June 26, 2008

Shakespeare, Hemingway, Dylan, and the 2008 Election

After the American Century

Thanks to Rolling Stone, we now know that Barack Obama's literary taste runs to Shakespeare and Hemingway. The big news, of course, is that he admits to reading books, perhaps a dangerous admission in these media-saturated days.

These are pretty safe choices. Shakespeare was the most popular author in the United States during the entire 19th century. People from all walks of life really knew the Bard's works, and could quote large portions from memory. As Lawrence Levine revealed in a classic article, small traveling troupes of actors never had a problem filling the small parts with local thespians. Shakespeare was so well-known that Mark Twain knew his readers of Huckleberry Finn would laugh at the garbled lines delivered by "the King" and "the Duke." Obama's choice is more than mainstream; he's traditional in naming Shakespeare. But compared to the public of Twain's day, the average American almost certainly has a less detailed knowledge of the plays. File away this literary connection for future reference. We may one day have to decide which play most closely resembles Obama's first term as president. Presumably not King Lear or Macbeth, both of which seem more suited to McCain. Perhaps All's Well that Ends Well?

Hemingway gives Obama a bit of a modernist edge, though it depends on which works (and passages) he finds speak most powerfully to him. Given his views on Iraq, one assumes that he likes A Farewell to Arms. In contrast, John McCain is on record as very much liking For Whom the Bell Tolls. Does McCain see Iraq in terms of the Spanish Civil War? Does either candidate like the most uncompromising Hemingway short stories, such as "A Clean Well-Lighted Place"? Or the more experimental work that only came out after he died? I suspect we have pretty mainstream Hemingway, in either case.

Rolling Stone further reports that Obama has an ipod, and that he has a lot of Stevie Wonder and also Bob Dylan songs on it, including most of "Blood on the Tracks." The "Oldies" for him are from the 1970s. In contrast, Senator McCain admitted to a Politco reporter that he loves the movie American Graffiti and that his musical tastes are rooted in the 1950s and 1960s, up to the moment when he was shot down in Vietnam. Despite the generational difference, there is some overlap. I doubt that Senator McCain can listen to Dylan with the same enthusiasm as Obama can, particularly the early songs like "World War III Blues," and "It's a Hard Rain Gonna Fall." And how many Republicans can enjoy the searing irony of "With God on Our Side"?

If I could give the same oral examination to both candidates, we might know what they really think about Hemingway. This being unlikely, at least we know that they are representative of their musical generations.