Picture an ambitious, yet conflicted Columbia graduate. At twenty-two, the clarity and rigor of campus life has faded, and in its place, a cruel dispersion of meaning that is--adult life in New York City. He’s landed a job that pays well but fears it lacks a greater purpose. He watches as his friends march on toward "the mainstream" or find success in business, while he feels caught. Stuck in place, he tries to think his way out. He takes to observing, documenting, explicating his situation in a series of letters to and conversations with his girlfriends Alex McNear and Genevieve Cook. Their exchanges are romantic, if you find interdisciplinary discussions of political ideology, literary theory, philosophy, and running, to be tender and compelling. He writes in response to McNear's (a budding Derridean literary critic) take on T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland":
...there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times.
McNear and Cook were later written as a “compressed” “New York girlfriend” character in his memoir Dreams from My Father, and the introspective young man in the 1980s became President Obama. In an excerpt from his forthcoming Obama biography, Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss utilizes interviews, journals, letters and other documents to create a compelling account of Barack Obama’s early romantic life in New York City. As NYT’s Gail Collins jokes, “Admit it, everybody likes a good girlfriend story.” But beneath the romance and olfactory details (e.g. According to his then girlfriend, Obama’s bedroom smelled of “running sweat, Brut spray deodorant, smoking, eating raisins, sleeping, breathing.”), the excerpt in the June’s edition of Vanity Fair captures Obama’s early struggle to develop an identity, a belief system, and a place in the world.
David Maraniss is a three time Pulitzer finalist and the winner of a Pulitzer for First in His Class, a biography of former President Bill Clinton. For Barack Obama: The Story, Maraniss sets a “nontraditional” path of analysis, weaving the Obama and Dunham family histories, from Kenya to Kansas. The biography ends short of the presidency. Instead, it concludes with Obama heading off to Harvard Law. Maraniss explains:
that is when I see one story ending and another beginning....[Obama] has figured out his identity and what he wants to do with his life and what he needs to get there. And he is on his way. The struggle to reach that point is what obsessed me enough for this first book, along with the extraordinary world out of which he came.
I may not be the usual demographic for Maraniss’ acclaimed and bestselling brand of great-dad-gift-male-centric-power biographies. Yet, the themes that ground Barack Obama: The Story--restlessness, intellect, ideals, and identity--are also what drew so many of us to the charismatic “Obama narrative” of the 2008 campaign. Now, I’m eager to see how Obama’s story fairs under the scrutity and rigor of Maraniss’ research. The book Barack Obama: The Story will be released June 19th. Place a hold on your copy here.