believe that’s true also for memoir. As Gornick asked, Who is telling this story? Persona, she said, is “the instrument of illumination.”

Harry Crews’s gothic masterpiece ‘A Childhood’

A savory classic . . .

Since I’d recently reread Gornick’s The Situation and the Story that also extols Harry Crews’s A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, I finally read that, too. I agree with Prose and Gornick that it’s a classic.

But I may be biased because I also lived in south Georgia, on a cattle ranch, until I was almost six. I imprinted on that same landscape, on the vast, flat fields bisected by dark islands of pines and bordered by sluggish creeks, overhung with oaks and magnolias, where alligators swam unseen through the black water.

A Childhood is about Crews’s life from age five to ten in that coastal plain, the son of destitute Georgia sharecroppers during the Great Depression. These are folk right out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—they’re that formally ignorant and that smart and that graced with love and that blessed with magic amidst the grimness of poverty and alcoholism and domestic abuse.

Crews’s father dies before the son can remember him. An uncle, loving but increasingly violent toward the boy’s mother, helps raise him. As its subtitle implies, the story is also palpably about that farmed-out but untamed region. The book itself is a work of art, beautifully produced by University of Georgia Press and illustrated by gorgeous woodcuts of key moments in the narrative. It’s available new at this time only in hardback, unfortunately, but at least it’s still in print.

Crews achieves a persona remarkable for reflecting from the writer’s present while conveying the world and viewpoint of the five-year-old who gets scalded one day at a hog boiling and the boy who later is incapacitated by polio.

From the very start, Crews plays with persona and memory:

My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew. It was the middle of the night in the Everglades swamp in 1925, when my daddy woke his best friend Cecil out of a deep sleep in a bunkhouse just south of the floating dredge that was slowly chewing its way across the Florida Peninsula from Miami on the Atlantic to Naples on the Gulf of Mexico, opening a route and piling dirt for the highway that would come to be known as the Tamiami Trail. the night was as dark as only a swamp can be dark and they could not see each other there in the bunkhouse. The rhythmic stroke of the dredge’s engine came counterpoint to my daddy’s shaky voice as he told Cecil what was wrong.

. . .

Did what I have set down here as a memory actually happen? Did the two men say what I have recorded, think what I have said they thought? I do not know, nor do I any longer care. My knowledge of my daddy came entirely from stories I have been told about him, stories told me by my mother, by my brother, who was old enough when he died to remember him firsthand, by my other kin people, and by the men and women who knew him while he was alive.

Even as he goes back in time to write from the viewpoint of himself as a child, to tell stories and to recreate his then-existence in dramatized scenes, Crews maintains a dual perspective. We’re aware both of the aging adult at his desk and of the undefended boy experiencing his destitute sharecropper’s life without mediation. Typically Crews eases into a chapter from his present, and slowly the boy takes over, as in the start to Chapter Four:

It has always seemed to me that I was not so much born into this life as I awakened to it. I remember very distinctly the awakening and the morning it happened. It was my first glimpse of myself, and all that I know now—the stories, and everything conjured by them, that I have been writing about thus far—I obviously knew none of then, particularly anything about my real daddy, whom I was not to hear of until I was nearly six years old, not his name, not even that he was my daddy. Of if I did hear of him, I have no memory of it.

I awoke in the middle of the morning in early summer from the place I’d been sleeping in the curving roots of a giant oak tree in front of a large white house. Off to the right, beyond the dirt road, my goats were trailing along in the ditch, grazing in the tough wire grass that grew there. Their constant bleating shook the warm summer air. I always thought of them as my goats although my brother usually took care of them. Before he went to the field that morning to work, he had let them out of the old tobacco barn where they slept at night. At my feet was a white dog whose name was Sam. I looked at the dog and at the house and at the red gown with little pearl-colored buttons I was wearing, and I knew that the gown had been made for me by my Grandma Hazelton and that the dog belonged to me. He went everywhere I went, and he always took precious care of me.

There’s a tension in the book because Crews’s love is so bound up with implied sadness and with traumatic memories of violence and loss. He’s also probing the nature of memory and the growth of consciousness.

Annie Dillard’s impossible task in An American Childhood

A droll appeal to the intellect . . .

As if cleansing my palate of The Glass Castle’s cinematic style, I reread Annie Dillard’s wry reflective memoir An American Childhood, which deposits us amidst her childhood as it unfolds in a loving, prosperous family in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

One envies Dillard her parents, who are connoisseurs of books, dancing, jazz, and of the structure of jokes. Mom, an art collector, seems a tad overbearing—but droll, at least; Dad, a dreamer, works, when he does, in the family firm, snaps his fingers to Dixieland jazz, and runs off briefly to explore the Mississippi like Mark Twain of Life on the Mississippi.  His other cool hero is Jack Kerouac of On the Road. This gentle Republican reread both swashbuckling writer’s books obsessively. And so did his daddy-loving daughter.

That’s the situation; the real story is about her coming to consciousness and the nature of consciousness as she experienced it from ages ten to eighteen. This impossible subject, a mere subtheme of Harry Crews, is what she hangs her tale on. Dillard repeatedly shows herself becoming aware of herself being aware. She says on her web site that the book is also about parents and science. But what she’s really come to testify about is awareness of awareness as it first dawned upon her and as she experienced it till college age.

She reflects upon this mystery hidden in plain sight early on, on page eleven:

I was just waking up then [at age ten], just barely. Other things were changing. The highly entertaining new baby, Molly, had taken up residence in a former guest room. The great outer world hove into view and began to fill with things that had apparently been there all along: mineralogy, detective work, lepidopterology, ponds and streams, flying, society.

. . .

Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along: is this sad? They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning: in medias res, surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills. They know the neighborhood, they can read and write English, they are old hands at the commonplace mysteries, and yet they feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat, just converged with their bodies, just flown down from a trance, to lodge in an eerily familiar life already well under way.

I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years, I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.

Ah, so it’s a gift and a burden, this consciousness.

Is this sad?

Well, maybe, but like all of Dillard’s work, An American Childhood makes me want to be more awake. We watch her awaken and see her unique sensibility form in her eccentric, loving family. Like Crews’s, this memoir strikes one with the strangeness of true art.

Here’s Dillard on the boys of her youth:

They moved in violent jerks from which we hung back, impressed and appalled, as if from horses slamming the slats of their stalls. This and, as we would have put it, their messy eyelashes. In our heartless, condescending, ignorant way we loved their eyelashes, the fascinating and dreadful way the black hairs curled and tangled. That’s the kind of vitality they had, the boys, that’s the kind of novelty and attraction: their very eyelashes came out amok, and unthinkably original. That we loved, that and their cloddishness, their broad, vaudvillian reactions. They were always doing slow takes. Their breathtaking lack of subtlety in every particular, we thought—and then sometimes a gleam of consciousness in their eyes, as surprising as if you’d caught a complicit wink from a brick.

. . .

But these, the boys who confided in me, were the ones I would love when we were in our teens, and they were, according to my predilection, not the dancing-school boys at all, but other oddball boys. I would give my heart to one oddball boy after another—to older boys, to prep-school boys no one knew, to him who refused to go to college, to him who was a hood, and all of them wonderfully skinny. I loved two such boys deeply, one after the other and for years on end, and forsook everything else in life, and rightly so, to begin learning with them that unplumbed intimacy that is life’s chief joy. I loved them deeply, one after the other, for years on end, I say, and hoped to change their worldly ambitions and save them from the noose. But they stood firm.

And it could be, I think, that only those oddball boys, none of whom has inherited Pittsburgh at all, longed to star in the world of money and urban power; and it could be that the central boys, our boys, who are now running Pittsburgh responsibly, longed to escape. I don’t know. I never knew them well enough to tell.

An American Childhood showed me just how good a writer Annie Dillard is, or was, since she retired after publishing her novel The Maytrees. Not everyone will like this memoir, because not everyone will find it interesting enough to put up with its lack of dramatic events.

Truth be told, it drags for me in places, but I enjoyed it even more the second time. And it’s great for writers to read because in it Dillard does everything: she creates using scene, summary, reflection, and a complex persona—plus she tackles that thorny conceptual issue. The reflective expository passages, as in all those quoted above, show as well how artful exposition can be.

But the book’s strength is its weakness, of course, that deeply interior and intellectual concern—one that demanded a fully developed narrative persona. In his review for The New York Times Book Review, Noel Perrin fingers the risk Dillard took and finds her memoir wanting:

And yet, ”An American Childhood” is not quite as good as it at first promised to be. By choosing to make the book an account of the growth of her mind, an inner rather than an outer narrative, Ms. Dillard almost necessarily forfeited plot. Except at the end, the book does not build; there is no continuous narrative. And though scores of people appear, only two of them are real characters: Annie Dillard herself and, for one wonderful chapter, her mother.

A writer really can’t win. Maybe Francine Prose would have liked An American Childhood better than he, but Dillard drew Perrin, who speaks for regular readers, after all, not just for the literati. Her focus must intrigue you or at least make you wonder if she can pull it off.

To his point about her mother, and exercising my reader’s prerogative here, I realized this time through that I don’t especially like her mother. Not that one has to. Finding myself cooling toward the self-amused woman added to my enjoyment.

Dillard shows how under-utilized this smart, fiercely opinionated and rather bored matron was in the staid suburbs of Pittsburgh. Mrs. Doak was brave, too, taking on titans of industry at dinner parties for their retrograde political views. And she literally weeps for the poor. But she was capable of making innocents the butt of her wit as well, as when she played a cruel practical joke on a stranger in front of his girlfriend by pretending to be the man’s jilted lover.

As in the other two memoirs, An American Childhood pivots on the father. Neither deranged and grandiose like Walls’s, nor a haunting absence like Crews’s, Dillard’s wistful father was the dreamboat of her young life and the authority against whom she would rebel. She opens her book with him and ends each act with him.

He was, probably, the reason she dated all those oddball boys. Lucky them.

A note to teachers about An American Childhood

While The Glass Castle is a boon to educators, real manna from heaven for students writing descriptive essays and learning to analyze motifs and symbols, An American Childhood, based on students’ pathetic, angry one-star reviews on Amazon, shouldn’t be assigned. It concerns childhood but it isn’t for children, not even for high schoolers, save perhaps a rare few in AP classes, nor for most college freshmen except those in honors classes.

Kids need a narrative that’s more strongly event-based. Asking them to grasp this memoir’s message is like telling minnows to notice water’s physical properties, its beauty, or even its existence. Bookish Noel Perrin faulted it for what they’re going to hate it for.


Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, memoir, narrative, Persona, Voice, POV, REVIEW, scene, teaching, education

22 responses to “The leverage of persona in memoir

  1. you are a genius.
    and we keep teaching and reading the same books.
    we must meet someday.

  2. Pingback: Persona and the Memoir « BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

  3. Richard Moore

    This is a superb review of what it takes to write memoir. Thanks for reminding us of the key elements and issues that characterize different approaches to memoir, and good writing in general: voice, persona, plot, situation, story, double perspective, and style, as well as the range of literary techniques. Among other things, these excerpts and reflections show us how hard it is to achieve excellence as a writer. Great stuff, thanks again.

    • Thanks so much, Richard. Gornick is really on to something with her book on persona, from whence comes voice, but it’s a slippery concept, and hard for me at least to analyze. I tried to pick passages in Crews and Dillard that showed the difference between what they do and purely scenic writing. And yet Wolff seems purely scenic at first glance and yet conveys that slightly more distanced persona, too.

  4. Note: I am posting this on behalf of Andre Gerard, who was unable to post:

    I loved this post, and I look forward to browsing and following your blog. I’m also looking forward to reading Harry Crews, previously unknown to me.

    I’ve just published Fathers: A Literary Anthology, an anthology of father essays and father poems by such writers as Angela Carter, Alison Bechdel Winston Churchill, Annie Dillard, Doris Lessing, Alice Munro, and Philip Roth. Not surprisingly, I have a strong interest in the memoir genre, particularly patremoirs and matremoirs.

    Be great if you review Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Philip Roth’s Patrimony, and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? A propos of Annie Dillard, maybe Noel Perrin would have been less critical of An American Childhood’s structure if he had noted how skillfully she used Life On the Mississippi as a model.

  5. Cathy Day

    This is wonderful, Richard. I wonder if you would place Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy in the same company as Walls’ Glass Castle? I heard Kimmel speak last year on the origins of Zippy, and she said that she wanted to stay as close as possible to the child’s perspective. The adult perspective seems “embedded in the scenes themselves,” as you say. I have always found Zippy to be a quite a dark book told by a child, but it was widely read as a “light” book, which mystifies me a little–but perhaps that’s b/c I’ve read most of her books, which are much darker, more serious.

    • How interesting of you to ask, Cathy, since I am just now reading Zippy and my next post flows from the epigram she used. I know what you mean about its underlying darkness even though it’s all played for humor and I am just a third of the way in. Kind of a light version of Boys of My Youth and LIGHT YEARS from The Glass Castle! But in effect I have put the book in the same company by making a class of students read both.

      I will have to ask my students your question! I think from very preliminary indications they themselves went with the humor and overlooked the darkness. Speaking of which, I like the exploration of the dark side and the natural drama it provides, so while I have laughed out loud at Zippy I am finding a lack of narrative drive I must overcome.

      Zippy raises so many questions I don’t know how to begin to answer. Like what’s “real” in the sense of her true perspective and what’s just an act in the form of humor, using her very real talent for entertainment? And even if it is an “act,” isn’t that a valid choice, too, how to see and process the past? Do you have any thoughts to share since you are so familiar with Kimmel’s work in general and this book in particular?

      Every single one of my students in two classes that have read it has LOVED The Glass Castle. I reckon those that actually read Zippy will like it but my theory is it’s hard to beat dark drama.

      • Cathy Day

        Yes, Zippy isn’t strongly narrative, doesn’t have a novel-like plot in the same way Glass Castle does. It might be interesting to compare Zippy with a short story told from a child’s pov. Like “Strays” by Mark Richard, for example. Or Venus’s-flytraps by Yusef Komunyakaa. I always tell my students who write from a child’s pov to to make sure that the child is looking at the adult world, preferably at something that’s wrong, a problem. It’s a great way to learn how to show don’t tell, because the child gives away clues about what’s really happening without full understanding of those events. It’s a great way to learn minimalism, actually. I work down the hall from a good friend of Haven’s (she’s actually “Julie” the best friend) who told me the other day that she thinks the cover of the book had a lot to do with how people read Zippy.

      • Cathy, I have started hitting the book’s dark patches, just those little unsettling things she slips in, and they’re great—at least for me, they give the story its engine. Otherwise it has no zip, so to speak, no big drama or question. I mean, it’s humor. But the underlying darkness makes me want to read to see if anything happens or if more is revealed. It’s brilliant.

        I can’t believe you know “Julie!” She is such a great character. The scene of her mom with the pig made me laugh so hard when I was reading it to my wife. And that family seemed so functional compared to hers, with a mother clearly depressed and a dad and brother with anger issues.

  6. I was also thinking about Kimmel’s “Zippy” and also her memoir, “She Got Up Off the Couch” when I read this. And also Mary Karr’s memoirs about her childhood, “Liar’s Club” and “Cherry.” Karr’s memoirs are also kind of dark, but like Kimmel, filled with humor. Perhaps Kimmel and Karr do rise above their narratives and achieve art on a level that Walls doesn’t (with The Glass Castle) but if that’s the case, it raises a questions: Can memoir be categorized as “commercial” and “literary” the way works of fiction often are? Would you then say that The Glass Castle is commercial memoir, whereas Kimmel and Karr’s memoirs are literary? I have 10 published essays, but my current book-in-progress is a novel. So now I’m wondering if these same principals apply to fiction: I am striving for “literary fiction” with my book… making sure my main characters reflect on what’s happening to them… that their voices are heard, that I get up and above their stories and make art. If I was writing “commercial fiction,” would I just spin a good story and let the reader decide if it’s art? Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

    • Gosh what a great insight and question! It makes me realize that I do think of memoirs in those two ways, just hadn’t articulated it. I hope someone with a stronger or older opinion will weigh in. I guess I actually thought going in to Zippy that was/is a commercial book whereas despite its mass appeal The Glass Castle attempted to be both art and a bestseller. This may reflect my preference for drama, or the usual prejudice against humor as being less serious. Which seems unfair to Kimmel, because she is a very talented and savvy writer.

      I assume that Francine Prose would lump them both together as commercial, however, based on her review of Walls’s book. I keep thinking of her statement that The Glass Castle is a good memoir but not art and wondering how can a good memoir not be art? I guess it has to be great to be art. I think The Glass Castle is art, but as I said, for me personally not as great a work as A Childhood or An American Childhood because the story was compelling but not transcended. This may be the common literary prejudice that I have imbibed against memoirs that are “just” an account of dysfunction or dramatic experience rather than being an extraction of the meaning of an experience.

  7. As usual, Richard, this post hits me with thoughts I need as I write my own memoir first draft. I struggled with the voices of I-Then and I-Now all along without having this kind of framework to help me. At least I think you’ve helped me. 🙂 It’s still very hard work.
    The artistry of a Dillard I can only aspire to. Thanks for introducing me to Crews and reminding me to actually read Wolff. I purchased the book several months ago. I am also reading Michael Larson’s The Memoir and the Memoirist, so I am getting a double dose of the double persona.

    These blog posts of yours should become a book. You must spend weeks writing them!

    • The Memoir and the Memoirist is an incredible book! I have been meaning to reread it myself. There it stares at me in my reading pile.

      This post was marinating a long time as I made notes and thought. Plus I am building up a head of steam for my sixth memoir version . . .

  8. I stumbled upon your blog recently and enjoy it very much. However, when I saw the The Glass Castle book cover on your current post above I thought, Oh no. Not another post praising Jeannette Walls… Her book is good but not THAT good. And now I see that your reflections are exactly what I’ve thought since reading the book, I feel somewhat vindicated, thank you very much. Although I admire Ms. Walls for overcoming her adversities, her memoir seemed to be devoid of that deep connection I’ve felt with many other memoirs I’ve read.

    The other two books you mention sound really intriguing. I need to find a (legal) sleep-replacement pill I can take so I can read the many books I’ve got cluttering my nightstand. 🙂

  9. Thanks for this, Richard. I’m reminded of the first book-length project I worked on, in our program — chapters of which you read. I will echo a commenter above: I struggled with my two voices, I-Then and I-Now, and never mastered the shift. (And not only that — my reflective persona, the voice that held it all together, wasn’t ripe enough to begin with!) It’s only been five years since we finished at Goucher, but if I revisited that project now, my older self would have so much more to say. Perspective is a fascinating, wonderful thing. And as the years pass, we naturally create more personas and voices, don’t we?

    I enjoyed your discussion of the essential elements — voice, persona, perspective — and I liked how you laid out these examples. They’re helpful. I still have not read The Glass Castle. (Yes, really.) Thank you for the reminder!

  10. Thomas Larson

    Absolutely brilliant analysis of these books. Richard, please write a book about your reading & writing knowledge of memoir. I bet you could wine-press many of your blogs into such a varietal. TL

    • That’s so kind of you, Tom. I think I need to get my memoir done and published first!

      And there are three great books of theory that I know of (not speaking of how-to): your own The Memoir and the Memoirist, which I laid out the other day to reread yet again; The Situation and the Story; and The Art of Time in Memoir. One of the reasons I want to reread yours is that I believe you go deeper, farther, and more precisely into persona than Gornick does, much as I like her book.

  11. lindawis

    Happy to find this blog through Brevity’s! Tired of reading about self-publishing and marketing. Bleh. Want to learn to write well, teach well, read well. Totally agree a strong persona makes a deeper memoir than we got with Glass Castle. May be personal preference, but I love memoirs (and fiction) where place is a character as well.

    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Linda. I agree with you about place! For that reason alone you would love Crews’s A Childhood and Dillard’s An American Childhood, if you haven’t read them. But I notice you are in PA so surely you have read Annie . . .

  12. eksurrusco

    Hey Richard – Check out my blog post inspired by your blog post:
    Love the blog! It’s like sitting in the Goucher cafeteria having a conversation with you about the craft all over again!