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If pressed to offer an account of oneself in prose, how might one best go about presenting not merely a coherent personal narrative but an insightful one? And going further still, how might one manage—given the existence of countless competing relations of birth, education, infatuation, propagation, degradation, and expiation—to make such an account as individual as the life it means to document?
“Variously,” of course, is the short and uninteresting answer—uninteresting until we recognize how formally verisimilar such accounts tend to be. Whereas The Education of Henry Adams, however much it trues to the conventional in its ticking through the “–ations” listed above, is not a memoir as we modern readers have come to expect. Chapter XXII, say, “Chicago (1893),” begins:
Drifting in the dead-water of the fin-de-siècle—and during this last decade every one talked, and seemed to feel fin-de-siècle—where not a breath stirred the idle air of education or fretted the mental torpor of self-content, one lived alone. Adams had long ceased going into society. For years he had not dined out of his own house, and in public his face was as unknown as that of an extinct statesman. He had often noticed that six months’ oblivion amounts to newspaper-death, and that resurrection is rare. Nothing is easier, if a man wants it, than rest, profound as the grave.
It is easy, reading Adams, while delighting over his epigrams, to forget that the “one” of “one lived alone,” not to say the “Adams” of “Adams had long ceased” (much less the “he” and the “his” one hears throughout) designate not merely the book’s subject but its author. “Je est un autre,” wrote Rimbaud, sensibly, in a letter to a friend. Adams’s version of that four word phrase is considerably longer, but argues, usefully, for the independence of self from all ideas of self, even the most intimate—a notion which most memoirs, confident that confession connotes truth, tend not to worry over, or not so deeply.
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”