Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Recollecting and Reconstructing the Past: Memoirs

“Writing memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and how you got to be who you are.” (Abigail Thomas, Thinking About Memoir)

Over the last decade or so, I have taken a particular liking to memoirs. Intrigued by a few historians’ memoirs during the first few years of Ph.D. work—namely those of William McNeill and Philip Curtin—around the same time I was developing research and teaching fields in world history and African history, interest in the genre stuck. At the same time, as I was attempting to fashion myself into a historian of American religion, I came across John Boles’ edited collection Autobiographical Reflections on Southern Religious History as well as Albert Raboteau’s memoir A Sorrowful Joy, a gripping account of his journey into the Russian Orthodox faith. In the ensuing years, I found Randall Stephens’ recent thoughts (and blog post comments) on historians and memoirs illuminating. An abiding interest in historical memory and the act of commemoration has also oriented me in the direction of memoir. After reading Anthony Pinn's memoir this weekend and seeing John Fea's blog post about possibly writing a memoir of his speaking tours (which I really hope he publishes), I decided to put some thoughts in writing.

I’ve not studied memoirs from the perspective of literary criticism or the historical development of documenting one’s life. Simply put, I like a good story. And I suppose all along I secretly hoped reading memoirs would help to make me a better writer.

Since I found that I routinely recommend memoirs to people, a few years back I decided to start compiling a list of all the memoirs I’ve read over the last 10 years. You’ll find that list below.

As it happened, I had the good fortune to meet some of these memoirists—I spent some time with Albert Raboteau while in Princeton for a Jonathan Edwards conference way back in 2003 and I heard Alex Lemon speak a few years ago when I was on faculty at Sam Houston State University. Around the time I read Vinson Synan’s memoir I was able to conduct an interview with him on campus at Regent Divinity School to discuss John Osteen and the history of neopentecostalism in preparation for my book on Lakewood Church. Also, I’ve assigned some of these memoirs in my college classes the last couple of years. As I recall, students responded quite favorably to the books. In a class on American religion students read G. Willow Wilson’s transformation from atheist to Muslim in The Butterfly Mosque and in a world history course Samuel Broadnax’s account of his role as a WW 2 aviator provided insight into the Tuskegee Airmen. Last semester I assigned John Carlos’s memoir in a world history course; it was useful for understanding the politics of race, sports, and the Cold War era.

Here they are the memoirs in no particular order.

Wilbert Rideau, In the Place of Justice

Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

G. Willow Wilson, The Butterfly Mosque

Alex Lemon, Happy: A Memoir

Albert Raboteau, A Sorrowful Joy

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son

Mishna Wolff, I’m Down: A Memoir

Timothy Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name

Francis Bok, Escape from Slavery

Mende Nazar, Slave: My True Story

Michael Muhammed Knight, Impossible Man

Michael Muhammad Knight, Why I am a Five Percenter

John Hope Franklin, Mirror to America

Julia Sheeres, Jesus Land: A Memoir

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgove, Free to be Bound

William Pickens, Bursting Bonds

Mark Naison, White Boy: A Memoir

Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Jan Vansina, Living with Africa

What memoirs have you read and enjoyed? What memoirs would you recommend? What memoirs have you assigned for classes or in a teaching setting?