So, though I was interested in the subject matter anyway, I paid attention when the author of a book I recently finished mentioned two mid-19th century authors (whom I'll name in a minute) who wrote what she called the first American memoirs. (Or, in one case, a precursor of the memoir.) One book definitely details the author's life during a two-year period (1845-1847) and even says on the first page, "I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well."(2) The author of the second book fictionalizes her life but, as the contemporary author writing about her says, "in many ways, even though it's a novel, in tone and voice it is the precursor of the modern memoir--the book that gives voice to people who have traditionally kept quiet."(3)
The two authors are Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott and their "memoirs," of course, are Walden and Little Women. The book about them is Susan Cheever's American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau--Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work.
Cheever relates, how, as a friend of Emerson's, Thoreau knew the writings of the Scotsman who influenced the Transcendentalist's thinking which was based on one's intuitive, spiritual experience. This was Thomas Carlyle who spoke of an omnipresent God, present in the details as well as in the greater whole. Thoreau even gave a lecture on Carlyle, after which his Concord audience (during the equivalent of their Q&A) expressed more curiosity about him than Carlyle. Why was he living out there by the pond? What was his life like? Wasn't he cold, lonely, hungry? So Thoreau began taking notes and eventually wrote his classic as an answer to these questions. Cheever calls it "the first American memoir, the first book in which the days and nights of an autobiographical, confessional narrator are the central plot line. Thoreau invented nature writing and memoir writing in one swift, brilliant stroke."(4)
|Here's a sketch I made when sitting on the grass near the replica of Thoreau's cabin.|
As for Alcott, Cheever relates how she put what we might today call "a good spin" on her life. Rather than speaking of the family's miserable poverty which required them to move twenty times in as many years, Alcott describes what Cheever calls the family's "friendly penny-pinching." Rather than writing of her sister's "horrifying and dreadful death" it becomes "a sweet and peaceful letting go." Rather than labeling her father the misfit he so often seemed to be, she sends him away for most of the book. So, as fiction, the book portrays a sweetness which her life most definitely did not reflect. But as Cheever goes on to say, "It was in Little Women that I learned that domestic details can be the subject of art, that small things in a woman's life--cooking, the trimming of a dress or hat, quiet talk--can be as important a subject as a great whale or a scarlet letter."(5)
But there are even earlier works--tales of adventure--which would seem to qualify as well. (These in comparison to Walden published in 1854 and Little Women published in 1868.) Foremost would be Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast about his two-year sea voyage to California (1840). Another would certainly be Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail which describes venturing west in 1846, then camping with a band of buffalo-hunting Oglala Sioux (1849). Bret Harte drew on his own experiences to write about life in California mining camps (1868). As for fictionalized renderings of one's experience (as Alcott), Herman Melville drew upon his two years in a whaling ship when he wrote Typee (1846) and Moby Dick (1851).
As a total aside, I was interested to learn about the dreadful medical practices of the day which, in fact, eventually killed Alcott. When she was just thirty, in the early days of the Civil War, she went to work in a Washington, D.C., hospital filled with Union Army casualties. She'd barely arrived when she came down with something that was diagnosed as being either TB or typhoid. The practice then was to purge the ailing, to give them laxatives, purgatives, cathartics including one, a mercury compound, which produced such bad mercury poisoning that one was debilitated for life. Hawthorne's wife suffered from this as did Alcott. Then, to combat the pain, she became addicted to morphine and opium. She lived with it for some time, however, then died at age 55 in 1888.
What Makes November November
Baked apples and spiced pears
Gingerbread and apple cake
A new knitting project for dark evenings
Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy!
Gore Vidal, Palimpsest, A Memoir:
(1) p. 5
Henry David Thoreau, Walden:
(2) p. 3
Susan Cheever, American Bloomsbury:
(3) p. 192
(4) p. 125
(5) p. 192 (all quotations in that paragraph)