Constructing a Nervous System

Pantheon. Apr. 2022. 208p. ISBN 9781524748173. $27. MEMOIR
Jefferson’s latest memoir (following her National Book Award winner Negroland) is what she calls a “temperamental autobiography”—a merging of memoir and criticism in which the Pulitzer Prize–winning cultural critic analyzes her life through the macroscopic lens of American culture. It is a thrillingly original personal narrative, interlacing Jefferson’s family and recollections with her interrogations of the writers, musicians, and entertainers who have mapped, she says, “the neural pathways by which a vision of culture develops.” Childhood memories of Jefferson’s father’s depression splice with her thoughts about the life of jazz pianist Bud Powell; a close look at Ella Fitzgerald’s “sweat and heft” is juxtaposed with Jefferson’s feelings about standards of beauty as a Black teen. Her admiration for Willa Cather’s work is examined against the backdrop of Jefferson’s writing seminars (she’s a professor of professional practice in writing at Columbia) in which she taught primarily white college students. Jefferson deconstructs and then rebuilds “the stuff of memory and experience”; the best way to “be a critic of your own past,” she writes, is to “dramatize it, analyze it, amend it accidentally, remake it. Intentionally.” This slim volume is saturated with brilliance.
VERDICT A fierce and fresh amalgamation of memoir and cultural criticism by one of the country’s most compelling thinkers. Highly recommended.
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