A Closer Look At Obama's Odyssey

On January 18, 2009, Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic, described the structure of Barack Obama's 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, as "a quest in which [Obama] cast himself as both a Telemachus in search of his father and an Odysseus in search of a home."

Three weeks earlier, I had argued on these pages ("The Improvised Odyssey of Barack Obama," December 28, 2008) that in Dreams Obama "assumes the role of both Telemachus and Odysseus, the son seeking the father, and the father seeking home."  Although I could find no prior reference to this specific Homeric interpretation, I seriously doubt if Ms. Kakutani purloined my thesis, especially given her conclusion that Dreams was "the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president."  She apparently inferred the Homeric structure in reading the text, as did I.

Thanks to Christopher Andersen's new book, Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage, it has become increasingly clear that Obama friend and neighbor, Bill Ayers, gave the book its structure.  As Andersen relates, after four futile years of trying to finish the contracted book, a "hopelessly blocked" Obama delivered his family's "oral histories, along with his partial manuscript and a trunkload of notes" to Ayers for a major overhaul.

We know that Ayers is keen on the classics. Early in his own 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days, he tips his Homeric hand. "Memory sails out upon a murky sea-wine-dark, opaque, unfathomable," he writes with a knowing wink. "Wine-dark sea" is trademark Homer.  Ayers seems to have had fun with the project.

As I argued in my original piece on this subject, the incidents in the book that support the Homeric framework -- among them green-eyed seductresses, blind seers, lotus-eaters, the "ghosts" of the underworld, whirlpools, a half dozen sundry "demons," and even a menacing one-eyed bald man -- seem contrived, if not fully fictitious.  In interviewing some 200 people for his book, Andersen lends support to this contention.  Three particular incidents stand out.

In Dreams, Obama finds himself attracted to "the beauty, the filth, the noise, and the excess" of New York City. There was no denying "the city's allure," he writes, nor "its consequent power to corrupt." New York, I had argued, was "Obama's monstrous rock-based Scylla, the notorious devourer of men." 

For the would-be community organizer, the chief source of corruption was the lure of capitalism.  "I had my own office, my own secretary, money in the bank," writes Obama of his position as a financial writer "behind enemy lines" in corporate America.

"Sometimes, coming out of an interview with Japanese financiers or German bond traders, I would catch my reflection in the elevator doors-see myself in a suit and tie, a briefcase in my hand -- and for a split second I would imagine myself as a captain of industry."

Having interviewed Obama's co-workers, Andersen is forced to conclude that Obama had no office of his own, no secretary, no jacket and tie, and no German or Japanese financiers to interview.  "It was a bit like a sweatshop," one of Obama's colleagues noted.  "Barack never wore a tie, much less a suit.  Nobody did."  Nor was he the only black man in the office as he writes elsewhere in this section.  A newsletter writer, Obama was in no danger of becoming a captain of industry no matter how long he worked there.

From this and other incidents throughout the book, one senses that Ayers felt free to improvise on the basic details of Obama's life.  In his 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days, he too reports thinking of himself and his colleagues as "behind enemy lines" in capitalist America.  Capitalism is not something to which Ayers has ever warmed up.  In 2006, for instance, he declared in a Venezuelan speech, "Capitalism promotes racism and militarism -- turning people into consumers, not citizens."  By puffing up Obama's resume, Ayers makes the seduction of capitalism and Obama's resistance to it seem all the more noble.  There is nothing Homeric in walking away from a sweatshop.

It is in New York too that Obama meets his Circe, still another subplot that Andersen's reporting undermines. "She was white. She had dark hair, and specks of green in her eyes. Her voice sounded like a wind chime," Obama later tells his half-sister Auma in Dreams. "We saw each other for almost a year." Obama, however, came to see that he and the girl lived in "two worlds." He sensed that "if we stayed together I'd eventually live in hers." And so he pushes her away.

Odysseus too shared the temptress Circe's bed for a year. Like Obama's unnamed girlfriend, Circe lived in a "splendid house" on "spacious grounds." She likewise wanted her lover to stay forever, but Odysseus's mates warned him off, "You god-driven man, now the time has come to think about your native land once more, if you are fated to be saved and reach your high-roofed home and your own country." (Ian Johnston translation)

If Obama's friend nicely fills the Circe role, she is surely grounded in the real life person of Diana Oughton, Ayers's lover who was killed in a 1970 bomb blast. As her FBI files attest, Oughton had brown hair and green eyes. Oughton and Obama's alleged lover shared similar family backgrounds as well. In fact, as I have previously reported, they seemed to have grown up on the very same estate, right down to the ancestral home, the encircling trees and small lake in the middle.

As Andersen reports, however, "No one, including [Obama's] roommate and closest friend at the time, Siddiqi, knew of this mysterious lover's existence." Obama's mother and sister never met her either although they visited Obama in New York during this time period.  Again, it seems as if Ayers imagined a seductress worthy of a Homeric hero and inserted her into the flow of Obama's otherwise unremarkable life.  Doing so also allowed him to editorialize on issues racial just as the corporate job enabled him to opine on things capitalistic.

Even more contrived, though hard to prove, was Obama's alleged confrontation with his own private Cyclops. As reported in Dreams, an Iranian student sitting across from Obama at the library, described as an "older balding man with a glass eye" and a "menacing look," chides him and a black friend about the failure of American slaves to rebel in any meaningful way.

Obama's friend falls strangely mute before the attack, but Obama rips into the Iranian. "Was the collaboration of some slaves any different than the silence of some Iranians who stood by and did nothing as Savak thugs murdered and tortured opponents of the Shah?" he asks.

There are several problems with this scenario.  For one, it takes place in the spring of 1981, just months after the release of 52 American hostages from 444 days of captivity in the newly Islamic Iran.   At this time, only the hardest of the hard left were still focusing their anti-Iranian wrath on the Shah and Savak. 

For another, it seems improbable that a political naif who seemed, in Andersen's words, "congenitally incapable of losing his temper" or of saying anything "that might be construed as rude or inappropriate," would launch such a sophisticated rant against an otherwise innocent third-worlder.  It seems more likely an opportunity for Ayers to firm up the Homeric structure of Dreams and settle an old grudge against the America-friendly Shah.

Then or now, Ayers has little good to say about America. In his 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days, for instance, he uses the Cyclops as metaphor for the "doomed and helpless" United States.  "Picture an oversized, somewhat dim-witted monster, greedy and capricious," Ayers writes in his uniquely patriotic way, "its eyes put out by fiery stakes and now flailing in a blind rage, smashing its way through villages and over mountains."

Yet only in America could an America-hating terrorist conspire with an unskilled writer of uncertain origins on an untruthful memoir and succeed in getting the man elected president.  This plot is so absolutely rich, so thoroughly cinematic, that the literary gatekeepers refuse to believe it is true. 

Sorry to disillusion you.
On January 18, 2009, Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic, described the structure of Barack Obama's 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, as "a quest in which [Obama] cast himself as both a Telemachus in search of his father and an Odysseus in search of a home."

Three weeks earlier, I had argued on these pages ("The Improvised Odyssey of Barack Obama," December 28, 2008) that in Dreams Obama "assumes the role of both Telemachus and Odysseus, the son seeking the father, and the father seeking home."  Although I could find no prior reference to this specific Homeric interpretation, I seriously doubt if Ms. Kakutani purloined my thesis, especially given her conclusion that Dreams was "the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president."  She apparently inferred the Homeric structure in reading the text, as did I.

Thanks to Christopher Andersen's new book, Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage, it has become increasingly clear that Obama friend and neighbor, Bill Ayers, gave the book its structure.  As Andersen relates, after four futile years of trying to finish the contracted book, a "hopelessly blocked" Obama delivered his family's "oral histories, along with his partial manuscript and a trunkload of notes" to Ayers for a major overhaul.

We know that Ayers is keen on the classics. Early in his own 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days, he tips his Homeric hand. "Memory sails out upon a murky sea-wine-dark, opaque, unfathomable," he writes with a knowing wink. "Wine-dark sea" is trademark Homer.  Ayers seems to have had fun with the project.

As I argued in my original piece on this subject, the incidents in the book that support the Homeric framework -- among them green-eyed seductresses, blind seers, lotus-eaters, the "ghosts" of the underworld, whirlpools, a half dozen sundry "demons," and even a menacing one-eyed bald man -- seem contrived, if not fully fictitious.  In interviewing some 200 people for his book, Andersen lends support to this contention.  Three particular incidents stand out.

In Dreams, Obama finds himself attracted to "the beauty, the filth, the noise, and the excess" of New York City. There was no denying "the city's allure," he writes, nor "its consequent power to corrupt." New York, I had argued, was "Obama's monstrous rock-based Scylla, the notorious devourer of men." 

For the would-be community organizer, the chief source of corruption was the lure of capitalism.  "I had my own office, my own secretary, money in the bank," writes Obama of his position as a financial writer "behind enemy lines" in corporate America.

"Sometimes, coming out of an interview with Japanese financiers or German bond traders, I would catch my reflection in the elevator doors-see myself in a suit and tie, a briefcase in my hand -- and for a split second I would imagine myself as a captain of industry."

Having interviewed Obama's co-workers, Andersen is forced to conclude that Obama had no office of his own, no secretary, no jacket and tie, and no German or Japanese financiers to interview.  "It was a bit like a sweatshop," one of Obama's colleagues noted.  "Barack never wore a tie, much less a suit.  Nobody did."  Nor was he the only black man in the office as he writes elsewhere in this section.  A newsletter writer, Obama was in no danger of becoming a captain of industry no matter how long he worked there.

From this and other incidents throughout the book, one senses that Ayers felt free to improvise on the basic details of Obama's life.  In his 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days, he too reports thinking of himself and his colleagues as "behind enemy lines" in capitalist America.  Capitalism is not something to which Ayers has ever warmed up.  In 2006, for instance, he declared in a Venezuelan speech, "Capitalism promotes racism and militarism -- turning people into consumers, not citizens."  By puffing up Obama's resume, Ayers makes the seduction of capitalism and Obama's resistance to it seem all the more noble.  There is nothing Homeric in walking away from a sweatshop.

It is in New York too that Obama meets his Circe, still another subplot that Andersen's reporting undermines. "She was white. She had dark hair, and specks of green in her eyes. Her voice sounded like a wind chime," Obama later tells his half-sister Auma in Dreams. "We saw each other for almost a year." Obama, however, came to see that he and the girl lived in "two worlds." He sensed that "if we stayed together I'd eventually live in hers." And so he pushes her away.

Odysseus too shared the temptress Circe's bed for a year. Like Obama's unnamed girlfriend, Circe lived in a "splendid house" on "spacious grounds." She likewise wanted her lover to stay forever, but Odysseus's mates warned him off, "You god-driven man, now the time has come to think about your native land once more, if you are fated to be saved and reach your high-roofed home and your own country." (Ian Johnston translation)

If Obama's friend nicely fills the Circe role, she is surely grounded in the real life person of Diana Oughton, Ayers's lover who was killed in a 1970 bomb blast. As her FBI files attest, Oughton had brown hair and green eyes. Oughton and Obama's alleged lover shared similar family backgrounds as well. In fact, as I have previously reported, they seemed to have grown up on the very same estate, right down to the ancestral home, the encircling trees and small lake in the middle.

As Andersen reports, however, "No one, including [Obama's] roommate and closest friend at the time, Siddiqi, knew of this mysterious lover's existence." Obama's mother and sister never met her either although they visited Obama in New York during this time period.  Again, it seems as if Ayers imagined a seductress worthy of a Homeric hero and inserted her into the flow of Obama's otherwise unremarkable life.  Doing so also allowed him to editorialize on issues racial just as the corporate job enabled him to opine on things capitalistic.

Even more contrived, though hard to prove, was Obama's alleged confrontation with his own private Cyclops. As reported in Dreams, an Iranian student sitting across from Obama at the library, described as an "older balding man with a glass eye" and a "menacing look," chides him and a black friend about the failure of American slaves to rebel in any meaningful way.

Obama's friend falls strangely mute before the attack, but Obama rips into the Iranian. "Was the collaboration of some slaves any different than the silence of some Iranians who stood by and did nothing as Savak thugs murdered and tortured opponents of the Shah?" he asks.

There are several problems with this scenario.  For one, it takes place in the spring of 1981, just months after the release of 52 American hostages from 444 days of captivity in the newly Islamic Iran.   At this time, only the hardest of the hard left were still focusing their anti-Iranian wrath on the Shah and Savak. 

For another, it seems improbable that a political naif who seemed, in Andersen's words, "congenitally incapable of losing his temper" or of saying anything "that might be construed as rude or inappropriate," would launch such a sophisticated rant against an otherwise innocent third-worlder.  It seems more likely an opportunity for Ayers to firm up the Homeric structure of Dreams and settle an old grudge against the America-friendly Shah.

Then or now, Ayers has little good to say about America. In his 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days, for instance, he uses the Cyclops as metaphor for the "doomed and helpless" United States.  "Picture an oversized, somewhat dim-witted monster, greedy and capricious," Ayers writes in his uniquely patriotic way, "its eyes put out by fiery stakes and now flailing in a blind rage, smashing its way through villages and over mountains."

Yet only in America could an America-hating terrorist conspire with an unskilled writer of uncertain origins on an untruthful memoir and succeed in getting the man elected president.  This plot is so absolutely rich, so thoroughly cinematic, that the literary gatekeepers refuse to believe it is true. 

Sorry to disillusion you.