On February 17, Publishers Weekly reported that former President Barack Obama and his attorney are shopping a memoir among the Big Five trade publishers in New York. The price is expected to be high for one unusual reason, unusual at least for a political figure.
Explained the New York Times’ Gardiner Harris in September 2016, “Mr. Obama’s writing ability could make his memoir not only profitable in its first years but perhaps for decades to come.” Harris speculated, in fact, that given Obama’s literary skills, his newest book would perhaps rival the memoir of Ulysses S. Grant for durability.
Then again, it may not. In the months since the deal was first bruited about, publishers have had sufficient time to evaluate the evidence for Obama’s literary genius. In truth, there is not much to evaluate. Before his acclaimed 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama had only two named articles in print. Publishers who choose to read these articles might well have second thoughts about investing in Obama “the writer” at any price.
The earliest of the two is an 1,800-word article titled “Breaking the War Mentality” published in Columbia’s weekly news magazine, Sundial, at the height of the KGB-generated anti-nuke craze in 1983. The second is an article titled “Why Organize? Problems and Promise in the Inner City” that originally appeared in the 1988 edition of a publication called Illinois Issues.
Obama was 21, at the time he wrote “Breaking” and on the verge of graduating from an Ivy League university. Had he been raised by wolves in an Indonesian cave and then unleashed on the Columbia campus a year earlier, the reader might cut him slack for such a low-C effort. In fact, though, he was completing his fourth year of college after spending eight years at Hawaii’s best prep school. His formal training as a writer culminated in this essay. If Obama worked at improving his skills after this essay, his next published effort, “Why Organize,” does not reflect it.
The following exercise may seem a bit pedantic, but it will help the reader see the literary capabilities of the young Obama. The problems cited — like the five sentences in which the noun and verb do not agree — suggest that Obama was far from gifted, very far.
The more sensitive among us struggle to extrapolate experiences of war from our everyday experience, discussing the latest mortality statistics from Guatemala, sensitizing ourselves to our parents’ wartime memories, or incorporating into our framework of reality as depicted by a Mailer or a Coppola.
This is your classic dangling participle: the words discussing, sensitizing, and incorporating modify the subject, the more sensitive among us, but three other nouns stand between the participles and the subject. Also, note that incorporating should have an object. It makes no sense as is.
But the taste of war — the sounds and chill, the dead bodies — are remote and far removed.
The subject here is taste. The predicate should be is not are.
We know that wars have occurred, will occur, are occurring, but bringing such experience down into our hearts, and taking continual, tangible steps to prevent war, becomes a difficult task.
Another problem with noun-verb agreement. This time the subject of the “but” clause is plural — bringing and taking. The verb should be become — although can be would make more sense. The last two commas, both inappropriate, may have confused Obama.
These groups, visualizing the possibilities of destruction and grasping the tendencies of distorted national priorities, are throwing their weight into shifting America off the dead-end track.
Here, the participle is placed appropriately, but at sentence’s end Obama throws three awkward metaphors, all clichés, into a nearly indecipherable mix. Also, how does one grasp a tendency?
Along with the community Volunteer Service Center, ARA has been Don’s primary concern, coordinating various working groups of faculty, students, and staff members, while simultaneously seeking the ever elusive funding for programs.
Coordinating is another participle left to dangle.
One wonders whether this upsurge stems from young people’s penchant for the latest ‘happenings’ or from growing awareness of the consequences of nuclear holocaust.
This whole sentence clunks. Upsurge is the wrong word. Happenings should be singular, but even then it sounds like something Mike Brady would have said to Greg or Marcia.
Generally, the narrow focus of the Freeze movement as well as academic discussions of first versus second strike capabilities, suit the military-industrial interests, as they continue adding to their billion dollar erector sets.
The subject is “focus,” but it is isolated from its predicate by a needless comma, and that predicate should be “suits,” in any case. “Erector sets” is another cringe-inducing metaphor.
The very real advantages of concentrating on a single issue is leading the National Freeze movement to challenge individual missile systems, while continuing the broader campaign.
Here is still another problem with agreement. This should read, “advantages … are leading,” but only if “advantages” could lead. The last phrase dangles.
ARA encourages members to join buses to Washington and participate in a March 7-8 rally intended to push through the Freeze resolution which is making its second trip through the House.
“Join” buses? This sounds like something you would hear in an ESL class. A rally cannot “push” a resolution through the House. Now on its second “trip”?
An entirely student-run organization, SAM casts a wider net than ARA, though for the purposes of effectiveness, they have tried to lock in on one issue at a time.
Organization is singular, and thus “they” has no antecedent. The “wider net” cliché is lazy.
By organizing and educating the Columbia community, such activities lay the foundation for future mobilization against the relentless, often silent spread of militarism in the country.
“People” organize and educate, not “activities.”
The belief that moribund institutions, rather than individuals are at the root of the problem, keep SAM’s energies alive.
Again, an agreement issue: This should read, “The belief . . . keeps SAM’s energies alive.” The random use of commas throws everything off. Plus, the word choice sucks all logic out of the sentence. In the previous paragraph, Obama warns his readers about the “the relentless, often silent spread of militarism in the country.” In this paragraph, the reader is told that these same military institutions are “moribund” — that is “nearly dead.” How their debilitated state keeps the “energies” of the Students Against Militarism (SAM) “alive” is not exactly clear.
Regarding Columbia’s possible compliance, one comment in particular hit upon an important point with the Solomon bill.
The subject of “hit upon,” not an apt verb to begin with, should have been a person not a “comment.”
What members of ARA and SAM try to do is infuse what they have learned about the current situation, bring the words of that formidable roster on the face of Butler Library, names like Thoreau, Jefferson, and Whitman, to bear on the twisted logic of which we are today a part.
“Infuse” is the wrong word. One infuses something “into” something else. There should be an “and” after “situation,” not a comma. Obama utterly mangles the “bring to bear” phrase. It should read something like, “… bring the words of those formidable men on the face of the Butler Library — Thoreau, Jefferson, Whitman — to bear.” As to how or whether we are part of a “twisted logic,” that is best left to the reader’s imagination.
After the Sundial article, Obama had nothing in print for another five years. Obama biographer David Remnick reports that Obama took a stab at a short story or two, but Remnick shares no samples. In Dreams, Obama cops to only the occasional journal entry during this period. Not surprisingly, when Obama makes his next serious literary effort five years later, many of the problems on display in “Breaking” manage to find their way into “Why Organize.”
Facing these realities, at least three major strands of earlier movements are apparent.
“Facing these realities” modifies nothing. “Strands” do not “face reality.”
The election of Harold Washington in Chicago or of Richard Hatcher in Gary were not enough to bring jobs to inner-city neighborhoods.
Of course, it should read, “The election… was.”
… neither new nor well-established companies will be willing to base themselves in the inner city and still compete in the international marketplace.
The grammar is passable here. The logic is not. Obama means, I think, “Companies willing to base themselves in the inner city, new or established, will not be able to compete in the international marketplace.”
Moreover, such approaches can and have become thinly veiled excuses for cutting back on social programs, which are anathema to a conservative agenda.
“Agendas” do not have “anathemas.”
But organizing the black community faces enormous problems as well… and the urban landscape is littered with the skeletons of previous efforts.
“Organizing” does not face. “Efforts” do not leave “skeletons.”
Obama wrote this essay in 1988, perhaps to pad his résumé for Harvard Law at which he would enroll that same year. It shows a modest improvement over his Columbia essay from five years earlier. This may simply be due to more vigilant editing. That said, the essay exhibits many of the same problems as in “Breaking” — awkward sentence structure, inappropriate word choice, a weakness for clichés, the continued failure to get verbs and nouns to agree. More troubling for the Obama faithful, this essay shows not a hint of the grace and sophistication of his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father.
Two years later, this same writer would be elected president of the Harvard Law Review. At Harvard, Obama had nothing in print under his own name save for a letter defending affirmative action in the November 1990 Harvard Law Record, an independent Law School newspaper. In the very first sentence Obama leads with his signature failing: his inability to make subject and predicate agree. “Since the merits of the Law Review’s selection policy has been the subject of commentary for the last three issues,” wrote Obama, “I’d like to take the time to clarify exactly how our selection process works.”
A year or so after publishing this letter, Obama landed a book deal that would culminate in what Joe Klein of Time has called “the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.” Only in Obama’s uniquely myopic slice of America could a writer of such modest talent achieve so much and expect to achieve so much more.
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