Phyllis L. Buss (1902): Life Writing, Class & Identity – Writing Lives

Phyllis L. Buss (1902): Life Writing, Class & Identity

“I am certain that those were the happiest years of my life.” (p12) 

Phyllis L. Buss’ memoir fits into the category of ‘commemorative storytellers’ in the classic models of working-class autobiographies as identified by Regenia Gagnier in her article ‘Social Atoms: Working Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’  Firstly Phyllis’ memoir fits into this narrative category because she is very nostalgic in her writing, as she mainly focuses on her childhood and memories of the morals and life lessons that her Grandmother taught her as a child. Regenia states that features of the commemorative author’s writing displays ‘minimal self-consciousness, they preserve memories of a way of life that is changing or has already ceased to be’[1].  As I have noted that she was of the privileged minority of the working-class,  Phyllis does not actually state that her life changed in any drastic way in regards to breaking out of her class boundaries or even enduring many hardships that she would need to overcome. Instead she writes about how life changed during the onset of World War One, in regards to her occupations however, rather than her emotions: ‘The First World War had just begun which made shops to be busy’, ‘I learned a lot about ways of life then and how some money was made easily to come by.'(p8-9)  Although this is a significant change for the country as a whole, the way in which Phyllis writes about it is as if it never directly affected her, but simply improved her employment prospects.


(Nineteenth century type-writer)

A second feature of the commemorative storytellers narrative that Phyllis uses in her memoir is that it expresses ‘wisdom of the past; they do not have crises or self-doubt about their ability to speak.’[2] It is evident that Phyllis is attempting to relay her Grandmother’s wisdom to the future generations of her family. She has dedicated the memoir to her grandchildren which is an indication as to why she constantly writes about her Grandmother’s opinions, how she took those on board as a child and used her wisdom in conducting her own life. For example she states a saying that her Grandmother would have taught her as child, and then confirms that she was correct when she experiences it as she gets older, relaying it to the younger generation: ‘remembering my dear Granma saying that sitting on cold steps would result in Rheumatism or worse in later life. I can even believe her now, especially when I feel these twinges myself.'(p5) Regenia notes that ‘storytellers give counsel from their own experience and that of others; they do not have explanatory narratives’, ‘consequently they are nostalgic’ and the memoir would ‘ typically end with the First World War’.[3]

Phyllis has no self-doubt in the manner in which she writes. Her recollections are something that she does not question, she simply retells the story of her life, writing about certain memories that would have been of interest to her grandchildren, especially stories with comedy value. She writes in detail about her childhood, assuring the reader that it was a happy time and that she never faced the amount of hardships that other working class girls did during the early twentieth century.


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