Jack Cashill, author of the fine book What's the Matter with California?, speculates that terrorist and Obama colleague Bill Ayers ghostwrote Dreams from My Father based on stylistic similarities between Obama's memoir and Ayers's own memoir Fugitive Days, especially in the more literary flourishes.
Cashill counts up a lot of nautical verbiage in both books, which makes sense for Ayers because he had once served in the Merchant Marine. Perhaps, though, Obama just read a lot of Melville and Conrad (He read Heart of Darkness at Occidental.)
Having read a few pages in the excerpt of Ayers' book available on Amazon, Cashill's idea sounds less crazy than I first thought. Cashill underrates the literary quality of other things Obama has written. Moreover, most of Obama's paying jobs have been writing related — copy editor at a newsletter shop, briefwriter at his civil rights law firm. Obama's tests for his law school classes were extremely lucid.
Still, I could imagine there is a connection between the two memoirs. Maybe it's there, maybe it's not, but it's a possibility.
Still, Ayers's prose style tends to be breezier and easier to read, while Obama's is more consistently verbose and poetic/pompous. Here are similar ideas on the unreliability of family anecdotes from the opening of each book expressed in somewhat characteristic language. Ayers writes:
As the journey to my birth was told and retold, stretched and exaggerated, it was as if the young couple had arrived by dogsled having crossed the Alps in a blinding blizzard.
The first half of Ayers' sentence sounds rather like Dreams, but the second half is too Erma Bombeckishly plain-spoken for Obama, whose literary dignity always accompanies him.
In contrast, Obama writes:
... as a child I knew [my father] only through the stories that my mother and grandparents told. They all had their favorites, each one seamless, burnished smooth from repeated use. ... That’s how all the stories went-compact, apocryphal, told in rapid succession in the course of one evening, then packed away for months, sometimes years, in my family’s memory.
On the other hand, it is the same thought.
So, I certainly wouldn't rule out that one influenced the other. But, if so, which way? Obama's book was published in the middle of 1995, after he had begun working with Ayers on the Chicago Annenberg Challenge money machine. So, Ayers might have influenced Obama's book in some way. Perhaps he read over the rough draft?
On the other hand, Ayers's book didn't come out until 2001, so it might seem more plausible that Ayers was more influenced by his old colleague and neighbor than vice-versa. After all, Ayers surely read the well-reviewed memoir published by Obama, the Chairman of the Board of the Annenberg Challenge boodoggle that Ayers more or less dreamed up. Obama was in charge of Ayers' plan of handing out 50 or 100 million simoleons to Chicago "community organizations," so certainly Ayers read Obama's book to help in the buttering up process. Heck, Ayers probably thought to himself, "My life is a lot more interesting than this guy's! If he can get his autobiography published, then I should write mine."
One test I would suggest is mimicry of dialect. Dreams displays a fair degree of talent for imitating how people of different backgrounds speak. If Ayers's memoir is lacking this gift, then Cashill's theory is decisively refuted.