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. This was what the first-person could do: contribute to the mythos of American individualism through the telling of a heroic journey, as in Barnum, or declare oneself as an individual who that mythos ignores, as in Douglass.
The same year as Barnum’s publication, though, Walt Whitman released the first edition of Leaves of Grass, reimagining the first person as a permeable voice, a voice that listens and repeats back what it hears, a yawping dialogue between self and other, a utopian vision of equality.
Generations, which has been republished in a new edition by New York Review Books Classics, draws on all three approaches to self-writing — the confessional, the bildungsroman, and most of all what Tracy K. Smith calls in its introduction a “prism”-like approach to memoir, letting in and refracting the stories of others.
The book is dedicated to Clifton’s father, whose death spurs its telling. Once her shock subsides, Clifton buys a black hat from Sears and drives north with her family for the funeral, the same direction, she notes, that her great-great-grandmother Caroline, called Ca’line by Clifton’s father, walked when she was eight years old, before “dying free” in 1910.
Her father’s death leads Clifton to seek out a deeper understanding of her family’s generations: her mother, Thelma; her father, Samuel; her grandfather, Gene; her great-grandmother, Lucy; and her great-great-grandmother, Ca’line.
The chapters are structured chronologically, from Ca’line through Clifton herself. Each begins with a quote from Whitman, and, in Whitman-like fashion, with a portrait: of Ca’line and her son, whose expressions are hard to make out in the grainy, aged shot; of Lucy, posing solemnly, upright in a corset; of Gene, in a caddish mustache and bowtie; of Samuel, slouching in slacks, posed like Whitman’s proletarian bard; and of Thelma, sitting near a closed window, looking away from the camera.
In the context of the book, these photos are an assertion: my family existed, not in theory, but in particular; here’s what they looked like; here are their smirks; here’s how they stood in light and shadow.
Clifton makes the reason for her assertions clear from the outset: in a work that’s meant to remember her relatives, the first voice on the page, after a brief dialogue tag from Clifton, belongs to a stranger. Responding to an ad in the paper posted by Clifton, the voice asks why she’s interested in learning more about her family, the Sayles family. Clifton responds that her father’s name was Sayles, and the woman, an amateur genealogist, is excited and confused; she’d never heard of Clifton’s father, nor her father’s father, nor so on.
“Who remembers the names of the slaves?” Clifton writes. “Only the children of slaves.”
When she makes the connection between Clifton and her ancestor’s slaves, the woman is audibly disturbed. “I rush to reassure her,” Clifton writes. “Why? Is it in my blood to reassure this thin-voiced white lady?” She jumps, then, to her father’s memory of Ca’line, who wouldn’t tell him her African name. “Don’t you worry, mister, don’t you worry,” she reassures him. These reassurances frustrate Clifton’s father: “But it’ll be forgot,” he says.
Clifton wrote, then, an assertive book, a lyric autoethnography, fighting against her compulsion to console. She cataloged all the memories she could gather, warm and discomfiting, and sorted them by generation. In spite of — or maybe because of — the book’s clear, catalog-like structure, there’s constant movement within each chapter from past to present, from a recollection of Ca’line swaying in her rocking chair and Clifton’s ongoing mourning of her father. One feels Clifton shepherding her associative thoughts into a narrative arc she could make sense of, sometimes succeeding at coherence, sometimes not — which is the point. Her family’s history has been deliberately forgotten; what’s left are fragments.
Those fragments — the image of her father’s missing leg; the name of the African tribe Ca’line came from, the Dahomey women — are repeated over and over, scene by scene, gathering meaning as they pass from relative to relative.
Clifton’s line-level style involves repetition, too, a manner of communicating she seems to have inherited from her father, who’s quoted at length throughout. The phrases he repeats are often rightful indignations. Hear this, he seems to say; remember this. It may sound unbelievable, but it’s true. Of Lucy’s husband — his grandfather — he tells Lucille, “He was a present to their family. He was somebody and he was a present, a wedding present, Lue.”
These cadences appear in Clifton’s own voice when she learns of her father’s death, writing, “I didn’t believe Mr. Sayles Lord was dead. I didn’t believe Old Brother Sayles was dead. I didn’t believe the Rock was dead. I didn’t believe you were dead Daddy.” And later, when she visits his open casket along with her sisters, she’s affronted by the way in which his body is positioned to hide his missing limb. “They were hiding his missing leg,” she writes. “The place where there was no leg was hidden. They were hiding his nothing. Nothing was hidden. They were missing nothing. I thought I was going to laugh.”
Clifton doesn’t laugh. When asked by her sister whether their father looks good in his casket, she’s impatient with her family’s willed positivity, which, like America’s, is only made possible by a careful concealment of the truth. “No,” she says to her sister before leaving the room. “He’s dead.”
It’s easy to see Clifton’s insistence on recording her and her family’s memories from all angles and without concealment in her poetry, too. In her short poem “why some people be mad at me sometimes,” from her collection Next: New Poems (1987), she writes:
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and i keep on remembering
Ca’line, her father, and her mother appear in her work from the late 1960s onward, often in situations narrated by a first-person speaker. In her poetry, Clifton assumes the full responsibility of cataloging fragments of her history. But in Generations, she’s assisted by her family members’ voices, which speak voluminously for pages at a time, so that to read the memoir is to listen alongside her. Several chapters begin with Clifton’s father sharing a story or a description or an insight, plus a dialogue tag suggesting habitual time: “my Daddy would say.” It’s a novel means of opening up the form of memoir to the sounds of other voices, other points of view. This isn’t the narrowly focused “I,” which in its acuteness allows for untold stories to be shared with texture and specificity, but which lends itself to the myth of the self-contained individual. And it isn’t the first-person plural, the broad and therefore often flattening “we,” which suggests a heartening focus on the collective, but an unsettling assumption of homogeneity.
Instead, it’s a system of related “I”’s, narrating, listening, canting, repeating. The memoir’s form suggests that Clifton knows she’s porous, made up mainly of the stories and histories of others — her family but also her community in her hometown. She regards her porousness, her connectedness, with optimism. Just as she’s made up of her father’s remembrances, her children will be made up of hers, and so on.
“Things don’t fall apart,” she writes. “Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept.”
Generations is confessional: Clifton doesn’t shy away from unflattering memories of her father in a fury over her mother’s shaking “fits.” And it has elements of the bildungsroman, following Clifton as she becomes the first member of her family to go to college (there are those unbelieving repetitions again: “I was soon going away to college,” she writes. “I was going to college”). But above all it belongs to a tradition of American self-writing that’s optimistic in its vision of, and hope for, equality. In writing a memoir which pans away from her own tightly controlled narrative, Clifton is both assertive and self-effacing, both uniquely herself and part of a larger whole.
Before concluding with a list of the names in her tree, she writes as a kind of artist’s statement: “[O]ur lives are more than the days in them, our lives are our line and we go on.”
Maddie Crum is a writer in Brooklyn.