Maddie Crum at the LARB:
LUCILLE CLIFTON’S Generations, her only work of nonfiction amid a vast body of poetry, was published in 1976, before memoir ballooned into a commodified genre, including ghostwritten celebrity tell-alls.
As the form took shape in America, it borrowed from existing literary genres. In Reading Autobiography, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson highlight several, including the confessional, a poetic style in which personal experiences and traumas, often taboo, are revealed to challenge existing power structures, and the bildungsroman, the rags-to-riches arc of social assimilation and public achievement.
In 1845, Frederick Douglass published his account of slavery, using the first-person “I” to reposition himself as the narrator of his own oppression; a decade later, in 1855, P. T. Barnum published a memoir in the vein of today’s self-help narratives, The Life and Adventures of P. J. Barnum: Clerk, Merchant, Editor, and Showman with His Rules for Business and Making a Fortune, using the first-person “I” to profess his authority.