Prior to 1990, when Barack Obama contracted to write “Dreams From My Father,” he had written very close to nothing.
As an undergraduate at Occidental College, Obama had composed what he calls some “very bad poetry,” and he does not sell himself short.
In 1981, Occidental’s literary magazine published two of Obama’s poems – “Pop” and “Underground.” These poems are only a little sillier than the average undergraduate’s, but they show not a glint of promise. From “Underground”:
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 …
Los Angeles media critic Kevin Roderick rightly described the exposure of Obama’s two published poems as a “semi-cruel exercise.”
In a similar spirit, the Independent of London headlined its article on Obama’s early poetry, “Pop goes myth of Obama the young prodigy.”
It would be another decade before Obama had anything in print and this a heavily edited, unsigned student case comment in the Harvard Law Review unearthed by Politico.
Attorneys who reviewed the piece for Politico described it charitably as “a fairly standard example of the genre.”
Of note, Politico observes that “the temperate legal language doesn’t display the rhetorical heights that run through his memoir, published a few years later.”
But then somehow, those few years later, this 33 year-old amateur with no paper trail beyond a hack legal note and a poem about fig-stomping apes produced what Time magazine has called – with a straight face – “the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.”
The public is asked to believe that Obama did this on his own, almost as though he were some sort of literary idiot savant. I don’t buy this canard for a minute.
To enhance the science of this literary investigation, I made some inquiries into the academy and, given the subject matter, was surprised by the consistently objective and apolitical responses I received from the authorities in the field.
What I learned was that the technology is not currently available to do a fully reliable authorship analysis. As Patrick Juola of Duquesne told me, the best-performing methods can range from a reliability level of 50 percent or less to 90 percent or more.
Juola cautioned that for high-stakes issues like this one, “The repercussions of a technical error could be a disaster (in either direction).” He encouraged me instead “to do what you’re already doing … good old-fashioned literary detective work.”
Given that advice, I dug deeper into the memoir of the man who, I believe, tortured “Dreams From My Father” into a credible work, the still unrepentant bomber Bill Ayers.
I re-examined the one relentless linguistic thread that ties Ayers’ “Fugitive Days” to Obama’s “Dreams,” a thread that leads back to Bill Ayers’ stint, after dropping out of college, as a merchant seaman.
The experience had a powerful impact on Ayers. Years later, he would recall a nightmare he had while crossing the Atlantic, “a vision of falling overboard in the middle of the ocean and swimming as fast as I could as the ship steamed off and disappeared over the horizon.”
Although Ayers has tried to put his anxious ocean-going days behind him, the language of the sea will not let him go.
“I realized that no one else could ever know this singular experience,” Ayers writes of his maritime adventures. Yet curiously, much of this same nautical language flows through Obama’s earth-bound memoir.
Some of this I have described in previous columns, so here I will summarize and add some new information and controls.
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. Obama 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.” Ayers and Obama also speak often of waves and wind, Obama at least a dozen times on wind alone.
“The wind wipes away my drowsiness, and I feel suddenly exposed,” he writes in a typical passage. Both also make conspicuous use of the word “flutter.”
Not surprisingly, Ayers uses “ship” as a metaphor with some frequency. Early in the book, he tells us that his mother is the “the captain of her own ship,” not a substantial one either but “a ragged thing with fatal leaks” launched into a “sea of carelessness.”
Obama, too, finds himself “feeling like the first mate on a sinking ship.” He also makes a metaphorical reference to “a tranquil sea.”
More intriguing is Obama’s unusual use of the word “ragged” as an adjective as in the highly poetic “ragged air” or “ragged laughter.”
Both books use “storms” and “horizons” both as metaphor and as reality. Ayers writes poetically of an “unbounded horizon,” and Obama writes of “boundless prairie storms” and multiple horizons – “violet,” “eastern,” “western.”
In “Dreams,” we read of the “whole panorama of life out there” and in “Fugitive Days,” “the whole weird panorama.”
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.”
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.”
On at least 12 occasions, Obama speaks of “despair,” as in the “ocean of despair.” Ayers speaks of a “deepening despair,” a constant theme for him as well. Obama’s “knotted, howling assertion of self” sounds like something straight from the pages of “The Sea Wolf.”
In Obama’s defense, he did grow up in Hawaii. Still, he gives little hint of having spent time at the beach or on any kind of real ship, and yet his memoir is awash in aquatic imagery.
Not everyone writes this way. For instance, my book “Sucker Punch,” which is no small part a memoir about race, is silent on the subject of the sea.
“Sucker Punch” makes no reference at all, metaphorical or otherwise, to ships, seas, oceans, calms, storms, wind, waves, horizons, panoramas, or of things howling, fluttering, knotted, ragged, tangled, or murky. None.
This despite the fact that I have likely a deeper relationship with the sea than Obama, having spent a good chunk of every summer of my life at the ocean, and having a summer home on the boundless Lake Erie for the last 20 years.
In one particular reference in “Dreams,” I believe Ayers shows his hand and makes my argument very nearly conclusive. Here “Obama” describes the black nationalist message:
“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.”
As a writer, especially in the pre-Google era of “Dreams,” I would never have used an image as specific as “ballast” unless I knew exactly what I was talking about.
Ayers knew. Obama did not.