HSEM 3087H: History through Memoir

3 CreditsHonors

This honors seminar uses memoirs \"non-fictional life stories narrated in the first person?\" as a lens into the past and, just as importantly, as a way to investigate what counts as \"history\" itself. The relationship between personal narratives and professionally produced histories is often fraught or confused, even though both can reasonably be understood as forms of creative non-fiction. Is the memoirist responsible to the historical record in the same way as an historian? Does the historian know how to assess and appreciate the power of personal memory? What kinds of memoirs do historians write? We will examine a range of memoirs that speak variously about historical and emotional truths, about memory and identity and place, about the ability of individual experience to illuminate a broader social and political history. We will attend to the narrator?s voice and explore how certain kinds of writing enable (even produce) certain kinds of discoveries. Throughout, we will discuss the gains and the limitations of using personal stories to understand past experience. A note of clarification: while autobiographies tend to be chronological narratives of most of a person's life (without the ending, of course), memoirs focus more selectively--and often without regard to linear chronology--on crucial moments or themes in the narrator's experience. This course prioritizes memoirs over autobiographies, and it takes most of its examples from the boom in memoir writing over the last three decades. It does not offer a history of memoir as a genre. In particular, it features memoirs that go beyond the experiences of an individual narrator to reveal broader social and political contexts.

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