A steady attack on the white race … served as the ballast that could prevent the ideas of personal and communal responsibility from tipping into an ocean of despair.
Barack Obama, “Dreams From My Father”
Shortly before launching his career, first as a community organizer and then as a radical bomber, Bill Ayers took a job as a merchant seaman.
“I’d thought that when I signed on that I might write an American novel about a young man at sea,” says Ayers in his memoir, “Fugitive Days,” “but I didn’t have it in me.”
Although Ayers has tried to put his unhappy ocean-going days behind him, the language of the sea will not let him go. Indeed, it infuses much of what he writes. This is only natural and often distinctive, as in an appealing Ayers’ metaphor like “the easy inlet of her eyes.”
Less natural is that much of this same nautical language flows through Obama’s earth-bound memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” For simplicity sake, I will refer to the memoir’s author as “Obama.”
Ayers is particularly eloquent when writing about the “fury” of the elements as, curiously, is Obama. Consider the following two passages, the first from “Fugitive Days”:
“I picture the street coming alive, awakening from the fury of winter, stirred from the chilly spring night by cold glimmers of sunlight angling through the city.”
The second from “Dreams”:
“Night now fell in midafternoon, especially when the snowstorms rolled in, boundless prairie storms that set the sky close to the ground, the city lights reflected against the clouds.”
These two sentences are alike in more than their poetry, their length and their gracefully layered structure. They tabulate nearly identically on the Flesch Reading Ease Score (FRES), something of a standard in the field.
The “Fugitive Days” excerpt scores a 54 on reading ease and a 12th-grade reading level. The “Dreams’” excerpt scores a 54.8 on reading ease and a 12th-grade reading level. Scores can range from 0 to 121, so hitting a nearly exact score matters.
A comparable nature passage from my novel, “2006: The Chautauqua Rising,” scores a 61.6 with an 11th-grade reading level. The samples I submitted from my own semi-memoir on race, “Sucker Punch,” score in the 63-76 range.
In reading Ayers, one senses that he is unaware how deeply his seagoing affects his language. “Memory sails out upon a murky sea,” he writes at one point.
Indeed, both he and Obama are obsessed with memory and its instability. The latter writes of its breaks, its blurs, its edges, its lapses. He also has a fondness for the word “murky” and its aquatic usages.
“The unlucky ones drift into the murky tide of hustles and odd jobs,” he writes, one of four times “murky” appears in “Dreams.”
In “Dreams,” we read of the “whole panorama of life out there” and in “Fugitive Days,” “the whole weird panorama.”
Ayers writes poetically of an “unbounded horizon,” and Obama writes of “boundless prairie storms” and poetic horizons – “violet horizon,” “eastern horizon,” “western horizon.”
“I can imagine him standing at the edge of the Pacific,” says Obama referring to his grandfather, “his hair prematurely gray, his tall, lanky frame bulkier now, looking out at the horizon until he could see it curve.”
Ayers often speaks of “currents” and “pockets of calm” as does Obama, who uses both as nouns as in “a menacing calm” or “against the current” or “into the current.”
As a point of contrast, the author of Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” never uses “calm” as a noun and uses “current” almost always as an adjective to mean “contemporaneous.”
The difference between the two Obama books on the word “current” is striking. In “Dreams,” there are four uses of “current” as noun and two as adjective. In “Audacity,” there is one of use of “current” as noun and 20 as adjective.
The metaphorical use of the word “tangled” might also derive from one’s nautical adventures. Ayers writes of his “tangled love affairs” and Obama of his “tangled arguments.” The word “tangled” does not appear in “Audacity.”
Am I suggesting that Obama used different ghostwriters for the two books? Yes, at least in part.
There is no doubt that Obama contributed to both, and for “Audacity” Obama could have afforded more than one writer or editor, but there is something about the sea imagery that distinguishes “Dreams.”
Although not necessarily related to the sea, but perhaps inspired by it, are the emotionally charged words that appear frequently in both “Fugitive Days” and “Dreams”: fierceness, fury, rage, despair and cruelty.
(Both books, by the way, make frequent use of the colon.)
Ayers writes of another panorama, this one “an immense panorama of waste and cruelty.” Obama employs the word “cruel” and its derivatives no fewer than 14 times in “Dreams,” twice as many times as in “Audacity.”
On at least 12 occasions, Obama speaks of “despair,” as in the “ocean of despair” cited above. Ayers speaks of a “deepening despair,” a constant theme for him as well.
Then, of course, there is what Obama calls a “rage at the white world [that] needed no object.” On this subject, too, one sees in “Dreams” a hint of the nautical in phrases like “knotted, howling assertion of self” and “withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage.”
In “Fugitive Days,” Ayers talks of an “uncontrollable rage” as though it were a storm. One wonders whether the Weathermen’s inaugural act of mass violence, the “Days of Rage,” has its roots in Ayers’ maritime experience.
There are any number of intriguing non-nautical word connections between “Dreams” and “Fugitive Days,” but one that deserves mention is the repeated reference to lies, lying and what Ayers calls “our constructed reality.”
“But another part of me knew that what I was telling them was a lie,” writes Obama, “something I’d constructed from the scraps of information I’d picked up from my mother.”
“That whole first year seemed like one long lie,” Obama writes of his first in college in Los Angeles, one of at least a dozen references to lies and lying in “Dreams,” a figure nearly matched in “Fugitive Days.”
As intriguing as these word connections are, there are some objective, data-driven ways to prove authorship, one of which goes by the name “cusum analysis” or QSUM.
This analysis begins with the measurement of sentence length, a highly significant and telling variable. To compare the two books, I selected 30-sentence sequences from “Dreams” and “Fugitive Days,” each of which relates the author’s entry into the world of “community organizing.”
“Fugitive Days” averaged 23.13 words a sentence. “Dreams” averaged 23.36 words a sentence. By contrast, the memoir section of “Sucker Punch” averaged 15 words a sentence.
More to the point, the 30-sentence sequence that I pulled from “Audacity” averages more than 29 words a sentence and clocks in with a ninth-grade reading level, three levels below the earlier cited passages from “Dreams” and “Fugitive Days.”
To do a complete QSUM analysis requires skill and software beyond my proverbial pay grade. My thanks to those who have gotten me this far. The intro to QSUM and the Flesch analysis, as well as the pdfs of “Audacity” and “Dreams,” have all come courtesy of WND readers.
If anyone knows someone capable of taking the analysis the next step, please contact me through my website, Cashill.com. Most such scholars reside within the universities, and that scares me.
One final subjective note about the introductory quote. As a writer, especially in the pre-Google era of “Dreams,” I would never have used a metaphor as specific as “ballast” unless I knew exactly what I was talking about.
Seaman Ayers obviously did.
Read Cashill’s three-part series on Obama’s “Dreams”:
Part 2, “Deconstructing the text”