Friday, July 06, 2012
Obama by the Bootstraps
Long, long ago, biographical criticism--interpreting a story or poem on the basis of what we know about a writer's life--lost favor when New Criticism began to assert that a poem is a poem is a poem, and not simply the by-product of an artist's life story.
Think of the Psalms, for instance: some, like 51, begin with a preface that indicates when and where David penned it. That's nice and it's helpful. Some, like 23, don't. Is 23 somehow inferior? Of course not. Furthermore, you can read 51 without feeling David's guilt about Bathsheba and still shiver with the intensity of his grasping need for forgiveness.
But for decades the kind of criticism that would use Poe's abysmal life, for instance, to explain what he means in his strange poetry was thought somehow wrong, a violation of the holiness given to art, to a poem, itself.
Along came what is called "the New Historicism," which essentially puts the creation of a poem or play or novel or script into its own time period once more, but then attempts to explain something about its author and its emergence by way of historical events that may not even be referred to in the poem. Think about it this way--I never wrote anything fictional about the Vietnam War, but the Vietnam War is, without a doubt, the most important event in my maturation, my coming of age. Knowing something about the Vietnam War helps, I think, to understand me.
David Maraniss's new biography (the first volume) of Barack Obama, Barack Obama: The Story, takes a kind of New Historicism approach to the President's life, churning up details lots of folks might think absurdly removed from what might be relevant. Early on, he draws out the story of his great-grandmother's suicide (in 1926) with the kind of detail that seems unnecessary, given the fact that her suicide happened five decades before the President was even born. But is it? Maraniss makes the case.
If you're simply interested in the present, of course, or in the good stuff (a white girlfriend, a bunch of young kids smoking pot), such material seems not only arcane but boring.
Maraniss makes very clear that while Obama's Kenyan grandfather was a Muslim, but his development as a free-thinker, as a human being, was more profoundly influenced by Christian and white missionaries in the neighborhood than his own Islamic faith. In a way, Hussein Onyango was far more Seventh-Day Adventist in his thinking than he was Mau Mau.
Here's my take so far, in this huge bio. First, this strange perception some claim or hold that Obama is not "one of us" is itself as bizarre as it is misguided. Plainly, the man's story reaches back into American history far more than it does the African veld--he barely knew his father at all, after all.
Second, what's also clear is that Obama is, without a doubt, as much a "rags-to-riches" hero as Ben Franklin sold himself to be. His being conceived was almost an accident--his mother and father were hardly ever a husband and wife. For all intents and purposes, through much of his life he was an orphan from both of them, growing up in the circle of his grandparents, including his grandfather who was, by most reports, something of a loose canon. Some of the claims he himself makes (in his autobiography) about his mother's devotion to him when she was half a world away sound like wishful thinking. Barack Obama is a guy who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. He is the quintessential American hero, the template for thousands, even millions, who would like to live here in America. The man made it himself.
As a matter of fact, it's former Gov. Romney who was born with a silver spoon, Gov. Romney who had a mile-long head start on most of America, Gov. Romney who made gadzillions of dollars, in part because he had an economic portfolio to die for long before he was ten years old.
Really, it's Barack Obama who is the genuine article, the American success story--and it's not Mitt Romney, whose life merely underscores the notion that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Some would say that the antipathy given to Obama is racial in character and tone. I don't think it's fair to assign racism where it can't be proven, but there has to be some reason why some people I know very well hate Obama as deeply as they do.
I'll certainly grant you he believes in a bigger government than does Mitt Romeny or the Tea Party. But when you read David Maraniss's account of his families' histories, it's difficult not to see him the kind of hard luck kid who nonetheless succeeded in a country and a culture where personal initiative and plain old grit promises precisely the kinds of great things he's been able to achieve.
All of that isn't a reason to vote for him, of course; but it is, or so it seems to me, a reason to respect him. After all, in purely American terms, the man made it, and he did so on his own.
David Maraniss's new bio is fascinating--and helpful, or so it seems to me.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:04 AM