The University Record, October 4, 1999

Memoir to be explored in Humanities Institute series, minicourse

From the Institute for the Humanities

Ten years ago, the memoir was a genre largely taken up by celebrities—movie stars and politicians. Recently there’s been a burst in the genre, apparent not only in literature, but in other art forms, including music, modern dance, painting and theater.

“What is striking about the publishing scene today,” says Tom Trautmann, director of the Institute for the Humanities, “is the growth in memoirs by non-celebrities, the memoir of the anonymous. Thus we have memoirs of trauma, tragic loss, of political awakening, of racial struggle, of childhood abuse or poverty. The numbers and kinds of new memoirs have multiplied so that best-seller lists have several at any given time.”

To explore the recent and rapid proliferation of the memoir, the Institute is offering a five-part lecture series and a related minicourse, “The Moment of the Memoir,” beginning Oct. 12.

The series and minicourse will examine several questions:

  • What is the future of the genre—is this a permanent literary form or a passing phase?

  • What does the confessional memoir tell us about our society?

  • What are the responsibilities of the memoirist to his/her immediate family, community and world-at-large?

    Ruth Behar, author and professor of anthropology and of women’s studies, launches the series with a talk on anthropology’s “Horror of the Memoir.” “Anthropologists have a long tradition of seeking to write texts that show they have ‘been there’ in the field,” she explains. “And yet, there is a strong taboo against writing too personally, of producing something that is too confessional.” Behar will examine “the paradox, or tightrope, between memoir and reportage.”

    Other speakers include LS&A Dean Shirley Neuman, who has researched the autobiographical texts of major modernist writers; Simon Gikandi, professor of English and director, Program in Comparative Literature; Henry Greenspan, Residential College lecturer and author of On Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Recounting and Life History; and Ross Chambers, the Marvin Felheim Distinguished University Professor of French and Comparative Literature and author of Facing It: AIDS Diaries and the Death of the Author.

    The minicourse, open to all U-M students, will be taught by Terry Blackhawk, director of a Detroit literary arts program.

    This is the Institute’s third public forum on issues affecting humanities scholars, students and the book-loving public. Previous forums examined copyright issues and the future of the scholarly book.

    In addition to Behar’s presentation, the other lectures in the series, all at noon in the Institute’s Common Room, Room 1524, Rackham Building, are:

  • Oct. 19: “The Poetics of Nationalism: The Political Memoir in Africa,” Simon Gikandi.

  • Oct. 26: “Writing What You Don’t Know: Jamaica Kincaid’s AIDS Memoir, My Brother, Ross Chambers.

  • Nov. 2: “Death Sentences: The Holocaust and the Illusion of Memoir,” Henry Greenspan.

  • Nov. 9: “Landscape, Memory, Autobiography,” Shirley Neuman.

    For information, call 936-3518 or visit the Web at