The Book Club

Good Writing Gone Bad

Dear Dinesh,

I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss this book with you, although as we both know, the book has already been so widely discussed that we are already part of a much larger conversation. And while I suspect we may disagree in some ways in our evaluation of Reagan as president, and of his legacy, it seems we agree in many ways on Morris’ book.

It is almost impossible to start reading Dutch (which, because of the Random House embargo, I was able to begin doing only on Friday) without focusing–at least at first–on Morris’ unusual biographical techniques. There has already been a storm of criticism of his innovations, and I’m sure there will be many readers who will begin with some hostility toward him on the basis of the mostly uninformed reports they have read. I have to say that the prospect of reading a biography that tried to break with the fairly rigid forms of the genre was appealing to me, as strange as Morris’ approach sounded, and I approached this book eagerly.

The test of an innovation in any kind of writing, but particularly in nonfiction writing, is what contribution the innovation makes to our understanding of the subject the author is trying to illuminate. And there are times in which Morris’ quasi-fictional narrator, his film scripts, his invented encounters, his blurring of the line between fantasy and reality, and his many other tricks of the trade do offer some interesting points of entry into Ronald Reagan’s elusive inner life. But I have to say that, on the whole, and like you, I found these devices intrusive, omnipresent, and highly distracting from what should have been the central task of the book. It’s not just that these techniques make it hard to know what is real and what is made up, although they do. It’s also that they make it very difficult to concentrate on Reagan and much too easy to concentrate on the made-up cast of characters flitting around him, improbably preoccupied by him even in the years before he was important, writing back and forth to each other about their fictional encounters with him and with each other, telling the story of their own families in almost as much detail as they talk about Reagan’s. I was particularly disturbed, as a scholar, by the presence of invented footnotes for the fictional parts of the book. But even without them, there is a surreal quality to this biography that makes it hard to focus on Morris’ real views of Reagan’s personality and place in history–which are also somewhat bizarre (although more about that later).

Morris is not, of course, the first person to try to blend fiction and fact. Some very distinguished historians have experimented with doing so in recent years, some with great success. John Demos, an eminent historian of early America at Yale, wrote a fascinating book several years ago called The Unredeemed Captive, about a white woman in colonial New England who was abducted by Indians and lived much of her life among them. Demos augmented the known story of this woman with an imagined story of how she might have viewed her life with the tribe–something for which no evidence exists. It stirred some controversy, certainly, but it was a serious, inventive, and in the end I believe successful experiment. My Columbia colleague Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties, also now several years old, was a deliberate effort to play with the elusive boundary between fiction and history and to suggest how the two might be fruitfully joined. That book, too, seemed to me very provocative and interesting.

But Morris’ potentially interesting effort to expand the boundaries of biography seems to have gone out of control. Partly, I suspect, because Morris is such a good writer–once he started experimenting at the edges he couldn’t help himself from going all the way. Partly, perhaps, because he was genuinely puzzled by Reagan’s apparent opaqueness–although as a biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, it seems strange that he would be surprised by a politician giving others little access to his own inner life. (I’ve spent much of my scholarly life working on and around Franklin Roosevelt, who is similarly opaque but has nevertheless been the subject of excellent and penetrating biographies.) In the end, though, I think Morris’ real problem is that he doesn’t understand American politics well enough, and doesn’t know enough American history, to be able to make sense of Reagan in anything but personal terms–and that in the absence of an accessible personal story he was left, in effect, with nothing. The result is this hodgepodge of distracting literary techniques that are only intermittently effective and mostly deeply distracting from, even destructive to, his principal goal.

After today, I’ll try not to talk about this already overanalyzed aspect of the book and comment, as you have already begun to do, on what it says about Reagan himself.

Alan Brinkley