The publication history of Barack Obama’s Literary Legacy: Readings of Dreams from my Father began ten years ago. Its becoming deserves explanation. Why? Because it was nearly aborted due to lack of interest. The book itself was five years in the making. Now, five years after its publication, and 10 years after its inception, I wanted to return to the topic.
The volume began with an observation: while historians often study the writings of American presidents, literary scholars seldom do. We began to wonder if a book, or a line of books, might draw contributors to the idea, and we decided to begin with a book about the writings of President Barack Obama. In 2011, we prepared a Call for Papers.
When we first sent out the Call for Papers in soliciting proposals for the volume, my co-editor Richard Purcell and I expected to be overwhelmed with requests from authors who wished to be included in the book. We naively assumed that Obama’s accomplishment would send interested scholars, critics & commentators clamoring to our door. What we received instead were largely warmed-over versions of previously published (and widely ignored) essays. We received a request or two to “expose” the President’s “true” identity; as if a proposal urging us to reveal the Manchurian Candidate weren’t shameful enough, we even received a proposal promising a rhetorical analysis of the White House Twitter feed.
And so it became apparent to us that while everyone on the planet seemingly had an opinion of Barack Obama, very few persons had actually read his books. Furthermore, of those who had read them, few were qualified to write about the President’s writings. And among those qualified, even fewer were capable, or willing.
To our good fortune, a handful of promising abstracts arrived. Most survived our project to the end. Yes, we cut a few along the way. It was simply necessary to eliminate those who were not fully committed to writing good chapters for the book. From the beginning, we worked to make the volume as strong and diverse as possible. And so, having made initial selections, we set about a three-fold task. The first step involved developing the good material we received. The second required finding a few more able contributors. Finally, we needed to earn a publishing contract.
By the end of 2012, we had a good crew of contributors and their excellent drafts. It was a diverse bunch, too, representing much of our patchwork Republic. Should anyone dare complain: our volume was co-edited by the son of Italian immigrants (one a refugee) and an Afro-Caribbean/African-American. It includes writings by persons of Irish, Greek, Hispanic & Asian descent, to name a few. I hesitate to continue along lines of gender, age, religious affiliation, etc. Such criticism always irritates me, but should it be offered, I would ask: is representative inclusion the prime mover of quality? Of course not.
We spent 2013 reading, revising and editing. We also organized a panel to present the work in progress at the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago. The panel included three of the book’s contributors – Stephanie, John and David – who braved the “polar vortex” to present their writings. We expected a crowd for a panel about Obama, in the city where he made his name. Perhaps 15 people showed up. Again, the lack of intellectual curiosity was remarkable; regardless, our gratitude was immense for the small but engaged audience we had.
The Chicago weekend brought a small victory: a publishing contract. I will not forget the smile on the polite Acquisitions Editor’s face when, in the crowded room of book sellers and buyers, I firmly stated: “we don’t care how long it takes to publish. Our only concern is giving the world a well-written, intelligent book.”
We returned to our work. Richard and I continued writing the introductory essay we first drafted in 2013. Here too, we had initial difficulties, as little of merit had been published about Obama’s memoir. The lack of cogent discourse proved a blessing; rather than drowning in a canon of secondary sources, we read all the smartest commentary and moved along to writing. The paucity of discourse provided an opportunity to frame the discourse; we focused on building our introduction on a historical analysis of the book’s publication. Here too, obstacles. Few libraries held a copy of the true 1st edition, for example. Luckily, I tracked one down at the Durham County library’s Stanford L. Warren branch. Other historical data was locked in private publisher files, but we gathered enough evidence to weave a series of commentaries around the core historical facts. We stressed independence of mind: we did not once risk obeisance to either the President or his critics (many of whom had also clearly not read the book, or had read it carelessly).
During this period in mid-to-late 2014, I spent several weeks comparing the 1st edition with the more well known 2004 reprint of Obama’s book. I scanned each page, line by line, with both copies open before me. It was tedious work but absolutely necessary to attend to textual analysis of the most fine-grained, editorial sort. In the end, my tired eyes located 1 change to the typesetting and 3 spelling errors. At the very least, we would dispel any paranoid notion that the 1st edition had been “changed” in any way. If anything, the “revised” 2004 edition of Obama’s memoir contained misprints; the more famous copy was also the less well-edited text.
While Richard and I exchanged our drafts, we also requested one last round of revisions from the contributors who had already combed through their essays a half dozen times over the course of three years. In June of 2015, we prepared the files and sent them to the publisher. Two more rounds of edits followed. Never, in nearly five years of work (or through the polar vortex) did a contributor once complain. We adopted the same strategy with our publisher: when errors were made or missed, we simply did the work of fixing them.
I would imagine that our persistence in completing an unexpectedly unpopular project will offer some correction to the idea that this book was merely an academic exercise. It most certainly was not. We could not know for certain how it would be received. Its intended readers may not yet exist: readers who see Obama’s books and our commentary on them for what they are rather than what they desire (or suspect) them to be.
Five years have passed since the publication of our volume. The site of the Obama Presidential Library has since been announced and a veritable Obama book industry has appeared, flooding the market with works. Two Additionally, the Republic was forced to endure the incompetence, lack of intellectual curiosity (or ability) of a petulant despot who outsourced even the writing of his own books. Hillary Clinton published her own memoir of the 2016 election in which she lost to Trump but still won the popular vote, and Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden returned to politics and soundly defeated Trump in 2020. Most recently, President Obama returned to publishing, when in late 2020 the first volume of The Promised Land appeared in print.
The crises and crudity of recent Presidential politics make it seem much longer than five years.In the early days of the Trumpist nightmare, I remember thinking that this book could cost me my life when they came to round up the intellectuals. It remains a thought – the next tyrant may be more effective in eliminating the opposition, may not have a Nancy Pelosi to outfox him at critical moments, may not have to push as hard against institutional inertia.
Ten years ago, when we embarked on this book project, we were primarily met with indifference. Looking back, I wonder what role that indifference played in what came to pass, and what terrors it still holds for us.
©Henry Veggian 2021