Politics for Lit geeks: On the Road with Obama 

Kerouac fans will remember that Denver, the site of the Democratic National Convention, played a significant role in On the Road, in part as the home of Dean Moriarty.

Yesterday, Michael Powell had a tasty essay in the Times' Week in Review, musing on the American Wanderer and what role this will play in the November election.

There is to Mr. Obama’s story a Steinbeck quality, like so many migratory American tales: the mother who flickers in and out; the absent and iconic father; the grandfather, raised in the roughneck Kansas oil town of El Dorado, who moves the family restlessly, ceaselessly westward.

The American DNA encodes wanderlust ambition, and a romance clings to Mr. Obama’s story. The roamer who would make himself and his land anew is a familiar archetype.

And yet to describe such a man as rootless, as some people do, can stir up more questions, and an ambivalence reflected in the answers. What is rootlessness anyway? The word connotes something both celebrated and feared. Early on in Mr. Obama’s time in Chicago, the Democratic machine types would ask of this preternaturally calm young pol: Who sent him?

Powell recounts a conflict -- how a historian in 1893 argued that relentless drifting fueled American vitality, and yet how "always newcomers rubbed against the settled -- cattlemen battled farmers, one immigrant wave greeted the next with suspicion."

Not coincidentally, an ad placed in the A section of yesteday's Times by "America's Leadership Team for Long Range Population-Immigration-Resource Planning" -- a group that includes the Federation for American Immigration Reform -- uses an image of high gas prices to ask, "If foreign oil has us over a barrel now, what happens when our population increases by another 100 million?"

Back to Powell. He recounts how uprootedness is linked in the American identity with self-reinvention.

So how does this play in the historic election of 2008, when Obama's race and "other" quality operate both as obvious and subtle factors?

Mr. Obama offers a duality in this [tension between putting down roots and questing]. He might be seen as chasing after roots. As a young man, he sought out precinct captains and ministers and tenants, and convinced the suspicious locals to teach him the ways of Chicago. He is married and never divorced, two children, a resident of the Midwestern city for two decades.

“Obama is the least mobile candidate in the race,” says Alan Wolfe, a professor at Boston College. “He’s almost single-minded about that.”

Drawing on arguably the greatest work of American literature, Powell ultimately posits that whether Obama or McCain win the election, the next president will be a contemporary Ishmael.

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