Achebe’s many personal anecdotes in The Education amount, in the end, to something like liner notes to the great songs of his novels. In this way, The Education invites a rather perverse comparison with Hemingway’s A Movable Feast. Perverse because where Hemingway is cruel, Achebe is humane; where Hemingway’s Africa is an empty setting, Achebe’s Africa is people; where Hemingway is prone to ugly displays of chauvinism, Achebe is empathic; and where Hemingway liked to fancy himself a great man, Achebe seems truly to be a great man. Nonetheless, fame and nostalgia trouble both The Education and Feast. Achebe’s laurels clutter his text like the empty oyster shells littering Hemingway’s bistro tables.

We are, as Americans, both African and European, and so we find ourselves, like Achebe, with a dual legacy. As Achebe puts it:

If the philosophical dictum of Descartes “I think, therefore I am” represents a European individualistic ideal, the Bantu declaration “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” represents an African communal aspiration: “A human is human because of other humans.”

An artful autobiography can bridge these concepts, opening a mind to us while offering up a self who serves as a map to our collective humanity. In resisting the autobiographical mode, Achebe forfeits his opportunity to inhabit that particular middle ground.

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Eula Biss is the author of The Balloonists and Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays. Her work has appeared in The Best Creative Nonfiction and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction as well as numerous magazines.