Following up on Paul Mirengoff’s “Who is Barack Obama and why is he saying untrue things about himself?,” I want to draw attention to Andrew Ferguson’s brilliant Weekly Standard cover story of a few weeks back, “Self-made man.” The subtitle given to the article is “Barack Obama’s autobiographical fictions.” (I have met and corresponded with Andy; I take the liberty of refering to him by his first name in this post.)
There is an unstated backdrop to Andy’s recent article. In “The literary Obama,” back in 2007, Andy expressed great admiration for Dreams From My Father. With the 2007 article in mind, one can observe that Andy was taken in by the story on offer in Dreams. He took it at face value. His current essay is the work of a disenchanted former admirer of the book.
In 2007 he astutely observed: “I don’t think anyone who reads it could doubt that Dreams from My Father is the work of a real writer; a young writer, it’s true, with a young writer’s mannerisms. The story as he tells it is a bit overstuffed with epiphanies; one event after another sends waves of significance through the narrator’s vast reservoir of sensibility.” Toward the end of the article, Andy delivered high praise:
Obama’s themes are universal–far grander and more enduring than the difficulties of American race relations. His memoir is about the crosswise love between fathers and sons, the limits of ambition and memory, the struggle between the intellect and the heart. And what gives the book its special force is the writer’s own sensitivity: He teases his themes only out of the experience of real human beings. He relies on the power of the particular. He shuns abstraction and the easy generality. The author of Dreams from My Father is after bigger game.
Unlike so many political journalists, Andy had actually read Dreams. Having now read David Maraniss’s long reconstruction of the story Obama had on offer in Dreams, Andy is not amused. That is not to say the essay is lacking his trademark humor. Drawing on Maraniss, he observes of Obama:
Through high school—he apparently lost the taste for pot sometime in college—Obama’s ardor reached Cheech and Chong levels. His circle of dopers called themselves the “Choom Gang,” after a Hawaiian word for inhaling pot, and the phrase is already threatening to enter the common language, ironically or otherwise. (I Googled it today and got 560,000 hits, pardon the expression.)
Obama politically indemnified himself against charges of youthful drug use by admitting them in his memoir, though he was smart enough to avoid the words “Choom Gang.” Even at 33, when he wrote his book, he had his eye on a political landscape that would require acknowledgment if not full disclosure of youthful “experimentation,” as the charming euphemism went. In Dreams, he treats the drug use as another symptom of his singular youthful confusion. Maraniss’s explanation is less complicated: Obama really, really liked to get high.
Of the epiphanies that impressed him the first time around, Andy now writes:
[A] memoir is just realist fiction unless the ‘composite’ says and does things that were done and said by someone. In Dreams many of the crucial epiphanies, the moments that advance the narrator’s life and understanding to its closing semi-resolution, didn’t happen.” Alluding to his previous admiration of the book as memoir, Andy writes: “[T]he epiphany-per-page ratio in Obama’s memoir is very high. The book derives its power from the reader’s understanding that the events described were factual at least in the essentials. Maraniss demonstrates something else: The writer who would later use the power of his life story to become a plausible public man was making it up, to an alarming extent.
He adds: “Going back to Dreams after several years, and after reading Maraniss’s impressive book, you can get a bad case of the jumps.” He expands on the point:
What’s dispiriting is that throughout Dreams, the moments that Obama has invented are precisely the occasions of his epiphanies—precisely those periodic aha! moments that carry the book and bring its author closer to self-discovery. Without them not much is left: a lot of lovely writing, some unoriginal social observations, a handful of precocious literary turns. Obama wasn’t just inventing himself; he was inventing himself inventing himself. It made for a story, anyway.
Andy’s essays on Dreams make for an excellent companion to Paul Mirengoff’s observations here, and I want to bring them to the attention of the interested reader.