Thursday, October 30, 2008


"One can smile, and smile, and be a villain."


The political and literary parallels between Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) and Barack Obama are uncanny. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate. But I have been reading the former's short stories and the latter's Dreams From My Father, and they both tempt and test my ability to connect seemingly disparate characters. For one thing, the moral hazards of Hawthorne's fictions, no less than the pre-Election Day dread of some appalling Republican upset, demonstrate that there are far worse things to fear than goblins this Halloween.

Literary Hawthorne and political Obama strive to overcome two related bugbears: alienated apartness on the one hand and radical distrust on the other. And Hawthorne was more political than most fiction writers, while Obama is more genuinely a writer than most politicians. Both explore the dark regions of the soul, although Obama has had to suppress this inclination in favor of "sweetness and light" for the general election.

Compared to the very dark materials of his fictions, and compared with some of his famously eccentric contemporaries--Poe, Dickinson, Thoreau--Hawthorne was outwardly conventional, happily married and raising three children. He got into politics by penning a campaign biography of his college friend Franklin Pierce, who unfortunately turned out to be one of the worst presidents ever. Pierce was followed by James Buchanan, who was apparently just as bad, but Lincoln came next. If history were to repeat itself, we would have to endure another mediocrity before getting someone exceptional. Hmmm...

For Hawthorne isolation is both blessing and curse, the progenitor of both creativity and suffering. In a preface he wrote of his early years: "I sat down by the wayside of life, like a man under enchantment, and a shrubbery sprung up around me, and the bushes grew to be saplings, and the saplings became trees, until no exit appeared possible, through the entangling depths of my obscurity."

This may sound somehow magical and comforting, almost uterine. But at the end of "Wakefield," a disturbing story about a man's escape from domestic life, we read: "Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another, and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever. Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe." For Hawthorne, human solidarity is so precarious that even momentary inattention or carelessness can send one spinning into the void, as it were.

Another anathema for Hawthorne's protagonists, yet always a temptation, is the prideful manipulation of humanity. This is termed the Unpardonable Sin in "Ethan Brand," and manifests itself as an overweening impatience with human imperfection in "The Birthmark." A witch seems to mock human beings by animating a scarecrow in "Feathertop," while magic fails to overcome human folly in "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment."

But reconciliation with the human race does not come easily in Hawthorne. The reason is the corrosive human propensity for iniquity and deception. The protagonist of "Young Goodman Brown" is devastated to learn the secret lives of those he previously put trust in, while "The Minister's Black Veil" is Junior High symbolism for hypocrisy. For Hawthorne as for Hamlet, the real zinger is not the fact of Evil itself, but the fact that it can hide so effectively from sight. The isolated individual withers, while solidarity is threatening.

The first part of Obama's Dreams From My Father eloquently yet without self-pity describes his childhood dismay at having to straddle black and white cultures (actually "brown" as well as the book puts it, with respect to the time he lived in Indonesia). He came to know alienation intimately. He tried to overcome this in part in his years as a community organizer in Chicago, but he was brought up short again and again by the brutal realities of human oppression, complacency, and corruption. It is the same "can't live with them, can't live without them" quandary.

In one telling dialogue, Obama describes his half-sister, Auma, expressing her dislike of politics. The reason? "People always end up disappointed" (p. 209). To me, this captures the fundamental political dilemma. In politics one is thrown together with others who may have radically different value systems and different points of view, and yet some kind of workable coexistence, or even better, consensus must be reached. One must overcome both alienation and distrust, and to my mind it is one of the harder things we attempt to do. Obama's story is a willed perseverance through both psychological and cultural obstacles in an attempt to reconcile with a society that he had every reason to be at war with. McCain's military courage and sense of honor are admirable, but Obama exhibits a moral resilience that originates in murkier psychological regions. Happy Halloween, and here's hoping for an illuminating Election Day and dispersal of our recent gloom.


vanderleun said...

You really shouldn't believe everything you read. Especially all the fictions cited above. Even if it is, "pretty to think so."

Anonymous said...

The lies of fiction often mask incisive truths while conventional truths--despite their apparent meatiness--are full of fairy floss lies.

It's the ugly truth.

John J. Coupal said...

...while Obama is more genuinely a writer than most politicians.

Maybe not.

There's a lot of speculation that William Ayers who is a very talented writer actually wrote Dreams From My Father for Obama. For example, The Audacity of Hope is a much more pedestrian work.

Novalis said...

This is a very interesting question. I have heard the rumor many times of course, but haven't looked into it thoroughly. The book is well-written and insightful, but in a literary sense it doesn't seem too good to be true; it is hardly a book for the ages, and if Obama were still an Illinois state legislator it would be unknown and unread. I have not read The Audacity of Hope, which I take to be a more carefully political (i.e. dull) work. Of course, his literary merits also seem to have been appreciated at the Harvard Law Review.

In 1995 what would have been the motivation, I wonder, to have a book like this ghostwritten? Are we speculating that Obama was so politically ambitious even at that time that he wanted an early quality book to his credit so that years later people would look back and say, look how talented he was even before elected office?

I cannot dismiss this out of hand, but it hasn't been taken seriously by remotely neutral sources (to my mind, PBS and NPR are as close to neutral as we have). If this were true, of course, it would be a mortal blow to Obama's integrity. Can anyone produce evidence supporting this rumor that comes from anything approaching a neutral source?

In the discussion about delusions I didn't even mention political paranoia, which has a long history, of course, but which has flared up big time with Obama. How do we categorize beliefs such as that he is secretly Muslim or that he faked his birth certificate, beliefs that many cling to despite being shown clear evidence to the contrary? How in fact do we arrive at consensual political reality in this age of endless spin and media pandemonium?

John J. Coupal said...

Well, here's one analysis that compares Dreams From My Father with Bill Ayers' Fugitive Days that includes input data as well as method of analysis.

vanderleun said...

I've read a good deal of the suppostions that Ayer's is the "secret ghost writer" of Obama's books but I don't buy that just because it is much too neat and I don't think there's enough evidence to support it.

However, as a book and magazine and, yes, ghost writer, for over 30 years I have to say I am not at all sold on the idea that Obama himself wrote his books without a good deal of help in the heavy lifting and the sanding and polishing.

The prose is both not bad enough and not good enough to come from one voice alone, or even one sensibility. There's a lot of false drama in it and a lot of "spicing up."

The road of the books to publication is also, it seems, being deliberately obscured,

In addition, when it comes to anything else written by Obama as a mature man these is virtually no paper trail. The two books are almost the sole artifacts that can be found.

This alone would give me pause if asked whether or not the books were indeed written by Obama. Not in itself probative, but suggestive. This is a very hidden personality.

The only artifacts that we can find that we know were written by Obama are a couple of jejune poems as a young man. Not that that is to be held against him, but the poems do not reveal anything of the potential voice of the books.

So I'm thrust back on my belief that Obama, like so many other politicians and celebrities, did not in fact write his books so much as oversee them and take advice on them.

None of which matters at this point.

vanderleun said...

Here's a section of Pop as reprinted in the New York that Obama wrote in 1981:

I listen, nod,
Listen, open, till I cling to his pale,
Beige T-shirt, yelling,
Yelling in his ears, that hang
With heavy lobes, but he’s still telling
His joke, so I ask why
He’s so unhappy, to which he replies...
But I don’t care anymore, cause
He took too damn long, and from
Under my seat, I pull out the
Mirror I’ve been saving; I’m laughing,
Laughing loud, the blood rushing from his face
To mine, as he grows small,
A spot in my brain, something
That may be squeezed out, like a
Watermelon seed between
Two fingers.
Pop takes another shot, neat,
Points out the same amber
Stain on his shorts that I’ve got on mine, and
Makes me smell his smell, coming
From me; he switches channels, recites an old poem
He wrote before his mother died,
Stands, shouts, and asks
For a hug, as I shink, my
Arms barely reaching around
His thick, oily neck, and his broad back; ‘cause
I see my face, framed within
Pop’s black-framed glasses
And know he’s laughing too.

Novalis said...

Yes, I agree that as a memoir the book feels both dramatized and contrived--the "remembered" conversations are far too pat to be convincing. This is autobiography re-imagined. The interest is more in the diverse characters and exotic settings than in any literary qualities per se. However, none of this automatically disqualifies a recent law school grad as primary author--there is in fact an academic, apprentice feel to it.

How much "assistance" disqualifies one from primary authorship? To stick with the academic metaphor, a PhD candidate obviously has massive input from a dissertation committee, but don't we generally credit the candidate and not the committee?

There is also the fact that the Obama persona in the book correlates with the Obama we have come to know in latter years: both are empathic but also detached and analytical, sympathetic but not heroic.

I keep coming back to the timing though. If a book like this had appeared since his national emergence in 2004 I would have taken for granted that it was primarily a campaign and political product. But in 1995 who but Obama himself would have cared enough to have put in the effort for a book like this? At that time it's not as if there was money to be made.

Regarding his very limited literary oeuvre, I agree that he does not come across as a passionate writer. The prose is skillful but workmanlike and controlled (much like his political self), and one gets the idea that the author himself is more interested in the life, in the racial and political issues, and in the (actual) characters than in the art of writing itself. If Obama is slated ever to win a Nobel in his lifetime (not likely in any event I know), I would predict the prize to be for Peace and not Literature.