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Writers welcome Obama as literary president-elect



Published: Fri, November 7, 2008 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Hillel Italie

Obama is viewed as a man of words.

NEW YORK — Last winter, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison received a phone call from Sen. Barack Obama, then the underdog to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Obama had contacted Morrison to ask for her support. But before they got into politics, the author and the candidate had a little chat about literature.

“He began to talk to me about one of the books I had written, ‘Song of Solomon,’ and how it had meant a lot to him,” Morrison said in a postelection interview from her office at Princeton University, where for years she has taught creative writing.

“And I had read his first book (‘Dreams From My Father’). I was astonished by his ability to write, to think, to reflect, to learn and turn a good phrase. I was very impressed. This was not a normal political biography.”

For Morrison and others, the election of Obama matters not because he will be the first black president or because the vast majority of writers usually vote for Democrats. Writers welcome Obama as a peer, a thinker, a man of words — his own words.

“When I was watching Obama’s acceptance speech [Tuesday night], I was convinced that he had written it himself, and therefore that he was saying things that he actually believed and had considered,” says Jane Smiley, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Thousand Acres” and other fiction.

“I find that more convincing in a politician than the usual thing of speaking the words of a raft of hack speechwriters. If he were to lie to us, he would really be betraying his deepest self.”

“Until now, my identity as a writer has never overlapped with my identity as an American — in the past eight years, my writing has often felt like an antidote or correction to my Americanism,” says “Everything Is Illuminated” novelist Jonathan Safran Foer.

“But finally having a writer-president — and I don’t mean a published author, but someone who knows the full value of the carefully chosen word — I suddenly feel, for the first time, not only like a writer who happens to be American, but an American writer.”

“Dreams From My Father” and Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” have each sold millions of copies and have been praised as the rare works by politicians that can actually be read for pleasure. Obama’s student poetry was even lauded — and compared to the work of Langston Hughes — by the most discerning of critics, Harold Bloom.

Morrison, whose novel “A Mercy” comes out next week, endorsed Obama in January, even though she was a friend and admirer of Hillary Rodham Clinton and had famously labeled Bill Clinton the country’s first black president. As if reviewing a new book, Morrison released a statement citing Obama’s “intelligence, integrity and rare authenticity,” and his “creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom.”

Morrison finds herself wondering how some of her late friends would have reacted, such as James Baldwin (“How I miss him now,” she says), who in the 1960s had scorned as condescending Robert Kennedy’s prediction that the United States would have a black president in 40 years. Were “Invisible Man” author Ralph Ellison still alive, he would have renamed his classic novel “Visible Man,” Morrison joked.


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