The letters, written to a romantic partner across the country in neat script, reveal an author who is struggling with his place in the world, at work, at school and in the moments of a fading romantic relationship.
A private correspondence over the course of two years in the early 1980s, they have resurfaced as a matter of interest because of who they were written from: Barack Obama, then a 20-something living in New York City, corresponding with a girlfriend in California, Alexandra McNear.
This week Emory University, in Atlanta, released excerpts of the collection of letters that date to 1982, after Obama had transferred to Columbia University from Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he had met McNear.
The letters span to 1984 when the couple’s romance had chilled and Obama was working at Business International, a company he was ambivalent about despite emerging as “one of the ‘promising young men’ of Business International, with everyone slapping my back and praising my work.”
They are part of a body of written work by the president, including his 1995 memoir “Dreams From My Father,” that showcase a now-well-known side of the future president: a literary thinker and budding wordsmith who wrestled regularly with his identity.
In the nine letters acquired by Emory, Obama writes about the tensions that have animated much of his life — how to reckon with his international and mixed-race background to find his place in a world beset by class and racial distinctions.
“I must admit large dollops of envy for both groups, my American friends consuming their life in the comfortable mainstream, the foreign friends in the international business world,” Obama writes McNear in one letter. “Caught without a class, a structure, or a tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me.”
“The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions, classes, make them mine, me theirs,” he wrote. “Taken separately, they’re unacceptable and untenable.”
It is by now a familiar voice, self-deprecating but confident and analytical, and one in which it is possible to hear echoes of the orator whose speeches helped propel him to the highest office in the United States.
“I don’t distinguish between struggling with the world and struggling with myself,” Obama writes in one letter from 1983. “I enter a pact with other people, other forces in the world, that their problems are mine and mine are theirs.”
He adds, “The minute others imprint my senses, they become me and I must deal with them or else close part of myself off and make myself and the world smaller, lukewarm.”
The Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library at Emory acquired the letters in 2014, according to its director, Rosemary Magee. The school has not disclosed from where. All nine letters are handwritten in neat print, on lined pages ripped from yellow pads, spiral notebooks and even an index card. They will be available upon request as archival materials, she said.
She said they fit into several collecting areas at the library, which has archives that focus on African American history, modern politics and poetry.
“The last one relates to the kind of lyrical, poetical quality of the letters,” she said. “There’s philosophical meandering. They reveal a lot of search for meaning and a searching for purpose.”
The correspondence references authors such as William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and June Jordan.
Pellom McDaniels III, curator of African American collections for the Rose Library, said in a statement that the letters as well as Obama’s role as the first African American president fit into the collection’s insight into what he termed “a spiritual odyssey to wholeness.”
The future president’s ambitions find their way into the texts.
“Salaries in the community organizations are too low to survive on right now, so I hope to work in some more conventional capacity for a year, allowing me to store up enough nuts to pursue those interests next,” he writes.
The correspondence also captures flickers of the romance between Obama and McNear as it nears the end.
“I am not so naive as to believe that a distinct line exists between romantic love and the more quotidian, but perhaps finer bonds of friendship,” he writes in one letter he penned from Honolulu, “but I can feel the progression from one to the other (in my mind).”
Magee was enamored with what she said was the quality of thought and “the process of discovery through writing,” the letters showed. And she said there was a humanizing quality about them that would make them perennially relevant to the school’s student body.
“They are focused on the questions that many people of that age are asking,” she said. “The sense of connection to that, those yearnings, those desires and that uncertainty, is familiar to many of us and I think in a way reassuring to young people today.”
Parts of the letters have surfaced before in some of the recent books written about Obama.
In David Maraniss’s 2012 biography of Obama, McNear recalled the summer of 1982 in New York with the future president, “walking miles through the city, lingering over meals at restaurants, hanging out at their apartments, visiting art museums, and talking about life.”
Looking back, Obama remembered being “deep inside my own head . . . in a way that in retrospect I don’t think was real healthy.”