As He Tracks His Parents’ Path, Ex-Times Editor Stumbles

A classic flaw that plagues the memoir genre is that of self-indulgence. The writer certainly has the authority to relate his or her particular tale to the audience, but why should they care to read it? Who is this person writing and why is this life worth understanding?

Unless one is an obsessive collector of life stories, an incessant hunter of intriguing narratives, most memoirs fall flat. Even when the plot is fascinating, the style may be insufficient to portray it fully—often those who lead the most interesting lives are those least qualified to transmit the stories of them.

In his new book, “Omaha Blues,” Joseph Lelyveld ’58 purposefully resists the memoir category, instead subtitling the text a “memory loop.” The framework of this generic rechristening helps Lelyveld avoid some of memoir’s more obvious traps, self-indulgence among them, but it is fundamentally less than honest: “Omaha Blues” is still a memoir, and only a fair one at that.

“Omaha Blues” is, in theory, the kind of memoir that justifies its existence almost without effort. Lelyveld has lived an exciting life against the backdrop of a hazily understood but intriguing childhood. Shuffled among relatives in Omaha, New York, and Alabama before matriculating at Harvard, he went on to work at the New York Times.

There, his career progressed from copyboy to executive editor, with intermediary stops as a foreign correspondent in New Delhi and the Congo. In addition, it goes pretty much without saying that this seasoned journalist put at least as much care into the crafting of his own story as he must have into each of his thousands for the Times.

The problem, however, is that “Omaha Blues” is not really his story.

The issue is not one of invention or hyperbole, of motive or execution, but rather one of focus. The country of memory Lelyveld establishes in “Omaha Blues” feels like a homestead awarded him by chance, a claim better left unworked in favor of more fruitful ventures. His experience reporting overseas would seem to be rich territory upon which to build a memoir, but those are not the years and the events he chooses to survey in this text.

Instead, Lelyveld writes a great deal about the strange relationship between his mother, a woman with a doctorate in dramatic writing who felt trapped by her family’s needs, and father, a nationally renowned reform rabbi. Still more of his narrative attempts to reconstruct the life of a man named Ben Goldstein, a significant figure in his childhood. Goldstein is a complex character, so much so that he might merit a work all his own, but he really has no place taking up so much room in what is ostensibly Lelyveld’s story. He may loom large in the author’s memories, but his presence in this book feels too tangential, if independently fascinating.

The first three chapters read much like a traditional memoir, but halfway through the book we see a switch in tone and mission. Lelyveld begins the chapter entitled, “Ben,” by addressing his subject in the second person. His textual conversation with the long-dead Ben ends with a heartfelt declaration of purpose: “It may not always seem that way but I mean this exploration as a kind of homage; that and, secondarily, as an attempt to round out and perhaps put to rest an early chapter of my own life.” This is what he attempts—and what he achieves—but the book still fails to measure up.

The research Lelyveld needs to carry out in order to create this “homage,” and in order “to round out…an early chapter of [his] own life,” creates a side-loop off the main spiral of his memory. Instead of being allowed to continue on our journey through the foldings of the author’s psyche, we are instead directed to the twin labyrinths of letters and libraries, caught up in a journalistic inquiry.

The latter part of “Omaha Blues” functions as a tribunal intent on uncovering the vagaries of a misremembered, distorted, and often undocumented past outside of Lelyveld’s own experience, a Rashomon-like court set with the tasks of weighing evidence, collecting testimony, piecing together a mystery.

The result, however, is a work that itself reads as mysteriously pieced together. Lelyveld’s goals work at cross-purposes, leaving the reader confused and disappointed. “Omaha Blues” shows how difficult it is to both conjure a ghost and purge restless memories within a single text. The endeavor is a valiant one, but it would have been better served by reserving its disparate aims for independent ventures.

—Staff writer Alexandra B. Moss can be reached at abmoss@fas.harvard.edu.