Hampl Uses Theme to Unite
By Yolande Clark-Jackson
Story collections can be a great sampling of a writer’s work, but it can also be a way to present a universal theme that can transcend plot, setting, or character. I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, by Patricia Hampl, is a book of and about memoir that engages readers with a variety of memorable scenes and characters. What works in this collection besides Hampl’s insight on craft and her descriptive and poetic storytelling, is her ability to connect her collection of strong and individual nonfiction stories to a common theme. Innocence, whether it be real, contrived, imagined, or denied is investigated throughout.
The order of the essays follows Hampl’s presentation of what memoir is and what it can do. Hampl is concerned with the real job of the memoirist who has to investigate why some memories stay in the mind and others don’t. She asserts that when writing memoir, one has to find connections and see into their deeper meanings. She includes personal essay with commentary on other works of nonfiction. Initially, Hampl shows a real interest in how the imagination shapes memory and illustrates how something invented can end up in a memoir piece. She attributes this to the human inclination to remember the past and to forget and reinvent it at the same time. She challenges the idea that a memoirist is involved in “dutiful transcription” and questions the idea of an innocent nonfiction story or storyteller.
In the essay, “The Mayflower Moment; Reading Whitman during the Vietnam War,” Hampl talks about her own innocence regarding her first ideas about national identity. In “Reviewing Ann Frank,” she presents Ann Frank as one of the only “sane” people of the twentieth century which refers to Ann Frank’s innocence in a time when the world seem to go mad. In “The Book Sealed with Seven Seals,” she presents Edith Stein as an innocent martyr for her “people.” She also presents the individual need to be blameless or unaccountable in “What She Couldn’t Tell,” where Mrs. “Barenek” wants to be seen as innocent as lamb when she was not. In “Other People’s Stories,” the writer herself wants to feel like she is innocent of betraying her mother by telling stories she hasn’t be given permission to tell. Finally, in “The Invention of Autobiography: St. Augustine’s Confessions,” she notes that St. Augustine did not present himself as the ideal innocent and faithful follower. He too questioned his faith and longed for answers until the moment he died.
The book’s title comes from a personal experience of the author who felt like she was promised a story, but never got it. She becomes aware that “I could tell you stories” doesn’t mean that the real story will actually be told. After reading this collection, the idea of innocence becomes a prism that shines light on new questions about writing memoir and about humanity itself.
Hampl, Patricia. I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.1999. Print.