Many young people struggle with questions of purpose and belonging. As a college student, former President Barack Obama was no different.
Obama laid bare his philosophical musings on his role in the world in intimate letters to his college girlfriend, Alexandra McNear, which were written in the early 1980s and are being made public for the first time.
“I feel sunk in that long corridor between old values, actions, modes of thought, and those that I seek, that I’m working towards,” Obama wrote in one letter, dated April 1, 1983.
Emory University obtained the full letters sent by Obama to McNear over a roughly two-year span from late 1982 to early 1984. The letters will be housed at the university’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.
“The letters are intimate in a very philosophical way,” Rosemary Magee, the library’s director, said in an interview. “There’s an emerging awareness of himself and where there’s a place for him in the larger world.”
The letters, which Magee described as “literary” and “lyrical,” were written during some of Obama’s most formative years, when he was a student at Columbia University and then attempting to find fulfilment in his career after graduation.
In a 1984 letter to McNear that Obama wrote while working at Business International, a publishing firm in New York City, he said he believed the company — which was later renamed — would offer him a more senior position with a hefty raise. But Obama wrote that he was unsure if he wanted to stay with the firm.
“The resistance I wage does wear me down — because of the position, the best I can hope for is a draw, since I have no vehicle or forum to try to change things. For this reason, I can’t stay very much longer than a year. Thankfully, I don’t yet feel like the job has dulled my senses or done irreparable damage to my values, although it has stalled their growth,” Obama wrote.
The future president comes across as an “intellectual’s intellectual” in the letters, said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory.
“You can see how later analysts accuse him of being professorial and aloof, you see that in these letters where he’s 21 or 23 years old,” said Gillespie, who is studying the letters for a book she’s writing on Obama.
The letters also chronicle the decline of Obama’s relationship to McNear, which ended during this period. Obama met his future wife, Michelle Robinson, several years later and the couple married in 1992.
“I think of you often, though I stay confused about my feelings. It seems we will ever want what we cannot have; that’s what binds us; that’s what keeps us apart,” Obama wrote to McNear.
The letters also offer a glimpse of the evolution of Obama’s political and racial identity. Obama wrote about dealing with issues of race and class at a job right out of college, where most of the colleagues who worked under him were people of color.
“From a political standpoint, you can see his pragmatism developing,” said Gillespie.
“He had an affinity for the administrative staff and people who worked at the organization,” Gillespie added. “Those bonds show he was connecting with his African-American identity.”
While the letters express feelings of doubt and uncertainty, they also contain hints of the ambition and self-confidence that would come to define Obama’s political career.
“My ideas aren’t as crystallized as they were while in school, but they have an immediacy and weight that may be more useful if and when I’m less observer and more participant,” Obama wrote.