In response to a question posed to him by presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, concerning which historical era he believes would best suit his rhetorical style, Barack Obama stated the following: “There is a big part of me that has a writer’s sensibility. And so that’s how I think. That’s how I pursue truth. That’s how I hope to communicate truth to people.”
I’ve read these four sentences many times since they were spoken by the president; not long after Goodwin’s Vanity Fair interview appeared online, in September, I copy-pasted the quote into Adobe Illustrator and printed out a letter-sized inspirational poster, which I hung on my office wall at the spot on which my eyes tend to focus whenever I’m having trouble keeping the writerly juices flowing. While intended to be a goad, my poster has, so far, been a reliable distraction.
“That’s how I think,” Obama says. “That’s how I pursue truth,” with a “writer’s sensibility.” What does he mean by this? To me, the statement indicates that our president, like our poets, is aware of the fact that truth requires work. To a poet, the truth of the matter is never obvious; its pursuit requires humility, a willingness to persist, for as long as necessary, in a condition of uncertainty, bewilderment, even ignorance. Any revelation of truth that might follow has likely derived from a process of revision, by which the writer has negotiated, and renegotiated, the complex and fluid interdependence of the writing’s parts and whole. This is not easy. In fact, my own experience suggests that this is just about the hardest thing there is to do. But it’s also among the most rewarding. During those few instances when I, through my own writing process, have emerged from a feeling of uncertainty to a feeling of enlightenment, it has been then—and perhaps only then—that I have glimpsed my better self, my best self. I believe this is what Obama means when he says he pursues truth with a writer’s sensibility: he engages the processes of writing and reading toward the end of arriving at a better understanding of both himself and the world. Given everything I have seen of this president, I’m convinced that he has taken to heart the poet’s creed: uncertainty is the engine of understanding. I’m also convinced that Obama has understood—and, in no small respect, committed his political life to—the very same precept I often repeat to my creative writing students: no vision without revision.
The past eight years have provided some comfort to those of us who lament and fear the increasing marginalization of literature. Our beloved art form—the thing we live and breathe and tell ourselves we would wither away without—is, if not thriving, safe. For how could it not be, when the most powerful man in the world is one of its ardent practitioners and devotees? Obama’s widely published lists of book recommendations include poetry and literary novels. He counts Song of Solomon, Moby-Dick, Gilead and Shakespeare’s Tragedies among his all-time favorite reads. At his farewell speech in Chicago last week, he proffered To Kill a Mockingbird’s occasionally racist Atticus Finch as an exemplar of racial empathy, an unexpected yet incisive reference in a moment of resurgent white nationalism. And, of course, he has written two books, one of which, Dreams From My Father, is destined for the American literary canon. A discerning and voracious reader, undoubtedly among the most talented writers ever to hold the office of the presidency, Barack Obama has been an inspiration to those of us who believe passionately in the importance of literary art.
I first read Dreams From My Father, the memoir Obama wrote in his early 30s, sometime after it was republished in 2004. I remember enjoying it; I remember thinking, “Barack Obama is a very, very good writer.” Rereading it now, after twelve years of further acquaintance with his rhetorical style by way of rallies, press conferences, addresses to the nation and occasional speeches, it’s clear to me that not only is Barack Obama a great writer, he possesses a singular authorial voice. When listening to a politician speak in public—noting the movement of his or her head and eyes as they shift between teleprompters—there’s always that lingering question about the degree to which the words spoken accurately reflect the speaker’s, rather than the speechwriter’s, gifts as a writer. Doubtless it will be interesting in coming years to learn in greater detail of the collaborative writing process undertaken by Obama and his longtime speechwriter, John Favreau; but I strongly suspect that Favreau has good reason for likening his position as Obama’s speechwriter to that of “Ted Williams’s batting coach,” as I’m sure there is very good reason for Obama calling Favreau a “mind reader.” A voice as strong as Obama’s doesn’t need a whole lot of tuning, I’d imagine, let alone accompaniment.
Dreams From My Father is lyrical and learned and honest. The book’s 1995 edition begins with an author’s introduction, including, near its end, a warning to the reader.
There are the dangers inherent in any autobiographical work: the temptation to color events in ways favorable to the writer, the tendency to overestimate the interest one’s experiences hold for others, selective lapses of memory. Such hazards are only magnified when the writer lacks the wisdom of age; the distance that can cure one of certain vanities. I can’t say that I’ve avoided all, or any, of these hazards successfully.
There’s an enviable confluence of modesty and confidence in this apology. “I am not yet the practiced writer I will one day become,” the author seems to say, “so please forgive me my youthful folly.” Of course, self-deprecation of this sort is conventional in author’s introductions, and part of the pleasure to be taken here follows from watching a debut writer assuredly and eloquently embrace these conventions, positioning himself within a recognizable tradition of autobiography. But the even greater pleasure, for me, consists in witnessing the care Obama demonstrates in maintaining the integrity of his art, admitting, later in the same paragraph, that his reliance on family diaries and oral histories will result in the book’s dialogue being an “approximation.” “For the sake of compression,” he writes, he has created composite characters and altered the chronology of events as they occurred in real life. The creative writing professor in me jumps for joy when I read this. I am in good hands, I know, because the author’s priority lies not so much with fidelity to the facts, but with fidelity to art, to aesthetics—to beauty.
Throughout Dreams From My Father, Obama refers to the important role that reading has played in his life. In high school, after getting an early taste of entrenched power discrepancies existing between white and black people, he turns to Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright and DuBois.
At night I would close the door to my room, telling my grandparents I had homework to do, and there I would sit and wrestle with words, locked in suddenly desperate argument, trying to reconcile the world as I’d found it with the terms of my birth. But there was no escape to be had. In every page of every book … I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. Even DuBois’s learning and Baldwin’s love and Langston’s humor eventually succumbed to its corrosive force, each man finally forced to doubt art’s redemptive power.
Obama will resist this doubt. To “withdraw … in weary flight” will not be equal to his abiding hope for racial reconciliation and systemic change. It’s in The Autobiography of Malcolm X that he finally finds what he’s looking for: “blunt poetry,” “repeated acts of self-creation,” “a new and uncompromising order.” Poetry, revision, enlightenment—these are foundational tenets of Obama’s politics. Ideology should never be fixed, never written in stone; thought should always be subject to challenge and revision. Thought requires communication, as well, poetry and praxis: “I looked to see where the people would come from who were willing to work toward this future and populate this new world. After a basketball game at the university gym one day, Ray and I happened to strike up a conversation …” Carrying lessons learned from literature with him into the world, Obama is well equipped to begin transforming it.
While enrolled at Occidental College, after ingratiating himself with “Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets,” staying up late at night in the dorms discussing “neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy,” Obama will find himself in the precarious position of having to defend his interest in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to a friend who deems the book a “racist tract.” Presented in typically masterful dialogue—such “approximate” dialogue, it should be noted, composes a substantial portion of Dreams From My Father, indicative of the great pleasure its author takes in imaginative writing—Obama’s defense represents an early version of what will later become a hallmark of our president’s poetics, his regard for the power of, and the insight provided by, point of view.
“[Heart of Darkness] teaches me things…. 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.”
“And that’s important you.”
My life depends on it, I thought to myself.
This passage directly precedes Obama affirming to a friend that she may call him Barack, as she’s asked to, rather than Barry; he will later refer to this sequence of events as the moment when he finally felt “his voice returning to [him].” Here, as earlier, an encounter with literature occasions Obama’s encounter with questions of identity and selfhood. After transferring from Occidental to Columbia, and then moving to Chicago to begin his career as a community organizer, his increasing ability and resolve to view the world through the eyes of others is what will allow for the personal and spiritual transformations that pave the way for his historic political ascent. During a late-night encounter outside his Chicago apartment with a car full of teenage boys who, Obama speculates, may be carrying guns—having been “forced to shut off access to any empathy they may once have felt”—he stands outside his apartment feeling “that knotted, howling assertion of self,” trying to “pierce the darkness and read the shadowed faces inside the car.” What follows is one of the book’s most stirring passages:
Somewhere down the line both guilt and empathy speak to our own buried sense that an order of some sort is required, not the social order that exists, necessarily, but something more fundamental and more demanding; a sense, further, that one has a stake in this order, a wish that, no matter how fluid this order sometimes appears, it will not drain out of the universe.
This revelation sets the stage for Barack Obama’s first experience of faith—his introduction to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr., and Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ—but the vision he has outside his apartment that night isn’t necessarily spiritual, in and of itself. Obama provides us with a metaphysical insight, to my reading, one involving the origins and ends of empathy. He imagines a universe in which each of us has a stake in maintaining its balance and order, a world in which empathy is both a cause and an effect of this order. Everyone must desire harmony in the universe and his or her life, first; only then does one become motivated to imagine what harmony looks like through the eyes of another, which act, in turn, compels us to work together to achieve it.
I believe that the fundamental quality of art—and, by extension, of literature—consists in the beauty and intensity with which it invites its audience to inhabit a worldview. I’d like to presume that Obama would approve of this belief. In his recent New York Times interview with book critic Michiko Kakutani, he discusses the reading he’s done as president, speaking at length—referring to “the poetry of fiction,” “the depth of fiction”—about the role reading fiction has played in relation to his practice of empathy.
Fiction was useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and was a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this country…. I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction.
Later in the same interview, Obama speaks of the influence of V. S. Naipaul’s novels on his thought, despite his disagreement with Naipaul’s politics; of utilizing such encounters with different political perspectives in fiction “as a foil … to debate against” (reminiscent of his defense of reading Conrad as portrayed in Dreams From My Father). He speaks of the role of literature as a necessary buffer in an age when information comes to us so rapidly and in such abundance, of how invaluable it has been for him, through his reading of fiction, to “slow down and get perspective … get in somebody else’s shoes.” He speaks of the “solidarity” he’s discovered in certain books and of the solace reading has provided when he’s found himself feeling isolated. And, finally, he speaks of the pleasure he’s taken in watching his daughters read the same books he once read as a teenager, in order to—like their father—“have perspective.”
I think many would agree that Barack Obama’s meteoric rise from Illinois state senator, to U.S. senator, to first- and then second-term president is, in a large respect, attributable to his skill as an orator. I would further argue that Obama’s gift for oration was born of his love for literature. He wooed us by grace of language, as he himself was wooed—by Hughes, by Shakespeare, by Lincoln. In my lifetime, which has spanned the presidencies of Carter through Obama, this is unique. Despite any misgivings I may have had about this or that policy enacted or extended or suspended on Obama’s watch—and, yes, I’ve had a few—my feelings of kinship toward this president have never wavered. As I do most anyone who cherishes and practices the mode of desirous human expression known as literature, I call him my brother.
Our 44th president was a reader and a writer; our 45th president is neither. It’s been heartening and inspiring to see writers organizing across the country in recent weeks, and I’m hopeful there will be much more of it to come. In the days ahead, I hope we can commit to holding literature on the pedestal it deserves; the pedestal it now, more than ever, needs. I hope we can continue to “pursue truth” while maintaining a “writer’s sensibility.” I hope we can inhabit other people’s points of view, both to “have perspective” and to perceive “a foil … to debate against.” Most of all, I hope that writers everywhere will feel themselves to have a “stake in this order,” one they should never let “drain out of the universe.”