TEXT review

Writing, and writing about, memoirs of fathers

review by Donna Lee Brien


G Thomas Couser
Letter To My Father: A Memoir
Hamilton Books, Lanham 2017
ISBN: 978-0-7618-6958-0
Pb 205pp USD$29.99


When I received notice of the publication of G Thomas Couser’s Letter To My Father: A Memoir, I was intrigued to read a creative work by one of the leading thinkers in the field, and to observe if, and how, he translated his considerable knowledge of form and theory into practice. Like many others in the field of creative writing and, especially those in life writing, I have often utilised and quoted Couser’s books and articles. While his books on memoir (2011b) and life writing and disability (1997, 2004, 2009b) are important contributions to the field, it was an article published in the journal Life Writing that really captured my imagination more than a decade ago and which has continued to influence my own research.

In this article, ‘Genre Matters: Form, Force, and Filiation’ (2005a), Couser proposes that genre is an indispensable tool in considerations of memoir. Using the taxonomical idea of sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, Couser begins to suggest the myriad ways that memoirs can be characterised and, more importantly, the various uses to which such classification systems can be put. In identifying the existence of numerous ‘new “niche” genres’ (143), Couser also argues for memoir’s ‘vitality’ (143) and posits the value of studying examples of life writing that are clearly ‘non-literary’ (143). This value revolves around what the personal memoir can divulge about the human condition, but also includes how revealing such writing can be in social, cultural and historical terms. This analysis inspired my own work on taxonomies of the personal memoir, which, following Couser, proposes that, in order to discuss the popular personal memoir seriously – and, pointedly, in terms beyond the negative appraisal of ‘misery lit’ – we need to be able to describe, name and group memoirs in a range of ways (see, for example, Brien 2011, 2013, 2017).

As a vivid illustration of these ideas, Couser profiles an investigation he was then undertaking into what he identifies as a sub-genre of memoir, that of American memoirs of fathers. He calls this a ‘category’ of text, noting the variety within it, and then proceeds to describe its features, defining these in terms of ‘full life’ or ‘single experience’ (149), whether the narrative ranges beyond the term of the narrator’s life – that is, in the memoirs he is studying, the life of the father before that of the child – and whether they are written in an ‘essayistic’, ‘impressionistic’, ‘representative’ and/or ‘sequential’ (149) style. He also nominates the motivation of the author as another useful consideration, asking whether the relationship between memoirist and author can be described as deficit in some way, and the degree to which the memoir can itself be described as hagiographic. He also describes a subset of these texts that he is particularly interested in: ‘narratives of filiation’ (151), stressing their ‘intent to enact some kind of engagement with the father, living or dead’ (151).  In this way, he is suggesting the relationships that are often so important within such memoirs can provide yet another way to classify, and think about, these narratives.

In an illuminating example of what could be described as research-led practice-in-action, this investigatory scholarship – which he published in a number of articles (Couser 2005a, 2005b, 2009a, 2011a, 2011b, 2016) – led Couser, who describes himself as a ‘critic’ (2011a) to turn writer. The resulting Letter to my Father: A Memoir is not only engrossing, but is beautifully written in the clear and lucid prose that is a feature of Couser’s scholarship. The title has two meanings. It, firstly, indicates how a letter the author had written to his father years before is central to the book. Secondly, it also signposts a driving motivation for the memoirist, encapsulating how the narrative contains a series of thoughts, impressions, ideas and feelings that Couser would have liked to share with his father when he was still alive.

Letter to my Father is an elegantly structured narrative, divided into two parts. The first addresses the father Couser knew (or thought he knew), the second the man the memoirist discovers through biographical research. The prologue describes every biographer’s dream: the box of personal documents, mostly letters, he finds after his father’s death in the mid-1970s. After a cursory examination, Couser stores this box away, and does not engage with this material for more than three decades. Instead, he becomes an academic and writes his series of important volumes and articles about memoir and memoir writing. Core to the memoir are his musings on how his rediscovery of that box, and his immersion in its contents, compelled him to investigate his father’s life. In turn, this led to him composing a memoir about his father – albeit after sustained scholarly inquiry into the possibility of writing this text.

Other letters, and particularly those in that once-hidden away trove, are also central resources for this memoir. Through the process of reading, investigating and writing about all these letters in some detail, Couser proposes that they are not evidence about a life but valuable components of that life. This is, at least in part, because these letters were written at a time when letter writing was not only an important component of daily life, but also a significant mode ‘through which life was lived’ (2011a: 890). In composing the memoir, Couser comes to regard these letters:

not as the residue of a life but in a way as scraps of it, not an epiphenomenon thrown off by the “real life” of which they are the tantalizing written remains, but the actual stuff of life itself – preserved moments. (890)

They lead him to understand that, at least when his father was in his twenties, he ‘lived a good deal of his life in and through correspondence with friends and family’ (890). This indicates how, alongside his father’s memoir, Couser also needs to recount various aspects of his mother’s, his sister’s and his own life narratives. In this way, A Letter To My Father can be described as a relational memoir, in Eakin’s terms (1999), wherein the subject being written about (the father) cannot be understood alone, but only in terms of others (such as family, lovers and friends).

As these intriguing personal stories unfold in A Letter To My Father, they are underpinned with a second, just as absorbing, narrative regarding Couser’s reflections on some of the central ethical issues involved in the task of life writing, as well as how his own academic career has been affected by his father and their relationship. Couser is well aware of the ethical dilemmas and potential impacts of his enquiry, as well as the limits of both his memory and the archive. He directs the reader’s attention to information and sources he is less certain about with liberal use of such phrases as ‘I suppose’, ‘it was probably’, ‘seems unlikely that’ and ‘perhaps’. These markers are also used to indicate his speculative musings about his father and the parts of his life that remain undiscoverable.

Woven into this memoir alongside Couser’s unravelling of his elusive father’s intriguing secrets and the various complex and enigmatic aspects of his life, are many illuminating humane insights about family dynamics, love (requited and not), sexuality, and the important role that reading, writing and travel can play in a life, as well as the effects of the ravages of depression. Through this life story, Couser also makes many important points regarding biographical memoir research and writing. This means this volume can be read as an important primer on the form, as well as for the unique – and compelling – story of its protagonists. As such, I suggest Letter To My Father: A Memoir is a volume with broad appeal. While general readers will be swept away as the tale unfolds and writers will find the work described and its results inspiring and useful, the book also has various applications in undergraduate and postgraduate classrooms, as well as a range of potential uses with research students.


Works cited



Donna Lee Brien PhD is Professor of Creative Industries at Central Queensland University. Donna has been writing, and writing about, biography since the 1990s. Her recent books on the topic include Recovering History Through Fact and Fiction: Forgotten Lives (with Dallas Baker and Nike Sulway, 2017) and Offshoot: Contemporary Life Writing Methodologies and Practice (with Quinn Eades 2018). With over 250 published book chapters, journal articles, refereed conference papers and creative works, Donna is editor of 45 themed special issues of journals, and the current co-editor of the Australasian Journal of Popular Culture. Donna is convener of the 2018 International Speculative Biography Symposium. d.brien@cqu.edu.ua


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Vol 22 No 1 April 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews Editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker