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How Obama’s Reading Shaped His Writing

“Obama-the-writer came before Obama-the-candidate.”

By Craig Fehrman, February 13, 2020 in lithub.com

Josh Kalven loved walking through Hyde Park. Sometimes he explored the University of Chicago’s campus. Sometimes he headed straight to his job at 57th Street Books, a store that belonged to the neighborhood’s Seminary Co-op.

One day, in the spring of 1996, Kalven walked past a yard sign on Lake Park Avenue. It was odd that he noticed it; most people tune out bids for the state senate. It was even odder that he recognized the name. Where had he seen that name, Obama? Oh yeah, Kalven remembered, that guy’s a member at the bookstore.

Barack Obama first joined the Co-op in 1986, and for many years he would duck into 57th Street’s basement location, wearing a leather jacket in the winter and shirtsleeves rolled up in the summer, browsing quietly while the shop echoed with the sounds of the apartment dwellers above. Obama often came at night, just before closing, circling the new releases table in the front, studying the staff selections along the back, and usually leaving with a small stack of novels and nonfiction. At the counter, he would spell his name to get the member discount—a treasured and anonymous ritual unless your name was strange enough, and your visits frequent enough, that a clerk might start to remember you.

Obama’s anonymity ended for good in 2004, when he gave his famous keynote at the Democratic National Convention. In that speech, he shared his unique biography—the father from Kenya, the mother from Kansas—and underlined its themes of unity and hope. As Obama put it, “my story is part of the larger American story.”

Today, Obama’s story feels as simple and obvious as a Wikipedia page. Yet it took him years to process this story—to understand it, to interpret it, to create it. These were the years he spent writing (and failing to write) Dreams from My Father. “Writing a book,” he later said, “forced me to be honest about myself. . . . It was good training for the kind of politics I try to practice now.” Obama-the-writer came before Obama-the-candidate.Like many of his era’s bookish undergrads, Obama encountered two approaches to literature: reading for empathy and reading for ideology.

But Obama-the-reader came first.

*

Barack Obama was born in 1961, in Hawaii, and his early life was marked by displacement. His father left the island while Obama was still a baby; his mother moved him to Indonesia while he was still a child. At ten, he returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents, and during each of these changes, changes he rarely controlled, Obama relied on books—starting with Dr. Seuss, graduating to Spiderman and science fiction, ending in high school with the novels of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. “I loved reading,” he later said. “The idea of having these worlds that were portable, that were yours, that you could enter into, was appealing to me.”

In 1979, Obama enrolled at Occidental College, a liberal arts school in Los Angeles. Like many of his era’s bookish undergrads, he encountered two approaches to literature: reading for empathy and reading for ideology. Another way to define this divide was reading like a novelist and reading like an English professor. Toni Morrison had offered a good example of the first approach only two years earlier, in an interview about her new novel Song of Solomon, which was also her first novel to feature men as major characters. Morrison described how hard she’d worked to enter the minds of those men—“to become that intimate with a character,” as she put it, “to try to feel what it was really like.”

This act of imagination—in creating characters and, just as much, in reading someone else’s characters, in entering their minds a second time and empathizing with their point of view—was becoming central to the teaching of creative writing. At Occidental, Obama sought out the literary crowd. “There was a strong circle of supportive but competitive writers,” recalled Tom Grauman, a classmate of Obama’s. “Basically, we all wanted to be in Paris between the wars.” Instead they found themselves in The Cooler, the campus’s cinderblock diner, where they talked earnestly about their reading and writing. Obama enrolled in a seminar where he workshopped his poetry; he submitted poems to Feast, the campus’s ambitious literary magazine. The whole time, Obama continued to read on his own. The book that shaped him the most, he later said, was Song of Solomon.

At The Cooler, Obama and his friends also talked about the intersection of literature and politics. He got more of this approach after transferring to Columbia University in 1981. While Obama had decided to major in political science, his English electives offered similar ideas: a lecture course with Edward Said that analyzed fiction through a postcolonial lens, a seminar with Lennard Davis that looked at the ideologies embedded in Dickens and Defoe. This second style of reading resonated with Obama, as well. “I recommend Marxism and Literature by Raymond Williams,” he wrote to a friend during his senior year. “It generally has a pretty good aim at some Marxist applications of cultural study.”Obama read fiction because he wanted to experience psychological interiority.

And yet in the end Obama sided not with the English professors but with the novelists. Consider a passage from early in Dreams, where Obama chatted with two black classmates at Occidental, one of whom, Marcus, condemned the “racist tract” Obama was carrying, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Regina smiled and shook her head as we watched Marcus stride out the door. “Marcus is in one of his preaching moods, I see.”

I tossed the book into my backpack. “Actually, he’s right,” I said. “It is a racist book. The way Conrad sees it, Africa’s the cesspool of the world, black folks are savages, and any contact with them breeds infection.”

Regina blew on her coffee. “So why are you reading it?”

“Because it’s assigned.” I paused, not sure if I should go on. “And because—”

“Because . . .”

“And because the book teaches me things,” I said. “About white people, I mean. See, the book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. A particular way of looking at the world. If you can keep your distance, it’s all there, in what’s said and what’s left unsaid. So I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate.”

Obama’s classmate, Marcus, was echoing Chinua Achebe, who a few years earlier had described Conrad and his book as “bloody racist.” At first Obama seemed to agree—or at least to try for some kind of consensus between the empathy and ideology sects. Ultimately, though, he chose to focus less on politics than on people. Obama read fiction because he wanted to experience psychological interiority—in Conrad’s readers, in Conrad’s characters, in Conrad himself.

*

After graduation, Obama felt torn between several possible futures, including one that was vaguely literary, in which he would try to write fiction, and one that was vaguely political, in which, drawing from a different strain of his reading, on the history of civil rights, he would try to make a difference.

By 1985, politics seemed to be winning. Obama had landed a job as a community organizer in Chicago, a job he worked hard at, building support for issues like asbestos removal. He also continued to read and write. Obama started browsing the new releases table at 57th Street Books. He started writing fiction of his own, eventually completing several stories he shared with his fellow organizers. “Take a look at this,” he said to one, a bit embarrassed, before handing over a draft about a storefront preacher. The stories showed promise, particularly in the relationships between their characters. “Write outside your own experience,” Obama urged another friend in a letter, though only after he urged him to cut back on the adverbs. “Write a story about your Grandmother in Armenia, or your sister in college; I find that this works the fictive imagination harder.”

After a few years of organizing, Obama headed to Harvard Law School. He wanted a more practical way to make a difference. In 1990, the Harvard Law Review elected Obama as its new president, making him the first African American to hold that spot. The choice was covered by the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, among many other outlets, and each story hit the same Obama beats: his historic first, his unusual biography, and his political ambitions. “Down the road,” the Los Angeles Times noted, “he plans to run for public office.”

When Jane Dystel saw those stories, she decided to give Obama a call. Dystel was a fiery literary agent who’d spent a year in law school herself, and she promised Obama there was a book in all this buzz. Obama admitted that he’d thought about writing a novel, though never nonfiction, and he came to Manhattan to discuss it further. “We both said,” Dystel later recalled, “it should be a memoir.”

Literary memoir was thriving in the 1980s and early 1990s, inspired by new classics like Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Kingston applied the novelist’s tools of character and empathy to her actual life. She tried to capture what it felt like to be a daughter, to be confused, to be simultaneously Chinese and American, and this kind of narrative was emerging as a vibrant presence in bookstores, literary journals, and creative writing workshops, where memoir taught as easily as minimalism.

Dystel helped Obama craft a proposal for the memoir they were calling Journeys in Black and White. Obama listed his literary models, including Maya Angelou, John Edgar Wideman, and Maxine Hong Kingston. But he was also detailing how much his reading had shaped his worldview. “Such works take on the narrative force of fiction,” he wrote in the proposal, “and invite the reader to share in the hopes, dreams, disappointments and triumphs of individual characters, thereby soliciting a sense of empathy and universality that is absent in too many works on race in America.”

In the fall of 1990, Obama’s proposal set off a bidding war, with a Simon & Schuster imprint winning for around $125,000. Obama’s contract called for an initial payment of $40,000, an outcome that thrilled him. He was twenty-nine years old, and for the first time in a while, his literary side seemed to have a shot at winning.

The writing proved difficult, which left the author eager for distraction. Obama had returned to Chicago, where he was spending more and more time with a lawyer he’d met named Michelle Robinson. To his publisher’s irritation, Obama had also agreed to run a voter registration drive—what was in many ways a campaign in miniature. “Do you want to write this memoir,” someone from the drive asked, “or rescue democracy?”

Obama, as usual, wanted to do both. While meeting with activists and voters, he carried a bag that held his handwritten drafts and the boxy laptop he used to type and revise them. When he finally submitted a chunk of the book, it was months late. The draft included some fine personal passages, but they were often drowned out by dense academic asides.

On October 3, 1992, Barack and Michelle were married. On October 20, Simon & Schuster cancelled the contract. He no longer had a publisher. (It was worse than that: he now owed Simon & Schuster forty thousand dollars.) But with Dystel’s encouragement, Obama began a second major draft. “The best story here,” one of his friends told him, “is you.”

That was also the hardest story. One of the things Obama loved about writing was the way it forced him to clarify what he thought and felt about something. In this case, though, that meant clarifying his fractured identity—and the anger he harbored at his white family and his absent black father.

Obama kept writing, and that meant he kept reading. One of the books he studied during this period was Kingston’s Woman Warrior, and it shows. Dreams was becoming a true literary memoir, built out of characters, epiphanies, and cinematic scenes. Obama was tough on himself. He was tough on his family, using his grandparents’ racial blind spots to demonstrate the realities white people often miss. Yet Obama also captured his grandparents’ complexity—their struggles and sacrifices and love.Once he started reading, Obama transformed. He gave a confident authorial performance, drawing out words, slipping into accents, and choosing the perfect pauses.

By the spring of 1993, Obama had finished the new draft. Dystel called Henry Ferris, an editor at Times Books, and he agreed to look at a partial manuscript. It arrived by messenger service, an oversized box stuffed with hundreds of pages. “I was like, ‘What am I taking on here?’” Ferris recalled. “But before I was at the bottom of the first page, I was convinced I had to buy the book.”

Ferris gave Obama a flat $40,000, to pay off the Simon & Schuster debt, and the author continued to write and revise. Dreams finally appeared in August 1995. On pub day, Obama sent flowers to the Times Books offices. He was proud of his book. While it eventually dropped out of print, it got him some nice reviews and a modest book tour. One of the stops was 57th Street Books.

On the night of the reading, about thirty people showed up, most of them familiar faces from community organizing and the University of Chicago. As Obama introduced the book, he seemed slightly awkward, a little abstract. Once he started reading, though, he transformed. That night he gave a confident authorial performance, drawing out words, slipping into accents, and choosing the perfect pauses—a reminder that he mastered his style as a writer long before he mastered his style as an orator.

*

Politics beat literature—finally, decisively—a few weeks after the book tour ended, when Obama announced he was running for state senate. Over the next few years he rose from state senator to US senator to president. Dreams, back into print after his convention speech, came with him, combining with The Audacity of Hope to sell more than 6 million copies. Together, they make up the twenty-first century’s most successful campaign books.

And yet Dreams is more than that. Plenty of presidents have written books; a surprising number of them have even written good books. But outside of John Quincy Adams, who spent much of his political career wishing he’d become a great American poet instead, no other president has written a book that aspired to literature as clearly as Obama’s did.

Obama’s reading shaped these aspirations. While he’d told many people about his desire to run for office, including the journalists who’d covered him at the Harvard Law Review, Obama worked far too obsessively on Dreams and its revisions for it to be some sort of long-term political gambit. Dreams is not revealing because Obama wrote it before he had electoral ambitions. It’s revealing because he wrote it after he had them—because even then, he couldn’t help but write a book that was stubborn, poetic, confessional. Obama didn’t do this for money or future votes. He did it because books had always mattered to him and because he wanted to write something that measured up to the best books he’d read.

In the end, this process produced a surprising political benefit, a benefit even bigger than the millions of copies Dreams sold. Writing a book helped Obama see that his life was itself a story—that his character could be emphasized and adjusted, could be shaped to seem radical and angry (reading Heart of Darkness, seeing “demons” in white people) and yet, by the end of that very same chapter, could be shaped to seem unifying and hopeful (cataloguing the lessons he’d learned, including many “from my grandparents”). Dreams didn’t form just Obama. It formed his rhetorical style and his empathetic, consensus-driven politics.

As he put it in 1995, during one of the few interviews he did for his book, “My family is an example—and hopefully I am an example—of the possibility of arriving at some common ground.”

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author in chief

Adapted excerpt from Author in Chief by Craig Fehrman. Used with the permission of Avid Reader Press. Copyright © 2020 by Craig Fehrman.


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