Complete Story


Spring 2019, 49.1, pages 49–70

The Ethics of Memoir: Ethos in Uptake

Abstract: In their production and uptake, memoirs grapple with the status of the self and subjectivity as evidentiary fodder for social, cultural, and political concerns. The concept of ethos illuminates memoir’s rhetorical potency and its dubious ethics. Personal experience that subtends memoir serves as a form of persuasion, but it can also be used to overly personalize issues in need of systemic critique. We argue that attending to a memoir’s uptake is one way to contend with the ethical challenges this genre poses. This approach places a memoirist’s ethos—her vision, language, modes of rationality, and ideology—as well as memoir’s varied functions, within larger social, cultural, and political debates. It thereby traces memoirs’ rhetorical power while also enabling critique of their ethical grounding in the “self.” Two case studies illustrate our findings: J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.

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