Poetry News

The Love Letters of Our Commander-In-Chief, As a Young Undergrad

By Harriet Staff

David Maraniss is working on a biography of President Obama, and part of it details a romantic relationship, with Alex McNear, during his college years. Here's a feature from Vanity Fair in which we learn, via a letter Obama wrote to McNear, of his thoughts on The Waste Land:

I haven’t read “The Waste Land” for a year, and I never did bother to check all the footnotes. But I will hazard these statements—Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times. You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?

For more, including how these years played into Obama's thoughts on politics and his presidency, and a glimpse into a more serious romantic relationship with Genevieve Cook, make the jump.

Find two more write-ups from New York Magazine here and here.

Originally Published: May 3rd, 2012