Last updated
Title page of Henry Thoreau's memoir, Walden (1854) Walden Thoreau.jpg
Title page of Henry Thoreau's memoir, Walden (1854)

A memoir ( /ˈmɛm.wɑːr/ ; [1] from French mémoire [me.mwaʁ] , from Latin memoria 'memory, remembrance') is any nonfiction narrative writing based on the author's personal memories. [2] [3] The assertions made in the work are thus understood to be factual. While memoir has historically been defined as a subcategory of biography or autobiography since the late 20th century, the genre is differentiated in form, presenting a narrowed focus, usually a particular time phase in someone's life or career. A biography or autobiography tells the story "of a life", while a memoir often tells the story of a particular career, event, or time, such as touchstone moments and turning points in the author's life. The author of a memoir may be referred to as a memoirist or a memorialist.


Early memoirs

Memoirs have been written since the ancient times, as shown by Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico , also known as Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. In the work, Caesar describes the battles that took place during the nine years that he spent fighting local armies in the Gallic Wars. His second memoir, Commentarii de Bello Civili (or Commentaries on the Civil War) is an account of the events that took place between 49 and 48 BC in the civil war against Gnaeus Pompeius and the Senate. The noted Libanius, teacher of rhetoric who lived between an estimated 314 and 394 AD, framed his life memoir as one of his literary orations, which were written to be read aloud in the privacy of his study. This kind of memoir refers to the idea in ancient Greece and Rome, that memoirs were like "memos", or pieces of unfinished and unpublished writing, which a writer might use as a memory aid to make a more finished document later on.

The Sarashina Nikki is an example of an early Japanese memoir, written in the Heian period. A genre of book writing, Nikki Bungaku, emerged during this time.

In the Middle Ages, Geoffrey of Villehardouin, Jean de Joinville, and Philippe de Commines wrote memoirs, while the genre was represented toward the end of the Renaissance, through the works of Blaise de Montluc and Margaret of Valois, that she was the first woman to write her Memoirs in modern-style. [4]

Until the Age of Enlightenment encompassing the 17th and 18th centuries, works of memoir were written by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury; François de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac of France; and Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon, who wrote Memoirs at his family's home at the castle of La Ferté-Vidame. While Saint-Simon was considered a writer possessing a high level of skill for narrative and character development, it was not until well after his death that his work as a memoirist was recognized, resulting in literary fame. [5]

From the eighteenth century

An excerpt from the manuscript "Memoires on Napoleon's campaigns, experienced as a soldier of the second regiment", written by Joseph Abbeel, 1805-1815. Archive-ugent-be-7D309E20-C7E9-11E0-A4B4-E65737D8FA8C DS-9 (cropped).jpg
An excerpt from the manuscript "Memoires on Napoleon's campaigns, experienced as a soldier of the second regiment", written by Joseph Abbeel, 1805-1815.

Over the latter half of the 18th through the mid-20th century, memoirists generally included those who were noted within their chosen profession. These authors wrote as a way to record and publish their own account of their public exploits. Authors included politicians or people in court society and were later joined by military leaders and businessmen. An exception to these models is Henry David Thoreau's 1854 memoir Walden , which presents his experiences over the course of two years in a cabin he built near Walden Pond.

Twentieth-century war memoirs became a genre of their own, including, from the First World War, Ernst Jünger ( Storm of Steel ) and Frederic Manning's Her Privates We. Memoirs documenting incarceration by Nazi Germany during the war include Primo Levi's If This Is a Man , which covers his arrest as a member of the Italian Resistance Movement, followed by his life as a prisoner in Auschwitz; and Elie Wiesel's Night , which is based on his life prior to and during his time in the Auschwitz, Buna Werke, and Buchenwald concentration camps.

Memoirs today

In the early 1990s, memoirs written by ordinary people experienced a sudden upsurge, as an increasing number of people realized that their ancestors’ and their own stories were about to disappear, in part as a result of the opportunities and distractions of technological advances. At the same time, psychology and other research began to show that familiarity with genealogy helps people find their place in the world and that life review helps people come to terms with their own past. [7]

With the advent of inexpensive digital book production in the first decade of the 21st century, [8] the genre exploded. Memoirs written as a way to pass down a personal legacy, rather than as a literary work of art or historical document, are emerging as a personal and family responsibility. [9]

The Association of Personal Historians was a trade association for professionals who assisted individuals, families, and organizations in documenting their life stories. [10] It dissolved in 2017.


With the expressed interest of preserving history through the eyes of those who lived it, some organizations work with potential memoirists to bring their work to fruition. The Veterans History Project, for example, compiles the memoirs of those who have served in a branch of the United States Armed Forces – especially those who have seen active combat. [11]


The term 'memoir' is used in some academic contexts to describe an essay on a learned subject. Examples include explanatory texts accompanying geologic maps. [12]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Autobiography</span> Self-written biography

An autobiography, sometimes informally called an autobio, is a self-written biography of one's own life.

The slave narrative is a type of literary genre involving the (written) autobiographical accounts of enslaved Africans, particularly in the Americas. Over six thousand such narratives are estimated to exist; about 150 narratives were published as separate books or pamphlets. In the United States during the Great Depression (1930s), more than 2,300 additional oral histories on life during slavery were collected by writers sponsored and published by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program. Most of the 26 audio-recorded interviews are held by the Library of Congress.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Primo Levi</span> Italian Jewish partisan, Holocaust survivor and writer (1919−1987)

Primo Michele Levi was an Italian chemist, partisan, writer, and Jewish Holocaust survivor. He was the author of several books, collections of short stories, essays, poems and one novel. His best-known works include If This Is a Man, his account of the year he spent as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland; and The Periodic Table (1975), a collection of mostly autobiographical short stories each named after a chemical element as it played a role in each story, which the Royal Institution named the best science book ever written.

<i>Commentarii de Bello Gallico</i> Commentary on Gallic wars by Julius Caesar

Commentarii de Bello Gallico, also Bellum Gallicum, is Julius Caesar's firsthand account of the Gallic Wars, written as a third-person narrative. In it Caesar describes the battles and intrigues that took place in the nine years he spent fighting the Celtic and Germanic peoples in Gaul that opposed Roman conquest.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alexandre Dumas</span> French writer and dramatist (1802–1870)

Alexandre Dumas, also known as Alexandre Dumas père, was a French novelist and playwright.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Creative nonfiction</span> Genre of writing

Creative nonfiction is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as academic or technical writing or journalism, which are also rooted in accurate fact though not written to entertain on prose style. Many writers view creative nonfiction as overlapping with the essay.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon</span> French soldier and diplomat

Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon, GE, was a French soldier, diplomat, and memoirist. He was born in Paris at the Hôtel Selvois, 6 rue Taranne. The family's ducal peerage (duché-pairie), granted in 1635 to his father Claude de Rouvroy (1608–1693), served as both perspective and theme in Saint-Simon's life and writings. He was the second and last Duke of Saint-Simon.

An autobiographical comic is an autobiography in the form of comic books or comic strips. The form first became popular in the underground comix movement and has since become more widespread. It is currently most popular in Canadian, American and French comics; all artists listed below are from the U.S. unless otherwise specified.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tobias Wolff</span> American author (born 1945)

Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff is an American short story writer, memoirist, novelist, and teacher of creative writing. He is known for his memoirs, particularly This Boy's Life (1989) and In Pharaoh's Army (1994). He has written four short story collections and two novels including The Barracks Thief (1984), which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Wolff received a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in September 2015.

Koren Zailckas is an American writer and memoirist. Her debut, Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, was released in 2005 by Viking Penguin and became a New York Times bestseller. Zailckas attended Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton, Massachusetts, Syracuse University and Bennington College. She is a 2014 recipient of the Alex Awards.

The Holocaust has been a prominent subject of art and literature throughout the second half of the twentieth century. There is a wide range of ways–including dance, film, literature, music, and television–in which the Holocaust has been represented in the arts and popular culture.

David Ray, is an American poet and author of fiction, essays, and memoir. He is particularly noted for poems that, while being rooted in the personal, also show a strong social concern.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Paul Guth</span>

Paul Guth was a French humorist, journalist and writer, and the President of the Académie des provinces françaises.

Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe is the memoir of François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848), collected and published posthumously in two volumes in 1849 and 1850, respectively. Chateaubriand, a writer, politician, diplomat and historian, remains widely regarded as the founder of French Romanticism.

<i>Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman</i> Biography of Mary Wollstonecraft

Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) is William Godwin's biography of his late wife Mary Wollstonecraft. Rarely published in the nineteenth century and sparingly even today, Memoirs is most often viewed as a source for information on Wollstonecraft. However, with the rise of interest in biography and autobiography as important genres in and of themselves, scholars are increasingly studying it for its own sake.

Patricia Hampl is an American memoirist, writer, lecturer, and educator. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis and is one of the founding members of the Loft Literary Center.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Diary</span> Record of events with entries arranged by date

A diary is a written or audiovisual record with discrete entries arranged by date reporting on what has happened over the course of a day or other period. Diaries have traditionally been handwritten but are now also often digital. A personal diary may include a person's experiences, thoughts, and/or feelings, excluding comments on current events outside the writer's direct experience. Someone who keeps a diary is known as a diarist. Diaries undertaken for institutional purposes play a role in many aspects of human civilization, including government records, business ledgers, and military records. In British English, the word may also denote a preprinted journal format.

Eliezer Grynbaum or Eliezer Gruenbaum was a Polish Jewish communist activist. During World War II, he was a kapo in the Auschwitz concentration camp. After the war, he wrote memoirs about his experiences.

Telling Secrets: a memoir (1991), is the third of four partial autobiographies written by Frederick Buechner. Published in 1991, the work considers in depth several scenes and events from the author's life, from his father’s suicide through to his time spent as a visiting professor at Wheaton College.

Jeffrey Berman is a literary scholar, author, and editor. He is a Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the University at Albany, SUNY, He is the author or co-author of over twenty books and one hundred and fifty articles, book chapters, and reviews, including Dying to Teach: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Learning, and Cutting and the Pedagogy of Self-Disclosure. His research interests include literature and psychoanalysis, trauma theory, love and loss, death education, and self-disclosure pedagogy.


  1. "memoir". Oxford Learner's Dictionaries . Oxford University Press.
  2. "memoir". Merriam-Webster Dictionary . Retrieved July 5, 2015.
  3. "memoir". Lexico UK English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 2019-12-22.
  4. (in French) Viennot, Éliane, Marguerite de Valois et l'écriture de l'histoire, 1574-1614 , Études Épistémè, 17, spring 2010.
  5. Saintsbury, George (1911). "Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy, Duc de"  . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica . Vol. 24 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 47–48.
  6. "Gedenkschriften over Napoleon's veldtochten, meegemaakt als soldaat bij het 2e regiment carabiniers te paard, 1805-1815". Retrieved 2020-08-28.
  7. Ledoux, Denis (2006). Turning Memories Into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories. Writer. ISBN   978-0974277349.
  8. Henke, Harold (2001). Electronic Books and ePublishing: A Practical Guide for Authors . Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN   978-1852334352 . Retrieved 2014-12-12.
  9. Balzer, Paula (2011). Writing & Selling Your Memoir: How to Craft Your Life Story So That Somebody Else Will Actually Want to Read It. Writer. ISBN   978-1599631356 . Retrieved 2019-08-28.
  10. Wright, Chris (2002-01-17). "Ordinary people". The Phoenix . Phoenix Media/Communications Group.
  11. "Veterans History Project (Library of Congress)".
  12. Milne, Geoffrey; Beckley, Verey Alfred; Jones, Gwilym Howell Gethin; Wallace, Stanley Martin; Griffith, Goronwy; Raymond, Leonard William (October 1936). "A Provisional Soil Map of East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, and Zanzibar) with Explanatory Memoir". Soil Science. 42 (4): 317. Bibcode:1936SoilS..42..317M. doi:10.1097/00010694-193610000-00018. OCLC   6022506.