Cashill's first point is that "Dreams From My Father" is just too damned good to have been written by someone who had not previously demonstrated literary promise. (Cashill dishes up a college-era poem -- about apes! -- that Obama himself calls "very bad.") This, of course, only goes to the issue of whether Obama had a ghostwriter (or a strong editor).
I read "Dreams From My Father" -- that is, I listened to Obama read it -- and I didn't think it was so brilliantly written. It had a creative-writing-class feeling to it that often made me feel a little embarrassed for the novice writer. There were so many times when the leaves or the sky were expressing his feelings and so forth. It was good, but earnest.
So where does Ayers come in? Cashill says "Ayers had the means, the motive, the time, the place and the literary ability to jumpstart Obama's career." That is, Ayers was there at exactly the time when Obama had been failing to produce the manuscript he contracted to write. Again, that's not much.
The most interesting part of Cashill's analysis compares the literary style of "Dreams" and the Ayers memoir "Fugitive Days" and notes a lack of similarity between "Dreams" and Obama's second book "The Audacity of Hope."
Ayers and Obama have a good deal in common. In the way of background, both grew up in comfortable white households and have struggled to find an identity as righteous black men ever since. Just as Obama resisted "the pure and heady breeze of privilege" to which he was exposed as a child, Ayers too resisted "white skin privilege" or at least tried to....Listening to "Dreams," what I heard was the sound of elite education, the way professors present race and gender issues. I wondered -- prompted by Obama's own new foreword to his book -- why he didn't tell us much more about his mother and why the father who contributed almost nothing to his life got to be the central figure in the story. My theory was that Obama was echoing professors and determined to produce a book about race. As he highlighted everything that had to do with race, I never trusted him to be telling us what his life really felt like to him at the time. The most honest admission in the book, to my ear, was the confession that he spent a huge chunk of his formative years watching TV sitcoms with his (white) grandfather.
Tellingly, Ayers, like Obama, began his career as a self-described "community organizer," Ayers in inner-city Cleveland, Obama in inner-city Chicago. In short, Ayers was fully capable of crawling inside Obama's head and relating in superior prose what the Dreams' author calls a "rage at the white world [that] needed no object."
Indeed, in Dreams, it is on the subject of black rage that Obama writes most eloquently. Phrases like "full of inarticulate resentments," "unruly maleness," "unadorned insistence on respect" and "withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage" lace the book.
In Fugitive Days, "rage" rules and in high style as well. Ayers tells of how his "rage got started" and how it evolved into an "uncontrollable rage -- fierce frenzy of fire and lava."
Cashill puts some stock in quantitative analysis:
The "Fugitive Days" excerpt scores a 54 on reading ease and a 12th grade reading level [in the Flesch Reading Ease Score]. The "Dreams'" excerpt scores a 54.8 on reading ease and a 12th grade reading level. Scores can range from 0 to 121, so hitting a nearly exact score matters.When I first read that, I asked my son John (by IM):
A more reliable data-driven way to prove authorship goes under the rubric "cusum analysis" or QSUM. This analysis begins with the measurement of sentence length, a significant and telling variable. To compare the two books, I selected thirty-sentence sequences from Dreams and Fugitive Days, each of which relates the author's entry into the world of "community organizing."
"Fugitive Days" averaged 23.13 words a sentence. "Dreams" averaged 23.36 words a sentence. By contrast, the memoir section of [Cashill's own memoir] "Sucker Punch" averaged 15 words a sentence.
Interestingly, the 30-sentence sequence that I pulled from Obama's conventional political tract, Audacity of Hope, averages more than 29 words a sentence and clocks in with a 9th grade reading level, three levels below the earlier cited passages from "Dreams" and "Fugitive Days." The differential in the Audacity numbers should not surprise. By the time it was published in 2006, Obama was a public figure of some wealth, one who could afford editors and ghost writers.
do you think it's significant that Obama's first book is measured as written at the 12th grade level but his second book is at the 9th grade level?John said:
I'm not suggesting that he got dumber or anything
it's about the issue of ghostwriting
I think if he wrote it all himself both books would be at the same level
maybe he had more desire to simplify the book that involved policy, and took more liberties with the more novel-like book.Yes, that's the answer, of course. In "Dreams," Obama was trying to be literary, trying to impress elite readers with language, descriptions, and insight. And "Audacity" is trying to spell out policy for everyone.
I downloaded a Flesch Reading Ease Score calculator and put a lot of my blog text through it -- just my writing, no quoted stuff -- and then did a few my law review articles. The blog is written at the 9th grade level and all the articles were at the 11th grade level. The same person, writing for different purposes, writes at different grade levels.
The most interesting part of Cashill's analysis has to do with seafaring imagery. Ayers worked at sea for a time. "'I'd thought that when I signed on that I might write an American novel about a young man at sea,' says Ayers in his memoir, Fugitive Days, 'but I didn't have it in me.'" Though Ayers didn't write that seafaring novel, he brought a lot of seafaring imagery to Fugitive Days, Cashill shows. Then, oddly, there's a lot of seafaring imagery in "Dreams."
Ayers and Obama also speak often of waves and wind, Obama at least a dozen times on wind alone. "The wind wipes away my drowsiness, and I feel suddenly exposed," he writes in a typical passage. Both also make conspicuous use of the word "flutter."Mere confirmation bias? Or is Cashill onto something?
Not surprisingly, Ayers uses "ship" as a metaphor with some frequency. Early in the book he tells us that his mother is "the captain of her own ship," not a substantial one either but "a ragged thing with fatal leaks" launched into a "sea of carelessness."
Obama too finds himself "feeling like the first mate on a sinking ship." He also makes a metaphorical reference to "a tranquil sea." More intriguing is Obama's use of the word "ragged" as an adjective as in the highly poetic "ragged air" or "ragged laughter."
Both books use "storms" and "horizons" both as metaphor and as reality. Ayers writes poetically of an "unbounded horizon," and Obama writes of "boundless prairie storms" and poetic horizons-"violet horizon," "eastern horizon," "western horizon."
Ayers often speaks of "currents" and "pockets of calm" as does Obama, who uses both as nouns as in "a menacing calm" or "against the current" or "into the current." The metaphorical use of the word "tangled" might also derive from one's nautical adventures. Ayers writes of his "tangled love affairs" and Obama of his "tangled arguments."