January 28, 2009


The late John Updike's insights into the Obama family (Steve Sailer, 1/27/09, iSteve Blog)

In my reader's guide to the President's autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, I point out the many parallels between the Obama family's history and the fictional life story of an African leader in the late John Updike's delightful 1978 novel about Africa, The Coup, in which the novelist ventured far from his Atlantic Seaboard comfort zone. It's testimony to Updike's powers that he could shed so much light on three people he had never heard of at the time: Barack Obama Jr. and his parents.

For example, Updike's African scholarship student Hakim Félix Ellelloû bigamously marries a white American coed after a pregnancy scare in 1959, much as Barack Obama Sr. bigamously married a pregnant white American coed in 1961.

From my chapter on "Obama as a Man of Letters:"

Because Obama is a literary man, this is a rather literary analysis of his life and works. I've been intermittently comparing the Obama family saga to its eerie analog in John Updike's 1978 novel The Coup. Written at the gleeful height of Updike's powers, The Coup consists of the verbally dazzling memoirs of a hyperliterate American-educated official in the fictitious African country of Kush. The Coup was based on Updike's prodigious research into the lives of post-colonial African elites very much like Barack Obama Sr.

Two of Updike's children have since married black Africans. Updike's 1989 essay “A Letter to My Grandsons” is addressed to his daughter’s half-African children. In it, Updike explains to them that there’s “a floating sexual curiosity and potential love between the races that in your parents has come to earth and borne fruit and that the blended shade of your dear brown skins will ever advertise.” (I'm not sure that Updike's children and grandchildren truly wanted to read that, but if Updike is to churn out a book a year, in his voracious search for material he must occasionally mortify his progeny.)

After four seemingly pleasant years at an American college, Updike's protagonist, Hakim Félix Ellelloû, returns to Africa, winds up with a total of four wives, including his white American college sweetheart, turns against America and capitalism in the Cold War, and (here is where the lives of Ellelloû and Obama Sr. diverge) deftly climbs the ladder of government, becoming dictator in the late Sixties.

Ellelloû attempts to impose upon his homeland of Kush the three ideologies he acquired while studying in America: Marxism, Black Muslimism, and Islam (all of which have interested Obama Jr. to some degree).

Written at the nadir of American power and prestige during the Carter years, Updike audaciously prophesied American victory in the Cold War for the hearts and minds of the Third World. Ellelloû's radicalism destroys what little economic activity Kush ever had, and he's overthrown by pro-American forces in the titular coup.

Thirty years later, The Coup can now be read as a kind of Obama Clan Alternative History. In our world, Obama Sr.'s career back home in decolonized Kenya got off to a fast start in the Sixties, then foundered. What if, however, like Ellelloû, Obama Sr. had instead possessed the abstemious, observant, and cautious personality of Obama Jr.? It would hardly have been surprising if the elder Obama, if blessed with his son’s self-disciplined character, had become president of Kenya.

Okay, that letter is truly creepy.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 28, 2009 3:48 PM
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