Dreams From My Father, by Barack Obama
Stories that center on fathers have a distinct place in the memoir genre. For better or worse, fathers hold a place that intersects with the world and experience in a way far different from that of a mother’s. As in Jung’s archetypes, fathers are symbols of worldliness and action, yet many of the fathers depicted in these memoirs embody qualities both maternal and paternal. They are both figures of power and the bearers of a powerful and necessary love. That love is often complicated by flaws and as is so often the occasion in memoir, a distance that incites yearning.
Published in 1995, the now-classic memoir by 44th President Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father, portrays the mix of longing and mystery that fathers so often hold. Early on, we find the young Barack struggling academically and socially under the specter of his distant father, the elder Obama, a brilliant, commanding, but ultimately absent figure who exists at a remove. As a result, he occupies a near-mythic status. He appears once, when the young Barack is ten years old, a proximity that is affecting enough to instill in the young son a persistent need to meet the father’s expectations. The memoir tracks this odyssey, which is as much an internal journey as external, and charts the young Barack’s love of history, books (by James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Nietzsche, and St. Augustine among them), and of course, law and governance. The future president’s reading life, as it would turn out, exposed an existential doubt, of literature’s power, and its powerlessness.
“I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. Even DuBois’s learning and Baldwin’s love and Langston’s humor eventually succumbed to its corrosive force, each man finally forced to doubt art’s redemptive power, each man finally forced to withdraw, one to Africa, one to Europe, one deeper into the bowels of Harlem, but all of them in the same weary flight, all of them exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels.”
The New York Times observed that in his portraying himself and the search for identity as a fatherless son, President Obama “is at once the solitary outsider who learns to stop pressing his nose to the glass and the coolly omniscient observer providing us with a choral view of his past,” which is as good a definition of a father memoir protagonist as I’ve yet to read.