[Marxism] Review of new Obama biography
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jun 5 06:49:12 MDT 2012
(I doubt that I will read this but it is of some interest that
T.J. Stiles speaks so highly of it. Stiles is the author of a
biography of Jesse James that not only put the bushwhacker into
perspective but cited E.J. Hobsbawm on banditry! In other words,
Stiles is really sharp.)
A generational biography in “Barack Obama: The Story,” by David
By T.J. Stiles, Published: June 4
I feel sorry for David Maraniss. Not because his new biography,
“Barack Obama,”will fail — it will probably become a bestseller,
and deservedly so — but because too many will misconstrue it
without turning a page.
A certain segment of the public will assume it is propaganda in
favor of President Obama’s reelection. After all, Maraniss belongs
to the “media elite.” An editor at The Washington Post, he is a
Pulitzer-winning journalist and a Pulitzer finalist in his career
as an author. His previous works include “First in his Class,” a
highly regarded biography of Bill Clinton.
The president’s admirers, too, might dismiss “Barack Obama” in
advance. A recent excerpt in Vanity Fair quoted the diary of
Obama’s girlfriend back when he was 22; the Daily Beast excerpted
the excerpt, promising the “juiciest bits.” It could have created
the impression that the book is salacious and unfair.
“Barack Obama” is not, in fact, an argument for or against the
reelection of the president. It is an argument for the necessity
of the book itself — the book as a medium. This biography
possesses a richness and scope that cannot be captured in
short-form journalism, magazine excerpts or a mere review.
Maraniss has written a global, multigenerational saga that
culminates in the emergence of a young man who is knowable,
recognizable and real.
Every biographer knows how difficult it is to render an actual
human being with the depth of a fictional character. Usually the
evidence shows only the surface — and, as E.M. Forster said, “Each
of us knows from his own experience that there is something beyond
the evidence.” A convincing depiction of the inner self must
capture contradictions yet integrate them into an organic whole. A
character should be capable of surprises without seeming
inauthentic or arbitrary. Maraniss approaches the task with deep
research, crisp, clean writing and judicious reflection that never
seems intrusive. He not only succeeds, he makes it look easy.
Take, for example, the much-ballyhooed diary of Genevieve Cook,
the girlfriend Obama started seeing when he was 22. It appears
toward the end of the book, which concludes before Obama’s
enrollment at Harvard Law School. “So much going on beneath the
surface, out of reach,” she wrote of him. “Guarded, controlled.”
Later she added, “He feels all these people asking him to undo
himself, be something he feels he’s not, show things to appease
other people’s projections.”
It’s telling stuff, as if Cook were ghostwriting a Maureen Dowd
column. “His warmth can be deceptive,” she noted. “Tho he speaks
sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that
Maraniss finds more, though, than the familiar story of no-drama
Obama. He also quotes Cook’s observation that Obama “won’t let
important things go unspoken.” When their relationship began to
disintegrate, he paused as he was leaving her apartment, and “said
he felt strained — and I must say I was, I felt at the time,
dishonest in voicing the thought.” He remained, and the two had a
Here we see a young man who is cautious and reserved, but who also
won’t let important things go unsaid. He sometimes recoiled from
passion (he once responded to Cook’s declaration of love with a
mere “thank you”), yet he could also insist on the emotional truth
of a moment. That is complexity.
Despite the obvious relevance of this material, “Barack Obama”
does not read like an attempt to explain the president. The title
and subtitle could be reversed, for the story itself is the
central concern. Obama’s father and grandfather in Kenya did not
influence him directly (unless by their absence), but Maraniss
weaves their lives into the narrative, providing some of his most
He follows the domineering grandfather, Hussein Onyango, who left
Luoland on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria to fight for the
British, convert to Islam, and serve in the houses of his colonial
overlords. He tracks the president’s father, Barack Obama Sr.,
from Christian mission schools to the University of Hawaii,
Harvard, and posts in the new Kenyan national government. Islam
played no role in his life, but alcohol did. Brilliant, abrasive,
insufferably arrogant, he infuriated superiors, deserted wives and
children, and drunkenly hurtled his cars into accident after
accident until the one that killed him.
Maraniss finds a theme here. It is the life between cultures,
between nations — the outsider, the “jadak,” to use the term the
Luo spat at Hussein Onyango when he returned home. The author
later strains it into a conceit by using “jadak” to describe young
Barry (as Barack junior was called in his native Hawaii), who knew
nothing of the word, let alone Luoland. Yet this theme connects
the story of a family who were always a them, never part of an us.
The theme ties together Obama’s American family as well. His
maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham, swept his bride away from El
Dorado, Kan., to California, Washington state and finally Hawaii.
Big-talking, underachieving, he began as a pretend writer and
ended as a furniture salesman, telling fantastic stories all the
way. His main legacy was dreaming.
Madelyn Payne secretly married him in high school, in her own
search for the golden city. She became “the rock of the family, as
solid as Stan was soft,” Maraniss writes, as she rose to a bank
vice presidency, but grew “tightly wound” and alcoholic, in the
Their daughter, also named Stanley, fell in love with Obama Sr. at
a time when an African student attending an American university
was newsworthy. Maraniss’s account, incidentally, makes the fringe
skepticism of Obama’s birthplace seem even more ridiculous, if
possible; his mother delivered her son in Honolulu, never went
anywhere near Kenya, and divorced Obama Sr. when he deserted her
(and Oahu) for Harvard Yard, not Nairobi. Yet she never spoke ill
of her ex-husband to her son. An anthropologist, she lived in
Indonesia during Barry’s childhood, sending him back to Hawaii to
be raised largely by his grandparents.
The core of the story, of course, is the youth of half-black
Obama, always shadowed by the sense of betweenness. “Caught
without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me,” he
wrote in college, “in a sense the choice to take a different path
is made for me. . . . The only way to assuage my feelings of
isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and all the] classes;
make them mine, me theirs.” Ironically, nothing is more American
than this past-destroying hybridization. Surely it’s no
coincidence that this perpetual outsider, this keen observer,
became a successful politician.
Again, no review can convey this book’s breadth and depth.
Luoland, Hawaii, and Chicago’s South Side are vivid characters in
their own right. Obama’s transition from member of the “Choom
Gang” of pot-smoking high-school friends to driven activist
seeking to root himself in the black community is fascinating.
Maraniss smoothly engages Obama’s memoir, reinflating compressed
episodes, pulling apart composite characters, and filling in
omissions without descending into mere fact-checking. By the end,
I no longer cared that the narrative halted before Obama’s
political career began; it is complete in itself.
T.J. Stiles won the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for
“The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.” He is
writing a book about George Armstrong Custer and the
transformation of the United States in the Civil War era.
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