Rousseau introduced his Confessions with a boast: his autobiography would be a performance without example, an accomplishment without imitators. He was only half right: Augustine he was not, but he has had imitators aplenty, and especially now. Whereas unimaginative novelists were once routinely accused of changing the personal names in works that would otherwise have been autobiographies, today it’s more common to learn that a genuine piece of fiction has been sold as a writer’s “true confessions.”
Any good autobiography is necessarily a work of the imagination, but not exactly in either of those all-too-common disguises. France has a thriving tradition of experimental autobiography—think of Sartre’s The Words, Genet’s The Thief’s Journal or a whole series of works by Michel Leiris beginning with Manhood. Yet I know of only one American work of recent times that has profoundly revised the form of autobiographical writing: I Remember, which Joe Brainard began publishing in 1970 when he was 28. It reached its definitive form in 1975, and has recently resurfaced as the first section of The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard (Library of America; $35), edited by Ron Padgett.
Brainard grew up in Tulsa, where his schoolmates included Padgett; later, the somewhat older poet Ted Berrigan would turn up at the University of Tulsa. All three would head east and become stalwarts of the so-called Second Generation New York School. Brainard was its semiofficial illustrator in chief, and throughout the 1960s and 1970s he produced a prolific array of paintings, collages, drawings and assemblages. Brainard was the most modest of artists and writers—yet he quietly maintained the most stringent of standards for himself, which may be why his work as a painter and prose poet fizzled out long before his death in 1994 from pneumonia as a complication of AIDS. “You know, the older I get the more I believe in nothing,” he wrote, and by the end of the 1970s he gave it all up in favor, as John Ashbery once observed, of “his two favorite hobbies, smoking and reading Victorian novels.”
Given Brainard’s modesty and short-lived success, it’s a surprise and delight that the Library of America has inducted him into its pantheon alongside Hawthorne and Melville, Stevens and Whitman. Until now, Brainard has been what’s known as a “cult author,” his cult being a minuscule and almost private one compared with those of the countercultural icons more recently admitted by the Library of America into its fold, such as Jack Kerouac and Kurt Vonnegut. Yet Brainard still hasn’t truly arrived. His Collected is not a title in the press’s trademark classics series; rather than being, as they are, robed in black like a Supreme Court justice, it sports a powder blue dust jacket spangled with insouciant yellow stars. I suspect Brainard would have approved: he’s been accepted, but only insofar as the acceptance accords with his relaxed style.
Brainard’s unflagging self-attentiveness is curiously and paradoxically egoless; he can expose himself preening or faking it in his memories, but his prose never suffers such flaws. It has no evident design on the reader. As Ashbery once wrote, apropos of Brainard’s painting, there is “no apparent effort on the artist’s part to cause stress or wonderment in the viewer.” He’s just calmly reporting for the readers, with curiosity, deadpan amusement and no internal censor, what “I remember”—the first two words of every entry of his best-known work.
What kinds of things does Joe Brainard remember? Every kind. Childhood memories and adult ones, things anyone who lived in postwar America would likely remember, and ones only Brainard experienced: popular catchphrases and the faces of movie idols, sexual daydreams and odd misunderstandings, brand names and weather and physical sensations; memories of people and places and food and art and everything else that makes up a life. Trivia, mostly, recalled with no inherent order or imposed structure: “I remember that ‘no two snowflakes are exactly alike.’” The same is true of the memories Brainard records with precision, honesty and no ulterior design.
The result is probably the most incisive portrait of postwar white America, “when polio was the worst thing in the world,” “when, in high school, if you wore green and yellow on Thursday it meant you were queer,” “when Negroes had to sit at the back of the bus” and “when my father would say ‘Keep your hands out from under the covers’ as he said goodnight. But he said it in a nice way.” Brainard’s way of savoring the oddness of his Tulsa childhood’s bland normality is of a piece with the way he found his gayness both as normal and as eccentric as everything else.
A collection of trivial observations with no evident architecture or inner development, lacking both plot and polemic, yet depending on a mix of empathy and distance—it hardly sounds like the formula for a lasting work. But then, the affinities of I Remember are not only with the various experiments in literary autobiography beginning with Rousseau, but also with the music and art of Brainard’s time. Imagine a work as receptive to randomness as the music of John Cage, as strictly modular and repetitive as a sculpture by Donald Judd or a composition by Philip Glass, and yet as casual and shamelessly subjective as the snapshots taken by Garry Winogrand and William Eggleston. But the delicacy, sweetness and cool of Brainard’s recollections are all his own. He composed them with the ambition, as he once noted, to “write from/about what ‘is,’ at this very moment: Right Now!” It may seem paradoxical that a work attempting to exist entirely in the present is a book of memories. Brainard thought otherwise: perceptions are too profuse and unsettled to track in the present tense, but recollections, arriving formed and edited from the back of one’s mind, sit still long enough for writing to take hold of them.