Whose Dreams?

Jack Cashill explores questions the authorship of Barack Obama’s memoir in “Who wrote Dreams From My Father?” Cashill cites Obama’s sophomoric stab at poetry from his days at Occidental. Obama concedes that it is “very bad poetry” and, Cashill observes, Obama does not sell himself short. I was previously unaware of Obama’s “Underground,” which Cashill quotes in part:

Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance . . .

“Underground” doesn’t provide much of a benchmark for Obama’s literary potential, and neither does Obama’s unsigned law review note. (Obama’s two published poems — “Underground” and “Pop” — are accessible in their entirety here.)

Cashill relates the difficulty Obama experienced in producing his memoir. The difficulty prompted the publisher that commissioned it to abandon the book. “Then suddenly, somehow,” Cashill writes, “the muse descended on Obama and transformed him from a struggling, unschooled amateur, with no paper trail beyond an unremarkable legal note and a poem about fig-stomping apes, into a literary superstar.” Cashill compares the texts of Dreams of and of Ayers’s infamous Fugitive Days to speculate that Ayers may have been Obama’s literary collaborator. Referring to Ayers in Fugitive Days, Cashill writes:

[H]e writes surprisingly well and very much like “Obama.” In fact, my first thought was that the two may have shared the same ghostwriter. Unlike Dreams, however, where the high style is intermittent, Fugitive Days is infused with the authorial voice in every sentence. What is more, when Ayers speaks, even off the cuff, he uses a cadence and vocabulary consistent with his memoir. One does not hear any of Dreams in Obama’s casual speech.

Ayers and Obama have a good deal in common. In the way of background, both grew up in comfortable white households and have struggled to find an identity as righteous black men ever since. Just as Obama resisted “the pure and heady breeze of privilege” to which he was exposed as a child, Ayers too resisted “white skin privilege” or at least tried to.

“I also thought I was black,” says Ayers only half-jokingly. As proof of his righteousness, Ayers named his first son “Malik” after the newly Islamic Malcolm X and the second son “Zayd” after Zayd Shakur, a Black Panther killed in a shootout that claimed the life of a New Jersey State Trooper.

Tellingly, Ayers, like Obama, began his career as a self-described “community organizer,” Ayers in inner-city Cleveland, Obama in inner-city Chicago. In short, Ayers was fully capable of crawling inside Obama’s head and relating in superior prose what the Dreams’ author calls a “rage at the white world [that] needed no object.”

Indeed, in Dreams, it is on the subject of black rage that Obama writes most eloquently. Phrases like “full of inarticulate resentments,” “unruly maleness,” “unadorned insistence on respect” and “withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage” lace the book.

In Fugitive Days, “rage” rules and in high style as well. Ayers tells of how his “rage got started” and how it evolved into an “uncontrollable rage — fierce frenzy of fire and lava.” Indeed, the Weathermen’s inaugural act of mass violence was the “Days of Rage” in 1969 Chicago.

As in Chicago, that rage led Ayers to a sentiment with which Obama was altogether familiar, “audacity!” Ayers writes, “I felt the warrior rising up inside of me — audacity and courage, righteousness, of course, and more audacity.” This is one of several references.

Cashill’s textual detective work is interesting. Among other factors, Cashill points to the two books’ adept use of nautical metaphors. Cashill finds the “metaphoric thread” between the two books “just shy of conclusive.”

I don’t know. Based on a similar metaphoric thread — see the last section of “Guidelines for cross examination: Lessons from the cross examination of Hermann Goering” — Cashill could also make the case that John Hinderaker and I qualify for recognition as Obama’s secret collaborator. But then we weren’t “some guy[s] who lived in [Obama’s] neighborhood” at the time he worked on the book.

Cashill concludes his intriguing column with the observations that “such speculation [could be put] to rest by producing some intermediary sign of impending greatness — a school paper, an article, a notebook, his Columbia thesis, his LSAT scores” and that “Obama guards these more zealously than Saddam did his nuclear secrets.”

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