Memoir as Window to the Unfathomable Self: Stanley Fish on Charles Van Doren

Stanley Fish several years ago wrote his column in the New York Times about an essay by Charles Van Doren in the July 28, 2008, issue of The New Yorker.  If you saw Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford, you know that Charles Van Doren disgraced himself, his family, and perhaps even academic life, by participating in a rigged quiz show on early television (1956) before an audience of 50 million.

Fish first flips Van Doren’s clever title “All the Answers” on its head by telling us that we will find “None of the Answers” to the obvious question of “why did you do it?”  However, instead of excoriating Van Doren for failing to deliver, Fish chooses to praise him.  In the end of his article, he makes comments very relevant to the current state of memoir writing.  They are worth quoting in full:

“He does not cast himself as a victim, or as a reformed villain or a misunderstood hero, three narratives that are quite popular in these days of compulsive self-discovery. Now in his 80’s Van Doren still hasn’t discovered himself (do any of us?), still hasn’t been able to plumb the depths of his motivations for actions that remain unfathomable, even to him, especially to him. The best thing about the essay is its refusal to claim self-knowledge while still desiring it. He imagines someone asking, “Aren’t you Charles Van Doren?” — and implying by the question knowledge of what being Charles Van Doren means. Certainly it means that he is the person who did what Charles Van Doren did — “the man who cheated on ‘Twenty-One’ is still part of me” — but it also means more, although the bearer of the name is not sure what that more is. “That’s my name, I say to myself, but I’m not who you think I am–or, at least I don’t want to be.” It’s that last bit — “at least I don’t want to be” — that is so in keeping with an autobiographical writing that tells and hides all at the same time. It is what makes the essay at once maddening — because it tantalizes without finally delivering — and affecting — because you sense that the author is not playing a game or laboring to reclaim a lost honor, but trying, as best he can, to live out a life.”

Honesty, modesty, the refusal to conform to the three popular narratives already proven at the box office, these are qualities Fish admires.  I do also.

But I wonder:  if our greatest human failings are, in the end, unfathomable to us, why do we always come back to them?  Are memoir readers eager to fathom someone else’s failings because they cannot do the same for their own? What do you think?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Pat Bean on July 29, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    Very thought provoking. I think in its own way it can apply to all of us. Thanks for sharing.

  2. shirleyhs on July 29, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    Thank you, Pat, and welcome! I appreciate the Like and I’m glad the post spoke to you. It hits one of the big issues of memoir, doesn’t it? I’m eager to visit your site.

  3. Saloma Furlong on July 29, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Is it our failings we come back to, or what we learn from them? I believe it’s the latter. Reading someone else’s memoir allows me to get a different perspective on what it means to be human. It is not the failings I am drawn to, but rather the struggle to overcome them. I think it has to do with the struggle between good and evil — we all have the potential for both, so we grapple with how to have the good prevail our whole lives long. Reading about someone’s failings is not uplifting… but reading about their remorse and how they overcome these failings and decide to do good is uplifting and inspiring. The more I can identify with the protagonist, the more this is true.

  4. shirleyhs on July 29, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    So true, Saloma! What evidently happened in this case is that the learning wasn’t clear cut. Stanley Fish didn’t knock Van Doren hard for this, like many reviewers probably did. He allowed for complexity and impenetrability of the soul.

  5. friesengroup on August 1, 2011 at 12:01 am

    “It is what makes the essay at once maddening — because it tantalizes without finally delivering — and affecting — because you sense that the author is not playing a game or laboring to reclaim a lost honor, but trying, as best he can, to live out a life.”

    These are the memoirs I connect with the most strongly. The ones that aren’t trying to find a solution or defeat uncertainty, but the ones where the journey is home.

    Thank you as always for pointing the way to good articles and books!

  6. shirleyhs on August 1, 2011 at 12:23 am

    I loved your way of summarizing a good memoir–“the ones where the journey is home.” There is both truth and beauty in that statement.

    It’s my pleasure, Kathleen, to find things worth your precious time to read.

  7. Saloma Furlong on August 1, 2011 at 2:21 am

    Shirley, I hadn’t read the article before making those comments. That was a very interesting read. Partly because Van Doren told the story in a voice that seemed completely devoid of emotion. There was a hint of it, here and there from his actions, but as a reader I felt like I was injecting it into his inference of emotion, without actually seeing it. For example, when he listened to a song repeatedly that spoke to him, and then returned home and made the choice his wife could live with, because he didn’t want to lose her. In all of that, one would think there would be a hint of what he was actually feeling, but if there was one, I missed it. I must say, I find this kind of narrative uncomfortable. Whether that’s good, bad, or indifferent I don’t know. I just find it hard to relate to someone with such a flat affect. What is going on inside? Was he struggling with the inner demons, or was he looking away and not even recognizing that they were there?

    I don’t know that I can answer the questions you posed. I am not usually drawn to this kind of memoir and wouldn’t have read it, had you not pointed this out. Usually the memoirs I read the characters are fathomable and their struggle is visible to the reader. I am drawn to the kind of writing that Nikki Finney described when she wrote, “My responsibility as a poet, as an artist, is to not look away.”

  8. shirleyhs on August 1, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Saloma, your comment sent me back to the New Yorker piece. I see what you mean about flat affect. Another way of viewing the piece would be to try the William Carlos Williams approach: “no ideas but in things.” Perhaps Van Doren uses the flat affect because his feelings are still deeply submerged. Little details, especially the exchanges with his father, and the ending where he seeks redemption in the land, evoke feelings in the reader even if they don’t tell us explicitly about inner life of the author.

    Despite that perspective, let me say that I love the quote from Nikki Finney also.

    And I love how deeply you engage with other authors. Such attention is sure to be good for your own work!

  9. Jim Juhnke on August 1, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    I was a high school senior in a small Mennonite community in Kansas (nine students in that class) when Charles Van Doren began his appearances on “Twenty-one.” I watched those TV shows intensely, jealous that Van Doren and others could recall so much information, while I had trouble remembering names I had studied the previous day for history class exams. Van Doren was a hero for me. His fall was part of my coming of age and loss of innocence. I am included when he writes, “I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them.”
    I found his New Yorker essay riveting, especially (perhaps because I am male), his relationship with his father. The hugs with his father and later with his wife were high points in the essay for me. I do appreciate the insightful comments by Stanley Fish, Shirley Showalter and others. But I would not have thought to critique the essay for its lack of affect.
    One thing I find missing from Van Doren’s essay is attention to the impact of his, and NBC’s, abandonment of integrity and truth-telling upon the larger culture. Orderly society depends upon truth-telling. Even the writing and marketing of memoirs depends upon some presumption that the writers are doing more than creating elegant scams. I trust it is more than ongoing unwarranted innocence when I want to believe that Van Doren’s New Yorker essay is not just another lie–a smaller version of his grand lie half a century ago.

  10. shirleyhs on August 1, 2011 at 11:23 pm

    Yes, Jim, I trust this voice, partly because of the long time that has elapsed since the scandal and the age of the author now, partly because I can feel the remorse–and the burden–of having let down the Van Dorens. The remorse Saloma would like to see more of, extending even to a young boy in Kansas who lost some innocence, that would have been welcome. Even if he doesn’t fully know “why,” he did what he did, he does know “what” he did, and he should have become by now an expert on the nature of truth and trust in a society.

    The essay understates its purpose all the way. I guess it is up to us to supply more reflection–which we are doing.I am enjoying, and learning from, this conversation.

    Thanks, Jim, for offering this glimpse into your own thoughts both now and long ago.

  11. Jim Juhnke on August 2, 2011 at 1:56 am

    At one level I wanted Van Doren to be more explicit about his motives and his anguish. I wished he had language to explain who he was and is. I was sad he apparently doesn’t have access to the rich Christian understandings and paradoxes of sin and grace that make sense to me. (I’m also sorry that Fish doesn’t include “sinner saved by grace” as one of the narrative options for memoirs today. Is that story line impossible in our secular age?)
    At another level I admired Van Doren’s ability to deftly and simply imply the depths of his suffering and let the reader’s imagination supply the agonizing details. He didn’t need to be explicit. For me it was more powerful for him just to mention his loss of weight and his baggy pants (as he did), than if he had described the vivid sensual specifics about food and mealtimes.

  12. shirleyhs on August 2, 2011 at 11:21 am

    Yes, those baggy pants. This was a “show” narrative rather than a “tell” one. One of the big arguments in the memoir world focuses on how much “telling” one can do without losing the connection to narrative that reads like fiction. This one is very narrative focused. Hence, the details matter. They carry the emotion and the ideas, to the extent that ideas are present.

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