by Andrew Delbanco
A literary critic reads Obama.
Andrew Delbanco, The New Republic Published: Wednesday, July 09, 2008
"Le style, c'est l'homme," a Frenchman said a long time ago. If style is indeed the man, and the man is on the verge of being nominated for the presidency of the United States, it seems the moment to ask what his style might tell us about his mind and heart.
Many Americans have already decided what they think about this question. Some find in Barack Obama's eloquence the promise that he will be a leader of insight and inspiration. Others distrust his verbal fluency and feel he is nothing more than a smooth-talking huckster. I know discerning people on both sides of the question. And, since there is no evident correlation between eloquence and executive leadership (Washington was an indifferent writer, Lincoln a great one), it may not be possible to know who's right except in retrospect.
Even after his breakout into national prominence, Obama has remained a largely unknown politician whose air of destiny can make him seem distant and opaque. Yet, by listening closely to his language, I think we can learn something about who he really is.
Everyone, pro and con, seems to agree that he is an unusually gifted writer. So gifted, in fact, that the biographer and critic Arnold Rampersad describes himself as "taken aback, even astonished" by the "clever tricks" and "inventions for literary effect" he finds in Obama's books. Consider this account in his memoir, Dreams from My Father, of playing basketball in prep school, which starts with short sentences, each ending in a percussive or sibilant monosyllable, then moves into a run-on sentence that mimics the flow of the game:
"By the time I reached high school, I was playing on Punahou's teams, and could take my game to the university courts, where a handful of black men, mostly gym rats and has-beens, would teach me an attitude that didn't just have to do with sport. That respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was. That you could talk stuff to rattle an opponent, but that you should shut the hell up if you couldn't back it up. That you didn't let anyone sneak up behind you to see emotions--like hurt or fear--you didn't want them to see.
"And something else, too, something nobody talked about: a way of being together when the game was tight and the sweat broke and the best players stopped worrying about their points and the worst players got swept up in the moment and the score only mattered because that's how you sustained the trance. In the middle of which you might make a move or a pass that surprised even you, so that even the guy guarding you had to smile, as if to say, 'Damn ...'"
This is a young writer (he was around 30 when he wrote Dreams) strutting his stuff. Sometimes he overwrites, as when he describes police cars cruising past groups of sullen black teens in "barracuda silence" or compares a row of scrappy trees to "hair swept across a bald man's head." He has a habit--almost a tic--of throwing in a cinematic flourish when none is needed: "a spotted, mangy cat" runs among weeds with a crumbling housing project in the background; a torn poster-photo of the recently dead Chicago mayor, Harold Washington, tumbles down a windswept street. And, as Rampersad suggests, he is a master of sleight of hand, as when, recounting his trip to Kenya as a young man in search of traces of his father, he takes what were clearly multiple conversations with his half-sister and stitches them into a seamless family history.
But none of these techniques strikes me as a "trick"--a word that implies fraudulence. What struck me instead about Dreams from My Father is the feeling that through and beyond the local details the writing opens out into universal experience. Obama describes his childhood in Hawaii, where his white Midwestern mother and his black African father met as students, in language so vivid that we almost taste the "rice candy with edible wrappers" and feel the relief from the tropical heat in the "cool rush of Manoa Falls, with its ginger blossoms and high canopies filled with the sound of invisible birds."
But sooner or later in this Eden the serpent will make an appearance. And so she does--in the form of a red-haired girl in his fifth-grade class, who asks, with a hint of prurience, if she can touch his hair. Having been raised largely unaware of race, Obama begins to notice that "Cosby never got the girl on I Spy" and that the "black man on Mission Impossible spent all his time underground." The schoolgirl's question is followed by the shock of coming upon a photo in Life magazine of a black man, his skin blotched and made pallid by a "chemical treatment" he had "paid for ... with his own money" in an effort to bleach out his blackness.
I am imputing a theme here--the fall from paradise--that Obama suggests only lightly even as he tends to group his memories into episodes of temptation and redemption. In a chapter on his college years, he hints at having been tempted by drugs and what he calls "African nationalism." After college, playing half- willingly the role of Model Minority in a New York consulting firm, he fears the "beauty, the filth, the noise" of the great city, where, in order to resist its allure, he takes "on the temperament if not the convictions of a street corner preacher, prepared to see temptation everywhere, ready to overrun a fragile will."
Fleeing to Chicago, he confronts new tempters--old pols, gangbangers turned radicals, and, most dangerous, the sins of wrath and despair--until he finds the promise of redemption in service itself.
It is in Chicago, where "the snowstorms rolled in, boundless prairie storms that set the sky close to the ground," that he gets to know the sort of people who seem wary of him today--"men and women who smoked a lot and didn't watch their weight, shopped at Sears or Kmart ... and ate in Red Lobster on special occasions." Perhaps because he grew up in a fatherless house (his father left when Barack was barely two), he feels a special connection to the mothers and grandmothers, mainly but not only black, who harbor childhood memories of church-centered Southern towns, and of the tidy city to which they brought their hopes, before the meatpacking or auto-parts plant closed and their fathers, brothers, or husbands lost their jobs and dreams. He writes about these people with great sensitivity--watching through women's eyes as their children's "eyes stop laughing." He is touched by their practice of wrapping treasured sofas and carpets in protective plastic--to be peeled off, they still dare to hope, on the day when the family will rally for the graduation or wedding of a child who has not fallen to the drug culture of the streets.
The climactic section of the book is the account of his journey to Kenya--"a Westerner not entirely at home in the West, an African on his way to a land full of strangers"--in which he reverts to the lush language with which he had recounted his childhood in Hawaii. To his Western eyes, Kenya sometimes seems a picturesque "fable, a painting by Rousseau" in which lions yawn in peaceful repose while "a train of Masai women" passes by, "their heads shaven clean, their slender bodies wrapped in red shukas, their earlobes elongated and ringed with bright beads." The family members he comes to know--sisters, brothers, even a surviving grandmother--are warm and welcoming people, but this Eden, too, turns out to be a mirage.
On the one hand, it is a loving world where "nobody sends their parents to an old people's home or leaves their children with strangers"; on the other hand, it is a world of mud-and-dung huts where, witnessing a young mother with her child, he has to fight "the urge to brush away the flies that formed two solid rings around the baby's puffed eyes." Looking back in his imagination from this dual world to his native America, he sees its own dualities more clearly from the distance. Shooting hoops with a young half-brother in Kenya, he "tried to picture the basketball courts back in the States. The sound of gunshots nearby, a guy peddling nickel hits in the stairwell--that was one picture. The laughter of boys playing in their suburban backyard, their mother calling them in for lunch. That was true, too."
Obama's trip to Kenya, where he learns about the dashing but ultimately defeated father whom he barely knew, seems to free him from his enervating struggle to overcome temptation and find redemption. There is a feeling of release as he comes back home with a deepened appreciation of the complexities of history and a sense of his own opportunities and obligations in America.
Obama's second book, The Audacity of Hope, which takes its title from a sermon by the now-notorious Jeremiah Wright, was written a decade after Dreams from My Father. It is less personal and more miscellaneous--a set of loosely linked reflections on the effects of the press on politics, on the compromising clubbiness of the Senate, on the insularity of powerful people living in a kind of quarantine that only beneficiaries and would-be benefactors can violate. Though here and there his literary instincts reassert themselves (there's a nice description of the "python curves" of the Mississippi as seen from the air), this is basically a policy book in which the writing is more efficient than expressive. We get some familiar lamentation about gridlock politics--about the effects of gerrymandering or the irony that the filibuster, once an instrument used by reactionaries to obstruct liberal legislation, is now used (or threatened) by liberals to obstruct the appointment of reactionary judges. Sometimes the whole book seems a farewell to, or at least a rationale for leaving, the Senate.
Yet the voice of the writer is fundamentally the same as the one we hear in Dreams. There is the same internal counterpoise in the sentences: "Most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe, most secularists more spiritual" ... "most rich people want the poor to succeed, and most of the poor are more self-critical and hold higher aspirations than the popular culture allows." When he scans the human landscape, Obama tends to notice contradictory individuals more than coherent interest groups. His sentences are alive because they are in tension with themselves:
I imagine the white Southerner who growing up heard his dad talk about niggers this and niggers that but who has struck up a friendship with the black guys at the office and is trying to teach his own son different, who thinks discrimination is wrong but doesn't see why the son of a black doctor should get admitted into law school ahead of his own. Or the former Black Panther who decided to go into real estate, bought a few buildings in the neighborhood, and is just as tired of the drug dealers in front of those buildings as he is of the bankers who won't give a loan to expand his business. There's the middle- aged feminist who still mourns her abortion, and the Christian woman who paid for her teenager's abortion ...
This is the writing of someone trying to map a route through a world where choices are less often between good and bad than between competing goods. Though it lacks the sensual immediacy of the earlier book, the language is open and unresolved, the sentences organized around pairs of sentiments or arguments that exert equal force against each other--a reflection of ongoing thinking rather than a statement of settled thoughts.
Both these books are the work of a dialectical mind. Both are written by someone who believes in progress but not that all liberal social programs constitute progress. "By detaching income from work," he writes of "the old AFDC program" (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), it "sapped people of their initiative and eroded their self-respect." He has an Orwellian alertness to how easily language degenerates into cant, as when the term of praise "bipartisan" is used to dress up a sacrifice of principle by the weaker party in a political dispute. And he understands the presence of the past in public life--not only of recent history, as in his discussion of the Democratic Party since the breakdown of the New Deal coalition, but of distant history, as in his reflections on the imperiled idea of deliberative democracy as inherited from the founding fathers.
Remarkably enough for a contemporary politician, Obama's sense of the American past includes our literary past. His books are allusive--sometimes overtly, as when he dissents from F. Scott Fitzgerald ("in politics there may be second acts, but no second place"), sometimes obliquely, as when, relating an incident with a waiter in Nairobi, he echoes W.E.B. DuBois's famous passage in The Souls of Black Folk on "double consciousness." The waiter is a Kenyan citizen but still a colonial-minded servant fawning on white customers while snubbing blacks: "And so he straddles two worlds, uncertain in each, always off balance, playing whichever game staves off the bottomless poverty, careful to let his anger vent itself only on those in the same condition."
Writing recently in The New York Times Book Review, George Packer recommended that Obama read Theodore Dreiser's great Chicago novel Sister Carrie--in order, Packer wrote rather patronizingly, to learn about "the sort of American he doesn't know." If Obama hasn't already read Dreiser (I suspect he has), he needs no tutoring about the kinds of lives Dreiser wrote about--lives of unfocused longing, vulnerable to temptation and exploitation. Indeed there is a sense in which he brings together in his memoir, as Dreiser did in his fiction, the two basic American stories--stories of rising and stories of awakening. His books are "how-to" books about his own exemplary success at competing with others in the marketplace, but they are also conversion narratives about his discovery that serving others is the only way to save oneself.
It is hard for any writer, no matter how selective his memory or guarded his words, to conceal himself in his writing. I suspect (I've never met him) that the weaknesses and strengths of Obama's writing reflect those of his character-- a virtuosity that tempts him to be pleased with himself and impatient with others, but also an awareness of human complexity that made me think of a writer to whom he does not allude, Henry James, whose criterion for the artist as someone "on whom nothing is lost" he meets.
Finally, one feels in Obama's books as well as his speeches the presence of that iconic American, Abraham Lincoln, whom he sometimes names and sometimes namelessly invokes. In The Audacity of Hope, he tells of having once received a rebuke ("not entirely undeserved") for presumptuously likening himself in print to Lincoln. On his first visit to the White House as a freshman senator, he tells us, Lincoln appeared to him as a ghostly figure "pacing the hall, shouldering the weight of a nation," the moral and political genius who managed to maintain "within himself the balance between two contradictory ideas--that we must talk and reach for common understandings, precisely because all of us are imperfect and can never act with the certainty that God is on our side; and yet at times we must act nonetheless, as if we are certain, protected from error only by providence."
This description of Lincoln as a man of self-doubt yet with an unswerving sense of mission is as instructive as it is insightful. Obama seems to have composed his public life in conscious emulation of Lincoln. He announced his candidacy in Springfield and delivered his speech on race in Philadelphia, where Lincoln, en route to his first inauguration, gave a great speech on the Declaration of Independence as America's secular scripture. In his victory speech on the night of clinching the Democratic nomination, Obama incorporated or played variations on several phrases from Lincoln--"the last full measure of devotion," "the last best hope of earth," "the better angels of our nature."
To some, it all seems calculated and hubristic, and they will no doubt continue to detect in his style a self-involved inwardness. But, to me, it feels like heartfelt homage from someone with a keen sense of the complexities and commonalities of human experience. On the hopeful premise that style really does tell us something about the man, this man--to my ear, at least--is the real deal.
Andrew Delbanco teaches at Columbia, where he is Levi Professor in the Humanities and director of American Studies.
TNR Goes All Literate On Obama
The New Republic has a great review of Obama's books. Not late, rather, a study in, well, read on.....