Remembrance of Trivia Past

Surely the most significant text a man ever starts out to interpret is the compromise that is his own life. The events, ragged and serene, that tempt explanation were shared by others, and so it is with delicacy and humility that the autobiographer should seek to set the record straight—yet all too frequently the public demand urges on the writer some version of whitewash. Consequently, the best that one can expect to find in an autobiography are glimpses of complexity, the occasional lowering of the self-serving hand. Because of the contradictions inherent in interpreting one's own life, autobiography tends to be the more conservative of literary mediums. In part this results from the retrospective valuing that such thinking and telling requires, for a value scheme as it relates to the actions of a life, especially one usually past its summit, seeks generally for dogmatic closure, for a kind of ultimate vindication of opportunities squandered, roads not taken. Inevitably one will remember things that at last can be presented in the best of all possible colorations, and better to have one final say before the dust settles. What, then, can a reader learn from postured documentation? At its best, something about the quality of social living. Moreover, an autobiography should provide inspiration and guidance for subsequent generations.

William Phillips, cofounder and longtime editor of the Partisan...

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