Memoir: The new fairy tale

UChicago literary scholar Armando Maggi, PhD’95, says “once upon a time” is now.

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For years, Armando Maggi, PhD’95, professor of Italian literature and a scholar of Renaissance culture, has been telling Americans that our fairy tales are all used up. That Cinderella and Snow White and Sleeping Beauty—at least as we know them today, with their bright, orderly narratives and easy happy endings—don’t have much left to teach us.

Illustration of Sleeping Beauty from Three Fairy Princesses: Snow-White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella (1885) by C. Paterson. (Public domain)

And that even as we return to them again and again, attempting to mine new truths from their exhausted mythologies, they offer little meaning. “We are, in a sense, beating a dead horse,” Maggi told the Magazine in 2012. “We feel like this horse could still ride us somewhere, but it can’t. We need to find another vehicle.”

He thinks perhaps he’s found one. This year Maggi published Preserving the Spell: Basile’s “The Tale of Tales” and Its Afterlife in the Fairy-Tale Tradition (University of Chicago Press). The book traces the evolution of modern-day fairy tales from their 17th-century Italian origins, but it also imagines a way forward: memoir.

What do you mean, memoirs are the new fairy tales?

When I was doing my research, I went to 57th Street Books, and I bought piles of memoirs. I just got everything they had.

The thread that emerges from all these works is that our life is somehow magical itself. That’s what American memoirs are about. They detail some kind of turning point in a person’s life, an experience that becomes a trial.

This is typical of a fairy tale: the hero who has to face a trial and overcomes it. In memoirs, having a difficulty, like a drug addiction, an abusive parent, or a child who suffers from mental illness, marks the beginning of a person’s life and then is followed by a journey toward healing and resurrection. That is a fairy tale.

Maybe an American reader is not totally aware of the uniqueness of the American memoir. The genre is not so widespread in other Western cultures.

Here, even Joan Didion, who writes the most unmagical book, because she wants to be very scientific. But in her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, magic is everywhere. Going through the ritual of saying, “I cannot give my dead husband’s shoes away, because how can he come back without shoes? I have to keep the shoes.” And, “If I am by myself in the bedroom he will overcome his shyness and be able to come back.”

Why is memoir culture so different here?

I think there’s a parallel with the enormous production in the United States of stories, movies, television shows, graphic novels, and so on, that are about the fairy tales we all know. Retelling them, remixing them. There is no comparison with the rest of Western culture.

Here we take fairy tales, magic tales, and wonder tales so seriously. This is the land of magic. I think it’s because overall American culture is still able to dream about a better future, to dream that something better is going to come. It’s part of the American DNA.

That’s also why we take memoirs so seriously. Do you remember James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces? And what happened to the author when people found out that it wasn’t all completely true? The intense anger and sense of betrayal.

It was like he had insulted a religious practice, like he had done something heretical. It was like, “How dare you?” And then he was excommunicated. It was like he had come up with a sacred text that said, “See, I can be saved. I can be born again. Look at what I went through, and now I’m a new person.”

Even though the bottom line of his struggle with addiction and alcohol was pretty faithful, the fact that he had not been 100 percent faithful to reality was seen as a complete betrayal.

The uproar was so intense—much more so than, for instance, the reaction when a journalist is found to have plagiarized or fabricated a story.

Yes. I think it’s because the memoir touched upon the deep-seated desire for change that is inside of us. The desire for improving ourselves, for becoming better people, for finding a better life.

The happy ending for all of us. Then this story turned out to be not completely faithful to his story.

In the book, you use the phrase the “magic of reality,” to describe what memoirs are doing.

In the beginning, I looked at memoirs in a more negative light. A lot of critics say there are too many memoirs. Everyone is writing memoirs. But then I realized that if they are written, it’s because we read them and we need them. They are necessary. They are a new kind of fairy tale. 

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