From our Compare and Contrast in Clear Idiomatic English desk:
David Maraniss’s new biography, Barack Obama: The Story, has spawned any number of stories about Obama’s story of his formative years.
An excerpt from the book in the Washington Post is introduced this way (headline: “How Obama became black”):
He was too dark in Indonesia. A “hapa” child — half and half — in Hawaii. Multicultural in Los Angeles. An “invisible man” in New York. And finally, Barack Obama was black on the South Side of Chicago. This journey of racial self-discovery and reinvention is chronicled in David Maraniss’s biography, “Barack Obama: The Story,” to be published Tuesday. These excerpts trace the young Obama’s arc toward black identity, through his words and experiences, and through the eyes of those who knew him well.
A new biography finally challenges Obama’s famous memoir. And the truth might not be quite as interesting as the president, and his enemies, have imagined.
David Maraniss’s new biography of Barack Obama is the first sustained challenge to Obama’s control over his own story, a firm and occasionally brutal debunking of Obama’s bestselling 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father.
Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story punctures two sets of falsehoods: The family tales Obama passed on, unknowing; and the stories Obama made up. The 672-page book closes before Obama enters law school, and Maraniss has promised another volume, but by its conclusion I counted 38 instances in which the biographer convincingly disputes significant elements of Obama’s own story of his life and his family history.
The falsehoods center on two issues: race and identity. The Wall Street Journal’s review by ABC’s Jonathan Karl takes a more sympathetic view:
For Mr. Obama’s early years, much of what the world knows up to this point comes from his “Dreams From My Father,” published years before he ran for political office. Mr. Maraniss finds the book to be an unreliable guide to what actually happened in Mr. Obama’s early life. The book, he says, “falls into the realm of literature and memoir, not history and autobiography.” This is not a complete surprise: In the book’s introduction, the author acknowledges taking liberties—changing names and chronology and compressing multiple people into single characters for the sake of narrative flow and dramatic effect.
Not so Andrew Ferguson’s cover story in the June 18 Weekly Standard:
Barack Obama’s autobiographical fictions
(The headline writer left out the punchline: “. . . who worships his creator.” Tip o’ the pixel to either John Bright or William Cowper.)
But more to the point:
What’s dispiriting is that throughout Dreams, the moments that Obama has invented are precisely the occasions of his epiphanies—precisely those periodic aha! moments that carry the book and bring its author closer to self-discovery. Without them not much is left: a lot of lovely writing, some unoriginal social observations, a handful of precocious literary turns. Obama wasn’t just inventing himself; he was inventing himself inventing himself. It made for a story, anyway.
It’s all good reading.
And good myth-making.
See for yourself.