Fiction and the Acting Life: The Memoir of Helena Modjeska

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This essay investigates an instance of the ambiguous overlap between “artful” nonfiction and historical fiction – specifically, how the nonfictional Memories and Impressions of the great Polish/American actress Helena Modjeska (1840-1909) in fact furnished a quite sophisticated story that novelist Susan Sontag (1933-2004) in large part claimed to create in her National Book Award-winning novel, In America (2000). Sontag argues that the actress’s memoir functions as a mere “source” undeserving of acknowledgment and ripe for creative manipulation. As she remarks in one inteview: “I don’t consider Modjeska’s memoirs the work of a writer. So what interests me is the transformation. She’s the source of my character and you can use a sentence that’s exactly the same because it is from her words.” Indeed, Sontag resists characterizing her work as historical fiction, despite the fact that she exploit the outline of Modjeska’s biography and quotes directly from the actress’s letters. I rebut Sontag’s devaluation with a general consideration of the actor’s memoir as literary genre, an overview of Modjeska’s ambition and evolution as a writer, and an analysis of Modjeska’s roleplaying, modes of narration, and dramatically shaped plot in Memories and Impressions. In lieu of dismissing Modjeska as source, I read her as author, and posit Modjeska’s remarkably enduring influence on biographers and fiction writers fascinated with her life story (Sontag is the latest and perhaps the most famous of the actress’s posthumous fans), an influence Modjeska effects through complex self-characterization (the sensitive maiden/ambitious, iron-willed star), shifts between enlightened frame narrator and the quoted confessions of her letters and diary, and the suspenseful stories (all with happy ends) of her professional debuts and bold adventure overseas. In ironic consequence, the writer Sontag’s award-winning non-historical fiction redounds to the actress Modjeska’s writing credit.

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Holmgren, B

Cited Editors

  • Lehtimaki, M; Leisti, S; Rytkonen, M

Published Date

  • 2007

Book Title

  • Real Stories, Imagined Realities: Fictionality and Non-fictionality in Literary Constructs and Historical Contexts

Start / End Page

  • 343 - 57.

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