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 different place in their intersection of the world and experience. As in Jung’s archetypes, fathers are symbols of worldliness and action. They are both figures of power and the bearers of a powerful and necessary love, but 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 President Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father, portrays this mix of paternal longing and mystery. 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, the father occupies a near-mythic status. He appears once, when the young Barack is ten years old, and his presence is affecting enough to instill in the young son a need to meet the father’s expectations. The memoir tracks this odyssey, which is as much an internal journey as an external one, 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:

“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 the portrayal of his 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.

—Lauren Alwan

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