Memories of Obamaland/Obama and Rhetoric


Martin Hickes talks to Sheffield and US professor Dr James Fitzmaurice on his ‘Memories of Obama-land’.

THE SURF and chardonnay of LA may seem miles from here, but for one US-born expat, ‘Obama-land’ is never far from home.

Few people can claim to have an insight into the psyche of US presidents, but for one Stateside-born Sheffield academic, President Barack Obama is always on his mind.

Sheffield University’s Dr James Fitzmaurice, who attended the prestigious and profoundly liberal arts college Occidental College – the alma mater of the likes of the then ‘Barry’ Obama, actor Ben Affleck, and director Terry Gilliam, says the ‘lotus-eating’ culture of one of the US’s most expensive  and highly regarded institutions has more than moulded the laid-back image of the most ‘powerful man in the world’.

Now Dr Fitzmaurice, from Sheffield University’s English department, and a distinguished alumnus of ‘Oxy’  - as it is affectionately known among US graduates – hopes to entice Yorkshire folk on a tour, in spirit at least,  of ‘Obama-land.’

His latest work – ‘Memories of Obamaland’ -  is an affectionate and academically astute reflection on the laid-back but privileged world of Occidental, and the shaping of presidential personality.

Dr Fitzmaurice, a semi-retired professor from the Northern Arizona University, but a Sheffield resident since 2006 says:

“There’s no doubt that Barack – or ‘Barry’ Obama as he was known at Occidental - is one of the most charismatic figures of the 21 century.

“But I wonder how many people – especially in Britain - recognise the influence that his college years might have had on - as he has been styled - the first presidential ‘king of cool’.

 “As an American, I was lucky enough to attend Occidental a few years ahead of Barack, and had first hand experience of the totally unique atmosphere which shaped his ‘artsy skills’   - and his absolute skill with language and rhetoric.

“If you refer to Occidental as fostering a culture of ‘being cool’ and seeming to be ‘effortless’ in its outlook and as ‘not being excitable’ – both then and now – then that would be a pretty good assessment not only of the college, but I think hence of Obama’s personality.

“As an example, in his recent autobiography, Obama doesn’t rise to the bait when someone makes a remark which might have been construed as being inflammatory – he just takes it easy, …and that was the way things were at Occidental both when I was there, when he was there, and now. I’ve just return from there recently after a vacation.

“I have a daughter who went to Occidental after Obama and I have a sense from her and from the academics I talk to when I go home, that it is very much the same type of place.”

Occidental  is noted for its combination of rigorous academic programs, a small yet diverse student body and its liberal arts culture to this day.

Located not far from the West Coast beaches, the college, whose name nominally means ‘western’, exhibits classical architectural gravitas alongside acumen of equal measure.

Barack Obama is usually described as being a graduate of Columbia University, where he earned his bachelor's degree, and later of Harvard Law School.

But he began his undergraduate education at Occidental, essentially his freshman years at the 2000-strong institute in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Despite the fact that Obama transferred from Occidental, he was a good athlete who helped the JV Tigers basketball team to an undefeated season.

He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School some years later, and the rest is history.

Jim, a graduate from Occidental in 1965 says:

“‘Oxy’ was both a ‘lefty’ American liberal arts college of the usual sort and at the same time significantly more committed to racial equality in 1979 certainly than others of its ilk.

“A lot of these colleges have grown much larger over the years, but Occidental has remained pretty much the same. ‘Cool’ is what we were all trying to be – it was our ‘watchword if you like.

“I was born in California and went there to study Comparative Literature - it was then very much a ‘family’ college – (my mother had gone there).  I’m now a semi retired professor of English living and teaching in Sheffield, and for a long time resident in Arizona.

“Oxy is still a Presbyterian school,  but it broke from ‘control’ with the Presbyterian Church, and like many other American church-related schools which began as ‘missionary’ training grounds, became an independent liberal arts college. In fact, it was probably even a little more ‘free-thinking’ in its ethos than some others, even all the way back to the 1930s.

“It is still much sought after – being in what many Americans view as being the ‘second tier’ after the traditional, well known ‘Ivy League’ colleges such as Princeton and Yale.

“But it’s still very much a family school in that people’s parents and grandparents went there, with an intake from predominantly the state of California and the NW/Seattle area etc.

“Readers of Obama’s autobiography sometimes surmise Occidental was his alma mater – the ‘mother of his soul’ – whereas Columbia was the mother of his ‘vita’, and I think he did want to plump up his resume with the Ivy League institution.

“Barack Obama is admired in the American press for his willingness to “do his homework” ; he is smart and disciplined, tough minded and savvy.

“But his years of poetry writing which he gave up or toned down when he left laid-back Los Angeles and took up residence in no-nonsense New York are also significant.

“If the story of the rejection of his ‘lotus eating days’ at Oxy, to those who know their Shakespeare, is a little like Prince Hal’s rejection of the crew from the Boar’s Head Tavern, it should come as no surprise. 

“His autobiography, Dreams from My Father, owes a large debt to modes of fiction and to his time at Oxy.  Its author has by no means rejected the world of art and literature. 

“And it’s also perhaps significant that his inauguration, unlike those of the Bushes and Reagan, included a poetry reading.  Elizabeth Alexander, poet and playwright, read a set of verses composed for the occasion, even as Robert Frost read newly-written poetry for the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.

“As a master of rhetoric – the old Greek/Roman art of persuasive public speaking – Obama has few rivals – and I think his Occidental years hold the key.

“It’s a carefully-sculpted garden of earthy and intellectual delights tucked away in the lower middle class and ethnically diverse Eagle Rock district of Los Angeles.”

Occidental College was founded on April 20, 1887, by a group of Presbyterian clergy and laymen.

The college’s first term began a year later with 27 men and 13 women students, and tuition of $50 a year.  Full all-in fees now can be as much as $25,000 per year.

Despite a strong Presbyterian presence on its campus, Occidental cut ties to the church in 1910.

In 1912, trustees decided to convert Oxy into an all-men’s institution. However, students protested, and the idea was abandoned.

Dr Fitzmaurice, whose current study, ‘Memories of Obamaland’ aims to encapsulate the heady atmosphere and richness of language enshrined by his alma mater, says California also has wealth beyond academia.

He says:

“California is synonymous with a West Coast intelligensia and I return as often as I can, but it also has an immense geographical appeal, as anyone from Britain who has been there will have discovered.

 “Apart from the usual student locales, another popular haunt Obama would know is the Cal Tech and JPL hangout Burger Continental.  JPL people run the Mars rovers and are usually very colourful. That place does a wild Armenian burger. 

“Obama’s style is very non-confrontational, polished and and persuasive through eloquence. His style is his own, and there’s no comparison with somebody like George W Bush, who was a ‘malaprop’ for much of the time and  who  didn’t know what many words meant – but used them anyway!”

“But it’s interesting that Bush was descended from what we call ‘old East Coast’ money and the ‘Establishment’; although Obama is very much the ‘self made man’.  Again he ‘seems’ to have done this ‘effortlessly’.

“British politics might be mired in expenses scandals currently which I sense is causing a real apathy among the British public, but there is, at least, still a degree of political ‘belief’ or conviction in the US.

“We have scandals in America of a different sort - and perhaps Richard Nixon held the patent on those, but certainly all parties are now looking at how they operate, especially the Republicans. Perhaps they should take a leaf of out Occidental  - and Obama’s -  ‘cool’ approach…?  We’ll just  have to wait and see. 

“In the meantime,  I love Yorkshire and Sheffield…it’s kind of cool!”

  • Jim Fitzmaurice, Northern Arizona University Emeritus Professor of English, is Director of Distance Learning for the School of English at the University of Sheffield. He is convenor of Sheffield's online MA in English.