How is a historian to write the history of her own life?

Paul X Johnson @ Paper Darts

Sheila Fitzpatrick reflects on the reliability of memory @ Griffith Review.‘Every historian should write an autobiography,’ wrote the historian AJP Taylor, introducing his own, A Personal History (1983). ‘The experience teaches us to distrust our sources which are often autobiographical.’ In other words, it teaches us humility about the basis of the story we are telling – not that humility is a quality particularly evident in Taylor’s work. The main danger, he thought, was that the historian-autobiographer might exaggerate his successes or, more likely, his failures and humiliations. But that was easily corrected: ‘the experienced historian ends by striking out the more fantastical episodes, even if they happen to be true.’ This should produce the uninteresting personal history that Taylor, as he assures us, set out to write.What Taylor called autobiography most theorists would call memoir, the difference (as expounded by Karl J Weintraub, in a classic article in Critical Inquiry in 1975) being that memoir is a record of external fact while autobiography is a reflection on the inward realm of experience, an attempt to find the meaning of a life. A historian can easily tell the two genres apart by the rule of thumb that if something lends itself to being used as a source, it’s a memoir, and if it proves strangely recalcitrant, it’s autobiography.The American writer Mary McCarthy wrote both, starting with autobiography. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), written in her mid-thirties, was an effort to give a meaning to the pain of her harsh upbringing in a great-aunt’s house after her parents’ death, and the resentment she felt about it. Returning to the subject thirty years later, in the memoir How I Grew (1987), she retreated from the intense emotion of the autobiography and submitted her memories to a rigorous critical review (‘On reflection, I see that I have been exaggerating’; ‘But stop! That cannot be true...’). The imaginative writer, in other words, had become a historian of the strictest, more fact-oriented more