Edmund Morris at BookPeople

In Person




November 5, 1999:

photo by John Anderson

When Edmund Morris introduced himself to the crowd at BookPeople last Thursday, he said, "Perhaps I should explain how I got into this ... " and I thought he was going to end his sentence with the word "mess." But he didn't, he most certainly did not. By "this," he meant this business of biography, this career that in 1980 netted him the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and, now, a heap of controversy for Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. Morris, who was born in Kenya in 1940, has one of those clipped British accents that equate as "learned"; he seems the compleat gentleman. He took pains, before he read a bit from Dutch, to unravel his modus operandi. A leader like Reagan, he explained, invokes varied responses, so various narrators are apropos.

Morris chose to read from the prologue of Dutch, in particular the moment when Morris' fate as Reagan's biographer was made more certain by his attendance at a dinner thrown by Senator Mark Hatfield for a group of biographers to meet the Reagans in February 1983. Daniel J. Boorstin, George Nash, and Frank Friedel were all there, but Morris, both in the prologue and at his reading, emphasized the presence of Arthur S. Link, the George Harding Davis '86 Professor of American History at Princeton ("a terminal liberal Democrat" is how Morris described him at the reading). "His detestation of the Gipper was legendary in academe. Some of us had taken bets that Arthur would not show up," Morris writes. But Link did attend: "For a moment, his silver crew cut bristled inches from Reagan's chin. I braced for an upward jerk and thud. But then he straightened and tried to smile -- a mirthless iguana gape" (as he read, Morris was somehow able to extend the word "iguana" to an indistinguishable four syllables: ig-u-an-a). Reagan, "always an Actor," was "discharging waves of bonhomie and charm" and melted the stiff historian into a state of "rapture."

It was just too fitting for Morris to read that passage. Ostensibly, the debate occasioned by Dutch is about the parameters of fiction and nonfiction, with flimsy fiction in one corner and sturdy, trustworthy nonfiction in the other. But it's also about pretentiousness. When Dutch was still receiving national coverage and Nancy Reagan's former press secretary showed up on a Sunday morning talk show and called the book "pretentious," that was all she had to say; she was done with it. This is a strange book, commentators say, and it is, but it's strange in the wondrous way. Readers seem to want a biography about Reagan so strong and orthodox it's rugged. It should discharge waves of bonhomie and charm. (It is exasperating spending time reading about a supposed contemporary of Reagan's, an "effete child of privilege," when Morris makes the actual narrative of Reagan's life so fascinating.) For a moment at the reading, when Morris opined that his technique may not be so new -- Homer used it to marvelous effect, he said -- it was easy to see why some readers think Dutch and its author are pretentious. But on the whole, the reception to the book has been so intensely negative that an observer can't help but conclude that there's something going on here besides a distaste for the mingling of fiction and nonfiction. The tables may have turned, however. Morris said at the reading that "most of my interviews now, they're asking me about Reagan, which is the way it should be."







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