Five Best Groundbreaking Memoirs

The Education of Henry Adams

By Henry Adams (1918)

With its narratordolefully pointing the way toward modernism, insistently (and convincingly) writing in the third person, “The Education of Henry Adams” is a one-man kaleidoscope of American history: its politics and pretenses, its turn from a patrician, Victorian society toward the unknowable chaos of the 20th century. Adams regarded his efforts at education as a lifelong exercise in passionate failure. Though 100 copies of the book were printed privately in 1907, he withheld general publication until after his death in 1918. What he didn’t write revealed an intimate truth: Adams omitted the story of his wife’s depression and suicide in 1885. Here was a seminal memoir, required reading for every student of intellectual history, in which the Rubicon of a life had been left out! Adams lifts the veil just twice: once when describing his sister’s death, and again when he returns to America and visits the bronze statue at Rock Creek cemetery in Washington, commissioned from Augustus Saint-Gaudens in his wife’s honor.

Survival in Auschwitz

By Primo Levi (1958)

From the opening sentence—”I was captured by the Fascist Militia on 13 December 1943″—this searingly quiet account by Primo Levi, an Italian chemist, of his 10 months in Auschwitz is a monument of dignity. First published in Italy in 1947 with a title that translates as “If This Is a Man,” the book became a blueprint for every such story that followed, not only as a portrait of the camp’s atrocities but also as a testament to the moments when humanity prevailed. On a mile-long trip with a fellow prisoner to retrieve a 100-pound soup ration, Levi begins to teach his friend “The Canto of Ulysses” from Dante. Completing the lesson becomes urgent, then vital: “It is late, it is late,” Levi realizes, “we have reached the kitchen, I must finish.” No candle has ever shown more brilliantly from within the caverns of evil.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem


Joan Didion in 1981.

By Joan Didion (1968)

If Joan Didion’s first nonfiction collection now seems tethered to the 1960s, it’s partly because so many writers would try to imitate her style: The tenor and cadence were as precise as an atomic clock. She mapped a prevailing culture from the badlands of Southern California and the streets of Haight-Ashbury to the province of her own paranoia, all of it cloaked in jasmine-scented doom. As both background character and prevailing sensibility, Didion brings the reader into her lair: “You see the point. I want to tell you the truth, and already I have told you about the wide rivers.” “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” suggested that memoir was about voice as well as facts. Didion didn’t just intimate a decade of upheaval, she announced it with a starter pistol’s report.


By Michael Herr (1977)

Every war has its Stephen Crane, its Robert Graves—and Vietnam had Michael Herr. He spent a year in-country in 1967, then nearly a decade turning what he saw there into a surreal narrative of the war’s geography, from its napalmed landscape to the craters of a soldier’s mind. Soldiers talked to Herr—told him things they hadn’t said before or maybe even known. “I should have had ‘Born to Listen’ written on my helmet,” he told me in London in 1988. What Herr dared to write about was war’s primal allure: “the death space and the life you found inside it.” That he created this gunmetal narrative with a blend of fact and creative memory was acknowledged from the first; his netherland of “truth” mirrored the dream-like quality of the war and influenced its literature for a decade to come.

Darkness Visible

By William Styron (1990)

Certainly there have been other literary memoirs of personal anguish, but Styron’s brutal account of his cliffwalk with suicidal despair blew the door open on the subject. Depression and alcoholism in writers had too often been viewed through a lens of romantic ruin—the destiny- ridden price of creative genius. “Darkness Visible” put an end to all that. Literary lion, second lieutenant during World War II, Styron was brought to his knees in his own brooding woods. His story hauled plenty of ideas about clinical depression out of the 19th century and into the light of day, where they belonged.

Ms. Caldwell is the author of “Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship.” The former chief book critic of the Boston Globe, she was in 2001 awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism.


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