Autobiography or Memoir? Ask Holden Caulfield

J.F YOU REALLY WANT TO HEAR about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told any-thing pretty personal about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all—I'm not saying that—but they're also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy. …
— J.D. Sallinger, Catcher in the Rye
 I read this book when I was a freshman in college. We also read Catch 22 and Lord of the Flies the same term. That was a heavy introduction to liberated life! 

I don’t recall much about the book, other than realizing it was totally outside the realm of my experience or any experience I would ever have. To my surprise, a couple of weeks ago a friend older than I mentioned that she had read the book again, and that she had been especially impressed with the opening paragraph, because it made the book sound like a memoir. Of course I ran straight to the library and checked out a well-worn copy. Sure enough, I found the lines quoted above. 

Holden knew he wasn’t writing autobiography, and he correctly alludes to the definition by mentioning his birth, the nature of his childhood, and all that “kind of crap.” Quite possibly in 1950 when Sallinger was writing this book, the term memoir was not widely used, and it certainly would have been considered too “artsy fartsy” for a book of this nature. But it is indeed written as a fictitious memoir because it’s about a specific period of time and topic, “this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas ….”

He catches another topic of flaming interest for  memoirists in this paragraph. “… my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told any-thing pretty personal about them.” And he justifies the memoir approach rather than an autobiographical one by noting that “… I don’t want to go into it .…” And finally, his opening paragraph kickstarts the book with a powerful punch by outlining the plot, sketching in Holden's parents, and letting us know to expect what was considered racy language sixty years ago.

With this promising lead-in, I think I’ll follow the example of my friend and reread the book. When I checked it out, the desk clerk asked if it’s a book club choice or something. “You’re the third one this week to check it out.” Apparently a long line of adults are returning to this book shelved in the Young Adult section. It’s stunning durability over sixty years and its status as an exalted classic seem to indicate that any serious writer would do well to study it. 

Write now: think of a book that has remained alive in your memory for at least thirty years. Find a copy if you can and at least skim through it. Does it still seem as compelling as it did back then? What writing style differences do you notice? What writing tips can you find? Make notes on these discoveries, perhaps in an essay, primarily for yourself.

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