From the archive
Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father condensed several partners into one, and offered a scene of mutual alienation between the hero and his girlfriend over divided reactions to a play about black Americans. Here, Maraniss indicates, an incident from another time and place, with another person, was transferred for the sake of narrative economy. It went down more easily to have his temporary estrangement from white society follow a single arc with a single romantic foil. More generally, the data of Obama’s early years, Maraniss has found, are so stretched and tweaked in his memoir, the incidents and characters so altered and transposed that Dreams from My Father is best thought of as a ‘work of literature’ rather than personal history.
Dreams employed very permissively a technique the literary theorist Michael André Bernstein has called ‘backshadowing’: a device of conventional narrative whereby significant moments, leading to a climax or a large recognition, are inserted with teleological pointers at early stages of the plot. History, in this way, is abridged and partly falsified to support the claims of the author’s later self. The result awards the wishful power of memory a retroactive triumph over the chaotic particulars of life. Dreams showed a young Obama stranded and perplexed by his racial identity as early as Punahou. It suggested a proneness to feelings of oppression that went unremarked by his friends in the popular crowd that swam, surfed and partied together, chatted up girls, smoked marijuana, played or watched basketball. But it now appears the aloof and ironic hero portrayed in Dreams was a literary creation. Of course, agonising doubt is good for an identity memoir. So is a conversion of some sort. So is heroic development along the lines of one reiterated motive. Obama’s memoir was careful to satisfy these desiderata. His public character seems to have begun to correspond to the fictive persona only in his late twenties.
Such puzzles are commonplace, indeed conventional, in dealing with one kind of writing, but in Obama’s case they raise certain questions. It is dangerous for a person thinking of his own life (as distinct from an author thinking of his hero’s life) to regard every action as significant. It means that you consider yourself an embodiment of a symbolic purpose which floats free of the content of actions; a purpose that requires any disturbing break to be viewed in the light of an as yet undisclosed terminus.
Obama decided when young to offset the anxieties of mixed identity by seeing himself as a lucky convergence of opposite forces and tendencies: ‘Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me… . The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation is to absorb all the traditions [and all the] classes; make them mine, me theirs.’ So the stranger and outsider becomes in America the axial personality through whom all the cross-currents of national character must flow. It is a telling fantasy. As president of the United States, Obama has felt that his role is to reflect the presence of all points of view and to reject none. He finally becomes a fighter, or rather, talks in the tones of a fighter, when he can subject the most nebulous of foes to a stern rebuke. He is against selfishness, against ‘what is not best in us’ and so on.
The invention of composite characters in his autobiography – a practice shown by Maraniss to be much broader than the passing disclaimer in Dreams implied – might seem a trivial and a wholly literary indulgence. Why does it leave a queasy sensation?