Carnegie Mellon University
March 03, 2016

“Barack Obama’s Literary Legacy” Highlights President’s Role as Writer

By Emily Stimmel / 412-268-1788 /

Academics, journalists and pundits have long mined President Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” for information that would point to his political beliefs, but few analyses have approached the book as a literary work — until now.

In “Barack Obama’s Literary Legacy: Readings of ‘Dreams from My Father,’” Carnegie Mellon University’s Richard Purcell and co-editor Henry Veggian have collected a group of essays that highlight Obama’s literary influences and merits as a writer.

Purcell Book Cover

“The deft contributions to this collection, together with its rich introduction, demonstrate that Barack Obama’s ‘Dreams from My Father’ demands literary reading and attentiveness to a range of literary and cultural histories,” said Jay Garcia, associate professor of comparative literature at New York University.

Though they admit that it is an impossible task to separate the book from Obama’s later political career, Purcell, Veggian and seven other scholars argue that the work is a valuable piece of literature in its own right.

For instance, in her essay, Stephanie Li, professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington, explores Obama’s relationship to the memoir genre. Li brings attention to the matrilineal narrative at the book’s core — an aspect often overlooked in favor of focusing on themes of masculinity and race in the book’s titular relationship.

Other essays look at Obama through the lens of important political thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr and events like the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in 2011.

“At their best, literary works are a presentation of the way human beings engage with language, historical events, other people and ideas — in other words, all the human-made elements of our world,” said Purcell, associate professor of English in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

While past analyses of Obama’s memoir disregarded these humanizing attributes to focus on its political underpinnings, Purcell notes that Obama demonstrates a mastery of literary conventions through allusion and references to canonical works of western literature. In the memoir, Obama refers to writers like James Baldwin and Dante, as well as significant works like Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

“In ‘Dreams from My Father’ Obama is most clearly engaging in the prose based craft of self-writing, one that spans many forms and genres from the novel and bildungsroman to memoir and autobiography,” Purcell said.

“It’s an incredible piece of writing that illuminates how literary-minded he was as a writer.”

“Barack Obama’s Literary Legacy” was published by Palgrave Macmillan, which released Purcell’s “Race, Ralph Ellison and American Cold War Intellectual Culture” in 2013.

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Carnegie Mellon’s Richard Purcell Uncovers How Covert Government Funds Influenced Ralph Ellison, Race and American Cold War Culture