Journalist and author Sarah Smarsh will speak at the Mercantile Library on July 18 about her book, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. Smarsh is the debut author in the library’s newly created Memoir Lecture series, a response to the resonance these works are having in contemporary nonfiction. Indeed, the top spot of the New York Times Best Sellers list for nonfiction is currently held by Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir, about her childhood spent growing up in a cult.
“I think memoirs are especially popular now because we’re hearing someone confide their life story, or at least part of it, to total strangers,” says John Drury, professor of English at the University of Cincinnati. “Part of the appeal of memoir is its air of ‘true confession.’
“The writer could be famous, like Patti Smith, whose first memoir, Just Kids, recounts her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, or someone previously unknown, like Sarah Smarsh, whose Heartland wins the prospective book-buyer’s attention immediately by its compelling subtitle, to which many of us can relate. We want to hear her testimony.”
And what a compelling testimony it is. Heartland is Smarsh’s even-handed, poignant review of her life in poverty, fleshing out the inherited cycles of family impoverishment and socioeconomic disadvantage that conspired to keep her teenage mother — who is also the child of a teenage mother — trapped in low-income, hard-living situations.
As Hillary Copsey, book advisor at the Mercantile, notes: Smarsh is someone who has a foot in both the working class and white-collar worlds.
“That’s been the focus of most of her journalism — class in America, something we often don’t talk about, or we don’t talk about it directly,” Copsey says. “Sarah Smarsh always has it in her work, and her memoir is really about that.”
What is a memoir, exactly, for the uninitiated? It’s nonfiction, mostly, and distinct from an autobiography or biography.
“Memoir often concentrates on a distinct episode or period of time in the writer’s life, or on a particular subject with which the writer has expertise,” UC’s Drury says. “Autobiography now suggests something formal and pretentious, something official; but memoir sounds more casual, more personal, more welcoming, emphasizing a dependence on memory but acknowledging the inevitable lapses, the moments of forgetfulness. Its power and authority come from the writer’s friendly approach in recounting and revealing what’s happened.”
There’s an unmistakable air of plaintive resilience to Heartland, too. Smarsh’s analysis of and research about Middle America, as told through the lens of the economics of a farmer’s lifestyle, reveal larger truths of the country itself.
That notion is illustrated in this excerpt from Heartland:
“I started to wake up to the gulf between my origins and the seat of American power when I left home at eighteen. Something about my family was peculiar and willfully ignored in the modern story of our country. My best attempt at explaining it was, ‘I grew up on a farm.’ But it was much more than that. It was income, culture, access, language, work, education, food — the stuff of life itself.”
Smarsh uses a narrative device of writing her memoir to her unborn child, which is an interesting choice that can occasionally jar the reader from the intensity of the story she’s telling. As a trained journalist, she focuses her objective observation skills on the hardscrabble life endured by folks who inhabit “flyover country” in America.
“I think there’s a lot of really good and interesting memoirs coming out right now,” says John Faherty, executive director of the Mercantile. “I also believe introducing memoirs as one of our signature series allows us to bring in a whole lot of different voices that will be good for us and good for the community.”
The Mercantile has expanded and increased its programming over the last few years, adding the Memoir Lecture this year and, more recently, the Science and Technology Lecture. Founded in 1835, the library’s guiding principles include self-education and reading, as well as sparking new ideas borne of guest speakers.
“Our programming is absolutely built on that tradition, and these are just more ways to start those conversations,” says Copsey. “Also, from a practical level, people love memoirs because it gives you a chance to see a life that’s not your own and almost live it for the time that you’re in that book.”
Sarah Smarsh will speak at the Mercantile Library in a sold-out lecture on July 18. More info: mercantilelibrary.com.