Seminar in Life Writing: American Memoir and the Crisis of Democracy

In his 2012 book Memoir: An Introduction, G. Thomas Couser writes, “I think that, as the most democratic province in the republic of letters, memoir is a powerful expression of democracy. It may not be necessary to it, but it is capable of strengthening it and enriching its culture” (182).

The current political climate in the United States lends a particular timeliness and urgency to Couser’s claim. In this class we will explore the connections between memoir and democracy, focusing primarily on memoirs published in the United States in the past ten years and emphasizing texts that reflect the cultural and ideological tensions that shaped the decade between the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Key themes will be income inequality, inadequate employment, race relations, populism, political extremism, and protest. We will read primary texts alongside relevant selections from scholarship in auto/biography studies and analyses of contemporary American culture from the disciplines of cultural studies, political science, and sociology.

The guiding questions of the class will be 1) what is the role of memoir in contemporary American public life and political discourse? and 2) how do the discursive structures of memoir—in particular retrospective self-reflection and self-exemplification—position the autobiographical subject in relation to the ideologies and institutions of American democracy in the present day? Each of the assigned memoirs can be understood as a response to a crisis in democracy from a particular vantage point within American society. The reading schedule is designed to encourage participants to think both comparatively and synthetically, examining how each memoirist articulates his or her position within American culture while questioning the stability and integrity of the concepts of “American culture” and “American democracy” that emerge from the juxtaposition of individual accounts.

Student Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of this class you should be able to

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with current theories and methods of auto/biography studies, particularly regarding the genre of memoir
  • Mobilize key concepts in auto/biography studies in your own scholarly writing
  • Engage in critical dialogue with scholarship in auto/biography studies and other disciplines in your own scholarly writing
  • Articulate and support a critical argument in an oral presentation format and respond productively to commentary from peers
  • Articulate a critical argument in a proposal for an article or conference presentation
  • Articulate and support a critical argument in an article-length paper or in a conference presentation and a book review
  • Document your sources accurately and consistently using a standard academic citation style


 Assignments will include an in-class presentation, a project proposal, and either an article-length scholarly paper or a conference paper and a book review (your choice).

Required Texts

(this list is subject to change between now and November 1)

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me (2015).

Hedges, Chris and Joe Sacco. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012).

Khan-Cullors, Patrisse and Asha Bandele. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (2018).

Meeink, Frank and Jody M. Roy. Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead (2009). 

Smarsh, Sarah. Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth (2018).

Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016).

Vargas, Jose Antonio. Notes of an Undocumented Citizen (2018)

Additional readings and critical sources will be available online, either through the Hamilton Library online resources or as files uploaded to the class Laulima site.