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Bring History Into Memoir Writing

I live in the area (Lewiston, Maine) where my great-grandparents, my grandparents and parents–and now me–spent their lives, and I am also an amateur historian of this region. When I was asked to speak at a library lunchtime program several years ago, I chose a topic similar to Linda Myers’ topic: Lewiston’s Buildings Tell Our Stories.

This was an industrial city in the 19th century with a Protestant Anglo-American ruling/mill ownership class and an underclass of Catholic Franco-Canadian-American and Irish-American mill workers. I asked the library audience if they had noticed how the funeral homes in town were in large, distinguished houses. Of course, they had, but most people had not asked themselves what was the history of these homes was. What did homes of such stature on the edges of the tenement district imply/signify?

These mini-mansions had been the mill agent’s homes. The venture capitalists who owned the mills did not live in Lewiston but were represented by agents. Essentially, Lewiston was operated as a colony (to be exploited as the British exploited India and Ireland: not different from Lowell, Holyoke, and Springfield in Massachusetts, Woonsocket in RI, Manchester and Nashua in NH). The prosperity generated in Lewiston and other cities was shipped off to improve the quality of life in the “mother country”–Boston, NYC, etc. Lewiston’s money went out of town and financed atheneums and university chairs and athletic facilities in cities were the financiers lived.

(By the mid-twentieth century, the system of local agents representing distant owners had been replaced and many of the houses were bought to serve as funeral establishments.)

The memoir writer must ask: what happens to communities which are exploited for generations? In my local workshops, I hear/read a lot of memoirs that state how proud someone’s parents and grandparents were to have worked hard and to have made do with little. That always makes me sad rather than proud of my history. I think of a photo I have of my great-grandparents standing in a tenement kitchen. They look exhausted, tired, people to whom life has not been generous. (My great-grandfather, at 78, came home to his daughter’s apartment [couldn’t afford his own] on the evening of February 29, 1928, after having worked all day at the Hill Mill and went to sleep from which he never awoke. Because there was no social security then, he had had to keep working–at 78. When I hear my nephews and nieces rail against SS as an entitlement program, I suggest they have forgotten their family history.)

A walk through Lewiston and a second walk through Portland (30 miles to the south) points out the difference that inevitably is produced in a city when the money generated in a place stays there.

So, our history is all around us–here in Lewiston and wherever you live, dear reader–and knowing it can explain how differences arose. Of course, to know your political, economic and ethnic history, you will have to study it and reference it–not just voice opinions or confuse your family history with group or regional history. (The plural of family anecdote is not historical and sociological data!)

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One Response to Bring History Into Memoir Writing

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    Denis Ledoux March 15, 2013 at 11:30 PM #

    Thanks for your comment. I am glad that it has proven helpful to you. I have to admit that some part of me feels that writing autobiographical fiction instead of memoir is like playing tennis with the net lowered.

    I hope you are writing your own memoir.

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