Hunger of Memory The Education of Richard Rodriguez
Public vs. Private: A Rhetorical Analysis of Hunger of Memory
In his memoir Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Rodriguez examines the relationship between his intimate, spanish-speaking childhood and the public life he leads as a student and a writer. A patchwork of often-conflicting identifiers — Mexican-American, economically-disadvantaged, Catholic, queer, and (eventually) writer — Rodriguez’s identity shifts constantly. Often attempting to simultaneously place himself into opposing categories – namely, public and private – Rodriguez further complicates his identity, never allowing the reader to define his individuality. A shifting tide, Rodriguez’s identity ebbs and flows, quietly eroding its cliffy shores only for an undertow to suddenly fling up sand and carve out another basin in the ocean floor. Like the sea, his identity Rodriguez’s is marked by one sole constant: change. In fact, the only term Rodriguez concretely defines himself with is Writer, a sort of meta-identity that allows him to fluidly, endlessly reshape his sense of self. Furthermore, because a writer cannot exist without its reader, Rodriguez makes his ultimate identity a public one, dependent upon the perspective and observation of onlookers. Compounding this further, Rodriguez italicizes and apophatically-uses spanish words, alienating himself from the intimacy of his spanish-speaking home. Though Rodriguez discusses his affinity for the private intimacy of his Spanish-speaking life, he does so in English as a writer — affirming that his truest self exists in the realm of the public.
Rodriguez discusses the often-conflicting influence of his Mexican heritage, life of poverty, catholicism, and queerness, but refuses to brand himself with any of these descriptors; instead he defines himself solely as a writer, eroding his private identity into malleable and publicly-gratifying story. Though Rodriguez writes about his love for the “intense feeling of being at home,” and the intimacy of “spanish sounds” that he associates with his private life, he never defines himself (by claiming “I am…” or “I was…”) through his familial relationships or Mexican heritage (31). His parents proudly proclaim “We are Mexicans” and encourage their children to do the same, but Rodriguez still sees this as “their ancestry”(128). In fact, the first time he gives himself an identifier it is not to claim his race, religion, or familial relationship, but to say “I was a scholarship boy” (53). His intimate-familial self, then, seems simply like a precursor to his scholarly identity, an eventual component of his writing, the backstory to his public persona as a student and writer. (The book is, after all, titled The Education of Richard Rodriguez, not the life.) The only instance Rodriguez defines himself in the present tense, he declares, “I am a writer” (11). This metafictional, progressive identity allows him to include his intimate spanish-speaking self in his story, without being limited by its identifiers. However, his ultimate “writer” identity exists within the realm of the public, washing even his private experiences of their intimacy.
Rodriguez furthers this separation of his private-language from his identity by italicizing the memoir’s spanish words and using them apophatically. Having grown up in a spanish-speaking household, these words are inevitably part of his story, but he isolates them with italics — stark on the page rather than woven into his writing (the primary component of his identity). He continues this theme by using the spanish words apophatically, to describe things he is not. Not a bracero, negrito, or gringo, Rodriguez’s association of the spanish language to a lack of identity demonstrates his ultimate alienation from the private realm of his life. Furthermore, Rodriguez never uses the spanish words in quotations, as recollections of actual words spoken by family. Instead, he includes them in his reflection, making them seem simply like pieces of his written identity rather than actual experience. Moreover, even when he describes, in tones of enchantment, the intimate “spanish sounds” indicative of former family closeness, he still treats the words (and his loss of them) as undercurrents of a public educational journey, components of a political argument against bilingual education (21).
Furthermore, the very fact that Rodriguez writes this memoir makes him a writer and his private life a story, an entity for public consumption. Rodriguez himself declares early on, “I write: I am a writer” (11). Breaking the fourth wall and metafictionally bringing the act of writing to the forefront, Rodriguez reminds his audience that, though they can wonder about his public and private identities, they are reading his story because he has written it for the public– making his identity and his experiences ultimately public as well. Rodriguez reiterates this point in his narrative as he describes his mother “pleading with [him] never again to write about our family life” because it is “private”(195). By publishing his work at all, Rodriguez has chosen the public over the private. Even if he had dedicated the entire memoir to his intimate, familial life, the fact that he had written it at all would introduce an inescapable element of the public.
Though Rodriguez ebbs and flows between public and private, confounds categories of racial identity, class, and masculinity, and works constantly to complicate his identity, one thing remains clear: he is a writer. And he writes his own identity in a desperate attempt to find it and to share it. His memoir (though deliberate and careful in its word choice), then becomes a stream-of-consciousness progression of identity, rather than a retrospective reflexion. Ultimately, Rodriguez changes, but never really evolves, forever submerged in a mess of slipstreams and undertows, pulling him in every direction.
A Scholarship Boy’s Nostalgia
In his essay “The Achievement of Desire,” Richard Rodriguez acts as both a writer and reader in response to a book written by Richard Hoggart entitled The Uses of Literacy. Rodriguez discovers a parallel between his own life and the life of what Hoggart coins as a “scholarship boy.” A scholarship boy is defined as a child from a working-class family who feels as if he “cannot afford to admire his parents…[so] he concentrates on the benefits that education will bestow on him.” (566). For Rodriguez, the discovery and reading of the definition prompts him to gain the courage to realize and admit that his academic success is due to his early, emotional separation from both his family and his culture.
Discovering Hoggart’s book was an epic moment in Rodriguez’s life. His nostalgic experience is expressed when he writes, “For the first time I realized that there were other students like me, and so I was able to frame the meaning of my academic success, its consequent price- the loss.” (564). Rodriguez’s academic success began when the “deepest love” he had for his parents turned into “embarrassment for their lack of education.” (566). Like Hoggart’s scholarship boy, he started isolating himself from them and transitioning his respect to his teachers. He realized that his parents had no room for societal growth, and if he chose to follow in their footsteps, he would be doomed to the same working-class life that they were marginalized into. Rodriguez’s embarrassment of his parents served as a catalyst to further his education. By idolizing his teachers, he realized that he was opening the doors to success.
The only problem with opening the doors to success is that another door closes behind it. The intimate, family life in which Rodriguez found so much pleasure was left in a self-deprecating manner. He began to associate pleasure with inferiority. For a scholarship boy, it is “clear that education is a long, unglamorous, even demeaning process…” (578). Rodriguez would go to the library and check out the maximum number of books. Many of these books were recommendations from the teachers he admired so much or librarians who had gained a new fondness for him. This mirrors the words of Hoggart when he writes, “…[The scholarship boy] rarely discovers an author for himself and on his own.” (845). Every time Rodriguez did discover a book on his own and found it pleasurable, he disregarded it. There was no room for pleasure in his life.
During grade school, Hoggart’s scholarship boys endure the constant feeling of harsh loneliness. The scholarship boy would always be the first to answer a teacher’s question to the annoyance of the other students. In his home life, the scholarship boy feels as if he does not identify with his family, so conversation is always kept to a minimum. The books that Rodriguez brought home are the epitome of Rodriguez’s imaginative, scholarship boy. They are books that disassociate himself from his family. This loneliness also proves true in Rodriguez’s student life. There seemed to be a barrier between Rodriguez and a normal, social life. Instead of healthily interacting with other people, he hid behind his books. When Rodriguez was a graduate student, he traveled to London to write a dissertation on English Renaissance literature. He found himself in a lonely community of other scholarship children whose “eyes turned away the moment [their] glances accidentally met.” (579). The realization of such a life had a profound effect on Rodriguez. Nostalgia started setting in, and he was eager to remember the warmth he experienced as a child.
Rodriguez blatantly states that he was the quintessential scholarship boy, but I believe that he has since then shed the label. A scholarship boy is defined by Hoggart as a child who tries to separate himself from his family because of the embarrassment of association. He is the “odd man out.” (848). However the tone used by Rodriguez in “The Achievement of Desire” is more nostalgic and melancholy than embarrassed. Rodriguez openly writes about his past, even though it had taken him over “twenty years to admit.” (564). Hoggart claims that once a scholarship boy has made the transition into a scholar, he will never feel a sense of belonging in his personal, private life. This is where the separation between Hoggart’s scholarship boy and Rodriguez truly begins. In the ending paragraphs of his essay, Rodriguez begins to identify with his parents. He notes that he “laughed just like [his] mother” and “[his] father’s eyes were much like [his] own.” (580). Although Rodriguez is most likely still the odd man out in his family, he does feel a sense of belonging despite the strained relationship.
There is an interesting relationship between Rodriguez and Hoggart’s texts. The structure of Rodriguez’s essay is formatted similar to a reading analysis worksheet. Rodriguez borrows four block quotes from Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy and comments on them, finding various parallels to his own life. An example of this can be seen when Hoggart writes, “[The scholarship boy] discovers a technique of apparent learning, of acquiring of facts rather than of the handling and use of facts. He learns how to receive a purely literate education, one using only a small part of the personality and challenging only a limited area of his being.” (577). Like Hoggart’s scholarship boy, Rodriguez admits he was a bad student. He relied on imitation to get him through the grammar school system. Rodriguez “use[d] his [teachers’] diction, trusting their every direction.” (566). He adopted what he was told to adopt rather than making decisions on his own. Rodriguez’s way of paralleling his life to the life of Hoggart’s scholarship boy seems like a very systematic way of writing, which is interesting, because it reflects Rodriguez’s methodical, educational upbringing. However, how Rodriguez uses the text to his advantage is proof that he is no longer a carbon copy of Hoggart’s scholarship boy.
The text is broken up into four sections. The first section intertwines the words of Hoggart and Rodriguez describing Rodriguez’s claim on the term “scholarship boy.” Rodriguez blurs the lines between Hoggart and himself, which allows him to fully align himself with Hoggart’s definition of a scholarship boy. The passage from The Uses of Literacy within this section seems to flow a little too perfectly. It is seamlessly sewn together as if Hoggart’s words and Rodriguez’s personality are one and the same. The second section could have easily been ripped out of Rodriguez’s journal, because of its heavy use of personal events from the essayist’s life. The second section’s polar opposite is the third section, which seems very factual and based on Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy. Many of the sentences begin with “The scholarship boy…” The second and third sections display some kind of internal battle within Rodriguez, but it comes together in the fourth section. Instead of reading Hoggart’s text like a chore and adding it to a list of accomplishments like Rodriguez did with Plato’s The Republic, he comprehends and uses it to aid his voice. He controls the last section with great authority. Rodriguez makes Hoggart’s words work for him and becomes both a close reader and a creator of a literate, personal, and admirable essay. He uses Hoggart’s words, but he does not mimic them like he once mimicked his teachers and critics.
Being able to find his own voice as both a reader and reader, as well as becoming aware and accepting of the fact that it is okay to desire the past were key to separating Rodriguez from Hoggart’s prescriptive scholarship boy. Rodriguez even goes as far to describe Hoggart’s scholarship boy as “more accurate than fair.” (577). Although it is a seemingly an accurate description, of what a young, working-class child may go through in life, it is not every man’s description. The scholarship boy described by Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy seemed to have an ill fate of seclusion and loneliness, but Rodriguez seems to have created a different ending for himself by being able to go back home. The last section of “The Achievement of Desire” proves that the essay is solely Rodriguez’s. He may have inserted Hoggart’s quotes into his work, yet the essay is still his, because the clarity of his emotions and thoughts is pristine.
Rodriguez, Richard. “The Achievement of Desire.” Ways of Reading. Comp. David Bartholomae
and Anthony Petrosky. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. 561-584.
Pieces of Words: Rodriguez’s Identity as a Writer
Richard Rodriguez attempts to write about learning to write in no unclear terms in his autobiography Hunger of Memory. Rodriguez constantly fluctuates between two extremes: the fear and dislike of writing due to its incredibly personal nature and the belief that writing is the most public form of expression. As he seeks to deal with his enormous uncertainty regarding his ideals of private and public, he attempts to do this through the lense of a writer. Rodriguez discusses the influence of his intimate Spanish-speaking home life on his literarily development through the process of his education. A constant juxtaposition of literature, home life, and his identity as a writer serve as pieces in a puzzle that Rodriguez tries desperately to put together. Though Rodriguez seeks desperately to discuss his personal and public life through the lense of his education, ultimately his baseline ambiguity regarding his most basic identity as a writer precludes a successfully clear description of any of the pieces of his life.
Rodriguez persistently insists that writing is the most isolated career path, as he must eloquently divulge what is most personal to him. Rodrigues asserts that he writes “of one life only”, his own (6). He views writing as not only a deeply private ritual of looking at the colorful puzzle pieces of his life and choosing which pieces to write down, but also as a deeply individual experience. His recurring use of metawriting delves deeper into the personal aspect of writing as he constantly discovers more layers of himself and his language. Throughout his education, Rodriguez recalls the tendency of “written words” to make him feel “all alone”, as though the work of fitting together an array of words was an inescapably involved task (64). Continuing this symbiotic trend of writing and loneliness, Rodriguez begins to find comfort in the “exclusive society, separated from others” of his fellow writers (75). His identity as a writer provides a piece of his life that is very different from the rest and that creates a more interesting and unique picture than any other part of his life. Even the literal act of writing he considers a “lonely journey” (189). The puzzle of his identity must be completed without the aid of others as he pieces together the fragments of his identity- alone. Rodriguez repeatedly insists that writing is a very personal act, yet constantly discusses the inherently public nature of writing.
Just as often as he discusses his reclusive habit of writing, he simultaneously dreads the inherently public nature of his work as he faces great ambiguity regarding his own work. A young child that struggles to connect his personal and public life, writing “[determines] [his] public identity” (6). Writing provides Rodriguez only with extreme feelings of isolation yet it literally defines him in public. His own autobiography, what should be the most deeply personal work of his life, and yet he feels to him like “the most public thing [he] has ever done” (191). As he writes his story, he discusses the physical and emotional process of writing, continuing his use of metawriting and sometimes metabasis. Ironically in fact, he least concerned with himself. He believes he is writing for the “public reader” (191). His discussion of the audience seems to use metawriting to both isolate and connect himself to the outside world of his readers. He is focused on his own alienation while writing yet at the same time is even more focused outside of himself, on his audience. Rodriguez seems completely incapable of determining whether the work is for himself or for the reader as he describes the process of writing painfully. There is intense antithesis in the way that the written word is both so terrifyingly desolate, the “impersonality of the written word”, yet it is still the medium that Rodriguez uses to communicate his most deeply personal feelings (205). Only through writing can Rodriguez communicate his “vast public identity”. Only through prolonged periods of intense loneliness can Rodriguez begin to feel understood. The irony that exists in Rodriguez’s contradictory feelings toward writing determines the methods he uses to communicate his life- both public and personal.
Rodriguez’s very identity as a writer is the definition of ambiguity and as he writes, this ambiguity relating to the act of writing only further spreads throughout all of his discussions. The conflicting feelings of Rodriguez toward what he is most basically -a writer- lead to his overwhelming lack of clear identity, resulting in his writing being made of “words like jigsaw pieces” (197). Rodriguez’s words, his language, the very things that make him a writer already irrevocably do not fit together. His metawriting further emphasizes his own confusion as he can not escape the circle of his identity. Rodriguez “writes” and he is “a writer” (1). Still, he sometimes feels unable to face the “isolation writing requires” (189). Nevertheless, Rodriguez still finds solace in writing. This piece of him that remains so painful and contradictory still provides a place where he “no longer needs to feel alone or eccentric” (203). He uses his identity as a writer to attempt to dole the “sharp distinction between public and private life” (200). Rodriguez attempts to put the puzzle of his identity together in a more coherent way, with fewer jagged jigsaw edges and “distinctions”, but ultimately by putting together his own puzzle he only further blows the lines. However, this ambiguity in his opinions of his writing bleed through onto all of the other pieces of his identity and only further blur lines and increase overall ambiguity.
Words are the glue with which Rodriguez attempts to create a beautiful, unified picture of his identity. However, due to contradictory nature of his sentiments toward writing, by writing about writing (metawriting), he only further jumbles and confounds the puzzle pieces of his already confounding persona. As Rodriguez desperately attempts to form a coherent identity presented through a coherent autobiography, he ultimately only further confuses both and leaves his argument ineffective and ambiguous: writing fails to create a complete puzzle.
Parenthetical Pillars: The Subtleties of Phrasing and Identity in ‘Hunger of Memory’
Richard Rodriguez’s autobiographical Hunger of Memory outlines his intellectual development from early childhood to adulthood. As the title suggests, Rodriguez recounts and reflects upon the various memories of importance to this development. He simultaneously addresses political topics — arguing against bilingual education and affirmative action — while establishing the story of his own identity as a complex architecture connecting his Mexican-American background to his class to his religion to his body to his profession as a writer. He does this all while switching between either side of various fenestrations separating his public and private lives. Though he discusses each of these pillars distinctly, he complicates his identity and paradoxically constructs an anomalous architecture of a mutable self through intentionally inconsistent argumentation and observable changes in his own language. Ultimately, his identity as a hyper-Americanized Mexican-American forms the most important cornerstone in his confounded self; his uses of parenthetical phrases throughout discussions of other aspects of his identity act as windows between his public and private lives and as solipsistic expressions of the part of himself he can only convey through his writing.
Rodriguez’s descriptions of his early childhood contain parenthetical phrases reflective of the nascence of the clash between his public and private lives, stemming from his earliest conceptualizations of language. Describing his private home life, he keeps them mostly short, using several single words in parentheses, amplifying their preceding modified element. He remembers that he would “hear [his] mother call out. . . in Spanish (words)” (16), ironically calling attention to— rather than de-emphasizing— the idea of “words”, thus beginning to show their importance to his development. Already he begins to intermix his early education with notions of his private racial identity, their relationship contributing also to his affinity for language. Yet, at the same time, he employs the nature of parenthetical punctuation to separate the two, distinctly referring to his first language, “Spanish”, and to “words”, or language in general, as separate entities. Similarly he layers the public and private components of his identity when he writes that “inside the house [he] would resume (assume) [his] place in the family” (16). In this case his parenthetical “assume” redefines “resume”, creating an uncertainty regarding the nature of his home life; the parenthesis are a window into the interior private life of his home, yet he must “assume” this private identity. Thus he defines his private life in terms of his public audience, whom he is inextricably aware of.
Evolving from brief expressions of his private life among his public struggles, Rodriguez’s parenthetical phrases turn into solipsistic expressions of his own struggle to discover his identity but maintain an emphasis on the role that his own writing and understanding of language played in that struggle. Discussing his use of the English language as a child, he “couldn’t believe that the English language was [his] to use,” expanding in parentheses that “[he] did not want to believe it” (18). This contrast between this disbelief and absence of desire to believe reflects the solipsistic struggle to convey his sense of identity as a variable structure. Adding layers to his writing and to his identity, often redefining his own statements to confound public and private, his syntax parallels his constantly changing identity. But alternating with these seemingly decisive redefinitions, Rodriguez uses parentheses to pose equally broad questions about his own self. To these questions he often grants a greater degree of syntactic autonomy, as they exist independent of any non-parenthetical sentence. It is with these questions that he digs even deeper the foundation on which the structure of his identity stands; they create a layer beyond public and private as he asks himself— “Did I somehow suspect. . .” (19)— speaking to some hyper-personalized self which he can only express by creating such an extra, language-based layer. The opposite uses of parentheses he employs— both as means to define and to broaden — further complicate the architectural subtleties of his identity, and support his underlying political argument against the idea of a generic, static identity based solely-upon race or background, but still inextricable from them.
While he establishes these patterns in his use of parentheticals— typically using them to access more deeply personal, and private, aspects of himself— his uses them in a drastically different way when he discusses his religious identity. In this sense they initially have a neutral and rather technical function in his language; he uses them to provide information about possibly esoteric knowledge of Catholicism. He clarifies the nature of “the unforgivable sin (against the holy ghost)” (88); distinguishes “the dangers of mixed marriage (between a Catholic and a non-Catholic)” (83). These phrases, however, evolve into a pattern of public expression, sometimes literally assuming the voice of a person from Rodriguez’s public life. In switching to using parentheticals to stand for the intensely public— as opposed to the intensely private —aspects of his identity, as he switches from discussing the “Aria” of his development to his religious background and awakening, Rodriguez further illustrates the complexity of his identity as a collection of related but evolving pieces. However, even as he does this, he allows his identity as a writer to influence both public and private, referring still to “the sounds” of the words spoken by the nuns at church. Yet at the same time as he bridges the gap between between his public lives, his use of parentheticals continues to divide them— rather than including the information without parentheses, he isolates them with punctuation in order to argue for the importance of their separation without losing the dynamic relationship they have with one another.
Rodriguez’s self-construction of his identity is unquestionably intentionally convoluted. He establishes patterns in language to reflect ideas of his public and private lives only to change said patterns entirely in ways that can only be intended to draw attention to the points of variation. His parenthetical phrases act as much more than ways to emphasize or separate certain pieces of information, but rather as ports through which he reveals the nature of his hyper-personal inner self or his hyper-public observations. As a common device throughout his discussions the various aspects of his identity, the phrases he chooses to put in parentheses act as pillars cornering them, connection them like rooms in a home. Through his frequent flips in meaning he successfully constructs a detailed architectural identity, unable to be understood only by a single room — race, religion, class, language— but perfectly complex under closer examination of all elements together.