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First Personalities – Keeping It All in the Family.

First Personalities is a series on the First Person Arts Blog where we check up on and catch up with past Festival and Salon presenters and participants.

As a First Person Arts intern and a youngin to the organization, I can neither confirm nor deny whether this is definitely a first for us, but I can say it’s surely a testament to the small family feel of the arts world. I am here to report to you today on one First Person Festival artist writing about a book published by, you guessed it, another First Person Festival artist! The two artists are Daniel Mendelsohn and Ben Yagoda, respectively, and, as if the whole situation weren’t sufficiently meta already, Mendelsohn’s article, entitled “But Enough About Me: What Does the Popularity of Memoirs Tell Us About Ourselves,” referenced Yagoda’s latest book, entitled “Memoir: A History.”

mendelsohnMendelsohn’s article appeared in the New Yorker; other periodicals and newspapers where you might have read him include The New York Times Book Review and New York Magazine; he is also widely anthologized and has authored six books, including his first, the memoir The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity. See his website, linked above, for a complete map of his oeuvre.

Mr. Mendelsohn’s article is a fascinating look at the history of confessional memoirs as a departure from chronology oriented autobiographies. It traces some of the major memoir writers of the Western World, starting with St. Augustine’s “Confessions” and brings us right up to writers of today, like the scandalized James Frey who mixed fiction with truth and to tell (what he thought) was a greater truth. Along the way Mendelsohn touches on historical phenomena such as slave narratives, making the personal political long before the phrase was coined by the 20th century feminist movement. Moreover, he provides keen insight into the evolving psychology and motivations of both memoirist and reader throughout the centuries.

yagoda_benMeanwhile, “Memoir: A History” is the ninth book that Mr. Yagoda has either written or co-edited. You can also find him writing about language and writing in publications such as The New York Times Book Review and Magazine, Esquire, and Rolling Stone. Publishers Weekly describes “Memoirs,” released in November 2009, as “a spirited account of a form of writing that since its inception has been one of the most contested and most popular.” It provides an in depth history of memoir writing in the English speaking world, and the truths that their authors are trying to share with their audience.

-J. Rudy Flesher

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