The Literary Obama
From eloquent memoir to Democratic boilerplate.
Feb 12, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 21 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Dreams from My Father
The Audacity of Hope
Barack Obama ran for president of Harvard Law Review in 1990, and in an early testament to the winning ways that have recently dazzled a fair percentage of the American public, the Review's editors elected him by an impressive majority. As the first black law student to hold the job, he was soon enjoying a mild percolation of celebrity: stories in the New York Times and Time, a smattering of TV interviews, requests to appear at conferences, and then, as day follows night, the calls from book publishers and literary agents, asking him to write a book telling the world what it was like to be him. Obama hired an agent and signed a deal and set about writing.
Four years after his graduation, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance appeared, emerging into what many of us recall as a madcap season in the long sad history of American book publishing. Sometime in the early nineties, editors and publishers had persuaded one another that contracting with large numbers of 30-year-olds to write detailed accounts of their young lives was a good idea. It was not a good idea, however. By 1995, unreadable memoirs were suddenly everywhere. The books didn't vary much in quality, and only superficially in subject matter. They ranged from the depressed reminiscences of young, unhinged white women with drug problems (Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel) to the angry reminiscences of young, unhinged black men with drug problems (Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall).
It is less of a compliment than the book deserves to say that Dreams from My Father was much better than the mid-'90s average.
Yet it was not the book Obama intended to write; he hadn't intended to write a memoir at all. On the evidence, he lacks the solipsistic urge that propelled youngsters like Wurtzel and McCall deep into a glowering contemplation of their innermost, uninteresting selves. What young Obama hoped to write, instead, he later said, was an abstract, high-altitude examination of American race relations, surveying the uses and limits of civil rights litigation, the meaning of Afro-centrism, and so on, flavored now and then with anecdotes drawn from his own experience as the only son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya.
Yet it was the anecdotes that spurred his interest and kept drawing him back to pen and paper--stories and impressions of his parents and grandparents, childhood pals, and colleagues from school and work. Next to this human material, "all my well-ordered theories seemed insubstantial and premature."
So he wrote a memoir. Dreams from My Father was favorably reviewed, got respectfully discussed here and there, and then, as books do, went the way of all pulp. "Sales," Obama later wrote, "were underwhelming. And after a few months I went on with the business of my life, certain that my career as an author would be short-lived." In his adopted hometown of Chicago he taught classes at a law school and plunged into electoral politics. He ran for state senate and won, ran for Congress and lost, ran for the U.S. Senate and, before winning in a landslide, delivered a booming speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that made several news anchors weep, though this is not so difficult as it sounds.
In its second go-round, celebrity has come to Barack Obama less as a percolation than a volcanic eruption. Dreams was reissued in paperback and has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 61 weeks. And after his election to the U.S. Senate, Obama wrote another book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. It has been atop the bestseller list for four months.
The Audacity of Hope is a lot like the book that young Obama originally hoped to write when he wrote Dreams, before he was distracted by his memories of the people with whom he's shared his life. Audacity is high-minded and abstract, pumped with the helium of political rhetoric and discussions about policy--health care or budgeting, for example--that seem just serious enough to bore any reader except someone who knows enough about policy to find them tendentious and superficial. Spiked with folksy touches and potted anecdotes, Audacity is the work of a professional politician under the careful watch of his advisers, a campaign book only marginally more memorable, though much better written, than such classics of the genre as John Kerry's A Call to Service or George W. Bush's A Charge to Keep.