The International Writers Magazine: Review
My Life in Letters: A Collection
Ryan K. Smith
Hopewell & Co., 2003,
$49.95 (cloth) $19.99 (paper).
is for history
is a curious publication. Falling somewhere between memoir and historical
scholarship, the collection features eight essays culled from the authors
school days. Yet none of the pieces have been revised or edited; they
ostensibly appear as they did when submitted as class assignments. Thus
we are presented with a patchwork of random topics, erratic prose, and
derivative research interspersed with occasional bits of flair.
As scholarship, the book holds little value. But it is a surprisingly
absorbing spectacle, and it does offer a small window into our modern
educational system. The authors brief introduction fails to situate
the collection. Smith describes the project as a retrospective
and outlines his studies as a high school student in Florida, an undergraduate
at a nearby college, and a graduate student in American History at Virginia
and Delaware. He thanks his instructors and then proceeds into the essays
with a quotation on intellect from Emerson.
The essays themselves are divided into three non-chronological sections:
History, Criticism, and Miscellaneous.
Most pieces focus on American history, though world history, sociology,
and literary theory make appearances. Nearly all are embarrassingly
stilted, and however valuable as class exercises, they make for thin
public reading. In A 1920s Photograph as Primary Source
Material, Smith demonstrates a newfound grasp of the basic
distinction between primary and secondary historical sources. In Blade
Runner and Cognitive Dissonance Theory, he attempts to relate
course readings with the character development featured in Ridley Scotts
The collections most egregious selection - a study of global deforestation
- appears to have been clumsily transcribed from an encyclopedia entry.
Where these pieces contain too few references to relevant scholarship,
others veer into a tedious overload of historiography, as in an essay
on the religious dimension of the American Revolution. The shifting
range from high school to graduate school is consistently jarring. The
collections high point is a comparative study of three nineteenth-century
scientific fads - phrenology, mesmerism, and spiritualism. This essay
links the three phenomena in an imaginative way, though it too suffers
from stiff phrasing and lean source material. In the end, the authors
energies might have been best served by revising and expanding this
particular piece and then submitting it to an appropriate academic journal.
Few academic readers will need to peruse any more high school or college
research papers than they regularly do. But Smiths effort does
uniquely assemble the broader track of one students career,
despite the collections lack of attention to chronology. As useful
as it may be on this score, one can only hope that this apparently well-intentioned
book does not herald a tedious new era for the memoir.
Review by Ray Schmidt
The Library of Virginia
© Ryan K. Smith. April 2004
all rights reserved