Tuesday, March 14, 2006

James Frey and Kenneth Rexroth: Memoir vs. Autobiographical Novel

"One of the most disturbing things about the whole James Frey brouhaha this week is that the book that sold 3.5 million copies was turned down by nearly every major publisher when it was offered as fiction." -Patry Francis, simply wait, January 14, 2006

When I first read about the controversy over James Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces, I thought about Kenneth Rexroth's An Autobiographical Novel, published in 1964. Rexroth is a far better writer than Frey, but he also blurs the line between fact and fiction. As in Frey's book, some of the questionable incidents take place in what the Chamber of Commerce types call Michiana--north central Indiana and southwest lower Michigan.

From 1998 to 2003, I wrote a column in the Elkhart, Indiana Truth which focused on local history. Rexroth, who was born in South Bend and spent his early years in Elkhart, was a fascinating subject, but An Autobiographical Novel. made research frustrating. For example, Rexroth says both his grandfathers were named George. I spent hours looking for maternal grandfather "George Reed." Finally, I located the obituary for Charles Reed, whose daughter was a Mrs. Charles Rexroth. Had Rexroth forgotten, or was he uncomfortable with the fact that his mother had married a man with the same name as her father? Freud was gospel in those days, and Rexroth may not have wanted to give his mother an Oedipus/Electra complex.

Sometimes Rexroth exaggerates events. A flour mill explosion he claims to have witnessed, "killed everybody in the place." In fact, the explosion took place in the wee hours of the morning, and the only casualty was a cat. He can also make people more interesting. In 1912 Charles and Della (Kenneth calls his mother Delia, though official records list her as Della) lived on South Second Street in Elkhart, two doors down from the Winchester/Knickerbocker mansion, "....the home of an elderly couple named Knickerbocker. They manufactured a galvanic battery health device which made them a fortune." They claimed the device could cure "cholera morbus, rabies, paralysis, galloping consumption, or cancer." The truth was more prosaic. William Knickerbocker was a banker. (After William died in 1937, his widow, Nellie Winchester Knickerbocker, became more interesting. She drove around Elkhart in an ancient electric car, with flowers in vases on either side of the seat. Her ghost is said to haunt the mansion.)

But in spite of all the factual errors, Rexroth's book is provides a fascinating look at Elkhart in the years before the Great War. Chicago in the Twenties, and San Francisco in the Thirties and Forties. Unlike, say, Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, or Sherwood Anderson, he sees progressive values in the upper Midwest:

The towns in northern Indiana lying along the Michigan border had been the last stops on the Underground Railway. They had a good many Negro freedmen living in them. Elkhart became one of the centers of the Ku Klux Klan some fifteen years after that, but in my days there if you called a man a nigger in the street a white man would very likely walk up to you and knock you down.

While Frey's memoir is not in the same league with Rexroth's, reading (or rather listening to) it gave me an insight into the mind of an addictive personality. I'm willing to forgive a few factual errors, or even outright untruths. Rexroth, in the preface to the second edition, writes:

How much of it is true? Substantially it's all true. The title was the first publisher's notion of one way of deflecting possible libel suits. Some of the people are divided up into two or three characters and then opportunely die. Now everybody of whom anything the least unpleasant is said really is long dead. Names have been changed throughout to avoid any embarrassment to the character or heirs; otherwise, this is all pretty much the way it actually happened. It will never happen again.

And in one sense he's right. In spite of factual errors, it's one person's memory of times events that "will never happen again." It's unfortunate that Frey's publisher did not subtitle A Million Little Pieces An Autobiographical Novel.


Peter said...

otherwise, this is all pretty much the way it actually happened. It will never happen again.

I love that.

Your post reminds me of the controversy a few years ago surrounding Dutch, Edmund Morris's biography on Reagan. Morris introduced a fictional character as a narrator, and of course he invented a thing or two regarding the narrator's interaction with Reagan. Anyway, I thought the idea was genius and the bio a real success -- one of the best I've read. One would have to be a pretty inattentive reader not to know what is fiction in Morris's book. However, many people couldn't get over the idea of fiction in a biography. It makes me wonder how uncritical (the bad "uncritical") most people may be in their reading once they accept a book's "genre label."

dog1net said...

The worst mistake a writer can make in writing autobiography is to exaggerate facts or make up things whole cloth. Trying to be true to an event as it happened and as it was experience, sometimes is easier remembered than actually written. Too often the lens we use to look back on events is distorted. Thus, as with any non-fiction story, it's a good rule of thumb to do your homework first and always check your facts.