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Crews’s private experience ultimately overrode the lie of the Sears catalog.
I could borrow that same reasoning to defend memoir for its blatant subjectivity.
In our time we’ve watched most great sources of “objective” truth —churches and scientific studies and presidents among them —topple in terms of their moral authority.
My high school history text cheerfully described the westward migration without a glance at the native peoples whose bones got plowed under in the process.
Gass also praised fiction for veracity because it doesn’t announce itself as true.
Like a ghost that assembles itself from mist, so the writer’s self seems to appear from her voice. If metafiction has been working double-overtime to explode the lie that fiction is true, memoir somewhat reestablishes the reader’s dream.
Of course, most readers doubt the absolute veracity of a memoir’s reconstructed dialogue and so forth.We all lose our innocence in part by coming to marvel at the rift between one’s private life —family fights, say —and the glossy families sold by the media.Crews’s voice conjures that innocence for us, the time when a family universe was still so colossal that you could project that reality onto the lives of strangers.There the author steals her Chinese mother’s method of “talking-story” to meld her own somewhat conflicting Chinese and American selves.Still, we presume that the truth’s skeleton underlay Hong Kingston’s tale.Autobiographers flush before examining their stools.”For “truth” Gass favors history without bothering to note —as Tobias Wolff did in the aforementioned lecture —that historians are no more neutral toward their subjects than memoirists are.Nor can such primary sources as letters and diaries be construed as “objective.” Gass also neglected history’s glaring failures.When I read in Harry Crews’s A Childhood how that backwoods Georgia boy made up stories about models in the Sears catalog, I identified with it wholesale, even though I grew up far from the savage poverty Crews lays out:“Nearly everybody I knew had something missing, a finger cut off, a toe split, an eye clouded with blindness from a glancing fence staple….I knew that under those [Sears models’] fancy clothes, there had to be swellings and boils of one kind or another because there was no other way to live in the world.”Anybody would twig to some universal truth about the childhood Crews describes here, I think.In a class on memoir I taught at Syracuse University last year, my students puzzled me at the term’s end by praising the genre’s sense of hope.Of the dark and dire stories we’d read —mental institutions for Susanna Kaysen and rape for Maya Angelou —hope didn’t seem the leading emotion (except perhaps in Henry Louis Gates’s Colored People). “They grew up and got away from their parents,” said another.