Writing the Reagan Biography: How Edmund Morris Inserted Himself as a Fictional Narrator

The Edmund Morris obits in the Washington Post and New York Times have interesting insights into writing biography.

From the Post:

Edmund Morris, a stylish, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who wrote a monumental history of Theodore Roosevelt and divided critics with “Dutch,” an authorized biography of Ronald Reagan that featured several fictional characters, died May 24 at a hospital in Danbury, Conn. He was 78. . . .

Taking a hiatus from his Roosevelt project, Mr. Morris secured a record $3 million advance from Random House and devoted the next 14 years to Reagan, working out of the White House Library and interviewing the president about once a month. (“I’m not going to charge up San Juan Hill for you,” Reagan joked in their first meeting, referring to Roosevelt’s exploit in the Spanish-American War.)

But there was a problem: Reagan, Mr. Morris later recalled, was “simply boring.” The Gipper came to life only when others entered the room. And after more than a decade of research, Mr. Morris found himself with a difficult case of writer’s block.

The solution came to him like a bolt of lightning one day in 1992, as he stepped on an acorn while walking across the campus of Reagan’s alma mater, Eureka College. To place himself at Reagan’s side, he devised a fictional “Edmund Morris” who knew the president from childhood, as well as several other fabricated members of the Morris clan, whose lives were documented in bogus footnotes.

The book featured no printed acknowledgment that it was dabbling in fiction, aside from a brief reference on the jacket flap. Mr. Morris wanted his biography “to weave its own spell” and was convinced readers would quickly realize what he was up to.

“See, what I’m doing is giving flesh to the biographical mind,” he told the Boston Globe. “Instead of saying, ‘Ronald Reagan at 16 stood 6 feet high and wore a wool swimsuit,’ I just simply described it from the point of view of an eyewitness. The reason it worked so well in this book is that his whole life was performance, and performance is meaningless without a witness, without an audience.”

From the Times:

Edmund Morris, who wrote an acclaimed biography of Theodore Roosevelt but is best known for his life of Ronald Reagan, in which the author inserted himself as a fictional narrator, a device that baffled and angered some historians. . . .

But “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan” is the work for which he is best known. Published in 1999 to much anticipation (he had been working on it for 14 years), it was told from the viewpoint of a fictional Edmund Morris, who accompanies the future president from his Illinois boyhood, through his Eureka College days in Illinois, and finally to the White House and beyond.

“I quite understand that readers will have to adjust, at first, to what amounts to a new biographical style,” Mr. Morris wrote on the website of Random House, his publisher. “But the revelations of this style, which derive directly from Ronald Reagan’s own way of looking at his life, are I think rewarding enough to convince them that one of the most interesting characters in recent American history looms here like a colossus.”. . .

As for his unconventional technique in “Dutch,” Mr. Morris said he had decided upon it because he wasn’t sure he could explain Reagan’s personality by orthodox methods. Even admirers of the 40th president have been struck by his contradictions. He was amiable, yet had few close friends. He projected old-fashioned family values, yet his own family was sometimes dysfunctional.

“He was truly one of the strangest men who’s ever lived,” Mr. Morris said in a “60 Minutes” interview with Lesley Stahl. “Nobody around him understood him. I, every person I interviewed, almost without exception, eventually would say, ‘You know, I could never really figure him out.’ ”


  1. Andy Ferguson in theatlantic.com: “The Tragedy of Edmund Morris: The biographer went looking for the inner life of Ronald Reagan. He didn’t find it.” Andy’s last two grafs:

    Morris entrusted a mutual friend with the privilege of reading the manuscript of Dutch as he finished it, chapter by chapter. As the final crazy pages unspooled from his fax machine late one night, my friend later told me, “I realized it had to be one of two things. Either Edmund had reached new heights of literary genius, or Reagan had driven him nuts.”

    Both things could be true, of course. In the years after Dutch, Morris continued to produce work of high literary and historical merit, including dozens of essays, the final two volumes of his biography of Roosevelt, and a book-length appreciation of Beethoven. A biography of Thomas Edison, the obituaries tell us, is due this fall. The insanity was only temporary.

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