The private and the political are intimately entwined in African-American literature — from the early slave narratives to autobiographies by Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X — and whereas the younger Mr. Obama was establishing the philosophical tentpoles of his beliefs, he was additionally writing lots in his journal, sorting by the crosscurrents of race and class and household in his personal life.
‘When I think about how I learned to write, who I mimicked, the voice that always comes to mind the most is James Baldwin.’
His perception that Americans are invested in frequent desires and can attain past their variations — a conviction that will later be articulated in his 2004 Democratic conference keynote speech, which launched him to the nation at giant — not solely echoes the ending of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” (during which the narrator concludes that “America is woven of many strands,” that “our fate is to become one, and yet many”), however can be an intrinsic a part of his household historical past, with a mom who was born in Kansas and a father who grew up in Kenya.
In highschool, Mr. Obama says, he and a “roving pack of friends” — a lot of whom felt like outsiders — found that “storytelling was a way for us to kind of explain ourselves and the world around us, and where we belonged and how we fit in or didn’t fit in.” Later, making an attempt to get his tales down on paper and discover a voice that approximated the inner dialogue in his head, Mr. Obama studied authors he admired. “As much as anybody,” he says, “when I think about how I learned to write, who I mimicked, the voice that always comes to mind the most is James Baldwin. I didn’t have his talent, but the sort of searing honesty and generosity of spirit, and that ironic sense of being able to look at things, squarely, and yet still have compassion for even people whom he obviously disdained, or distrusted, or was angry with. His books all had a big impact on me.”
Mr. Obama additionally realized from writers whose political beliefs differed from his personal, like V.S. Naipaul. Though pissed off by Naipaul’s “curmudgeonly sort of defense of colonialism,” the former president says he was fascinated by the method Naipaul constructed arguments and, “with a few strokes, could paint a portrait of someone and take an individual story or mishap or event, and connect it to larger themes and larger historical currents.”
So, Mr. Obama provides, “there’d be pieces of folks that you’d kind of copy — you steal, you paste, and you know, over time, you get enough practice that you then can trust your own voice.”
The scholar Fred Kaplan, the writer of “Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer,” has drawn parallels between Abraham Lincoln and Mr. Obama, mentioning that they share a mastery of language and “a first class temperament” for a president — “stoic, flexible, willing to listen to different points of view.”