The consensus so far on Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan is that Edmund Morris, the biographer who inserted a fictionalized version of himself into his work, is just this side of insane and his publishers just that side of exploitative and corrupt. This strikes Culturebox as distinctly possible but shortsighted, literarily speaking. Not wanting to steal thunder from historian Alan Brinkley and Reagan biographer Dinesh D’Souza, who are scheduled to debate the book in Slate next week, Culturebox won’t defend what Morris has written–she can’t, anyway, having read only the Newsweek excerpt–but will lay out a few arguments for why he has, in principle, every right to try to write this way, but can’t make it work.
1. Just because Morris was driven to do what he did by desperation, as he has admitted in interviews, doesn’t mean it lacks legitimate precedent. The history of literary biography is like a yoyo–one century it careers toward the facts, the next it swings away from them. It has ever been thus, at least since the Greek mythologizer Plutarch published his Lives, and continues to be thus in the debates over footnotes, etc., between academic and journalistic biographers today. Culturebox thinks the outcry about Morris resembles the furor over Bloomsbury biographer Lytton Strachey. His masterwork was Eminent Victorians, a collection of brief revisionist essays about great men and women of the 19th century that contributed no new facts but rather a mocking spin on existing ones. In a time of two-tome biographies, his were short and to the point, which has a lot to do with his popularity. His more enduring innovation, though, was, as one historian has put it, “liberating the biographer from the enslavement of data.” Strachey’s most controversial liberty came at the end of a later biography of Queen Victoria, in which he made himself free to enter her mind as she died:
She herself, as she lay blind and silent, seemed to those who watched her to be divested of all thinking–to have glided already, unawares, into oblivion. Yet, perhaps, in the secret chambers of consciousness, she had her thoughts too. Perhaps her fading mind called up once more the shadows of the past to float before it, and retraced, for the last time, the vanished visions of that long history–passing back and back, through the cloud of years, to older and ever older memories–to the spring woods at Osborne, so full of primroses for Lord Beaconsfield–to Lord Palmerston’s queer clothes and high demeanour, and Albert’s face under the green lamp, and Albert’s first stag at Balmoral, and Albert in his blue and silver uniform, and the Baron coming in through a doorway, and Lord M. dreaming at Windsor with the rooks cawing in the elm-trees, and the Archbishop of Canterbury on his knees in the dawn, and the old King’s turkeycock ejaculations, and Uncle Leopold’s soft voice at Claremont, and Lehzen with the globes, and her mother’s feathers sweeping down towards her, and a great old repeater-watch of her father’s in its tortoise shell case, and a yellow rug, and some friendly flounces of sprigged muslin, and the trees and the grass at Kensington.
2. Interpolations such as Strachey’s, above, have become commonplace. No one complains about the tiny fictionalizations that abound in almost every biography written today, including Morris’ own earlier, award-winning biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. For instance, Culturebox spotted two bits of fantasy on the very first page! The scene being set is that of a White House reception for the public on New Year’s Day, 1907:
A shiver of excitement strikes the line of people waiting four-breast outside Theodore Roosevelt’s front gate, and runs in serpentine reflex along Pennsylvania Avenue as far as Seventeenth Street, before whipping south and dissipating itself over half a mile a way. The shiver is accompanied by a murmur: “The President’s on his way downstairs.”There is some shifting of feet, but no eager pushing forward.
Was this based on known fact? Did Morris have documentation for a snake-like quiver rushing through the crowd, or for its foot-shuffling? Let’s face it: He speculated, and we let him get away with it, because his writing has the ring of truth. In the Newsweek excerpt of Dutch, there are many similar tours de force, some imaginatively construed as celebrity question-and-answer interviews (Morris with Nancy), others set inside some character’s head.
3. In short, literary biography in our time is more literature than biography–we believe it if it’s well-imagined. Acting on that truth and playing around with form is anything but a moral shortcoming. Inventing fictional characters as Morris has done in Dutch, however–clever as it is–seems doomed to fail as a literary device. Mainly, it’s intrusive. It destroys the illusion of transparency. In theater one would say it calls attention to the fourth wall, the proscenium framing the play. Even in Strachey’s and the earlier Morris’ wildest speculations, they hewed to an implied contract between reader and biographer that states, We’ll go along with you as long as you make what you say sound like it had some basis, once upon a time, in verifiable or even plausible fact. The Edmund Morris who is Reagan’s childhood chum is neither a verifiable nor a plausible fact; he’s a hypothetical. He’s the Roger Rabbit of biography, a cartoon figure inserted into Reagan’s more straightforwardly filmed movie. He may not be less true than the little fabrications and self-inventions in which Reagan specialized; in fact, given Morris’s greater levels of alertness and perspicuity, his self-inventions are probably more true. The problem is they’re like the anthropological definition of garbage: matter out of place.