In the opening pages of his memoir A Sort of Life, Graham Greene spoke out against something that then, like today, often prevails in self-consciously correct writing circles. "There is a fashion today among many of my contemporaries to treat the events of their past with irony," Greene says. "It is a legitimate method of self-defense. 'Look how absurd I was when I was young' forestalls cruel criticism, but it falsifies history. We were not Eminent Georgians. Those emotions were real when we felt them. Why should we be more ashamed of them than of the indifference of old age?"
I think of all the reviewers and academics today who rail at memoir just as they once railed at novels that are now in the cannon – Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Farrell and Wolfe – writers who plunged into the reality of their own lives much like the McCourt brothers do today. Memoir, which used to be a gossip’s account of people the writer had known is now, like those real-life novels of the past, about the writer’s own self, the artist’s true self – which is the center of all fine art.
Fifteen years after that horrific time I had as a toddler in the old railway train drawing room, I was thinking it safe to be the other side of childhood, I was at a basically silly, booze-soaked college that was a sort of Gothic Disneyland – replicas of 700-year-old Oxbridge buildings set down in New Jersey beside a segregated town that had a sort of Williamsburg façade. One of the few things I took seriously in that gray college was the almost professional newspaper we had, the Daily Princetonian. I was the Editorial Chairman, which meant I wrote most of the editorials and was in charge of columns on the arts and politics. One day at an editorial board meeting I convinced the board in this conservative place that we should run editorials advocating two things that were almost unthinkable in the 1950s – America's recognition of China, not Taiwan, as China, and an end to Princeton's exclusive and racist private eating club system.
I had argued hard, vociferously, for not giving an inch, and my side had won, though at the start of the meeting everyone has been against me. But I beat them down like the vociferous debater I had been before college. We would run both of these editorials, it was decided And then I heard a light remark that I took as a complement.The head of the Princetonian who as an adult would become a much honored author, said “It must be remembered that Fred never had a childhood."
Of course they were making fun of me because I was being so earnest, and of course I could take the joke. I knew I really had had a childhood. But somehow it seemed just as well that neither the world, nor myself, ever face the details. It was my means of self-defense.