Reagan and Dutch. The new biography technique.

What does everyone think of the new biography on Ronald Reagan?

For those who haven’t heard, there is a new Ronald Reagan biography out. Edmund Morris, the author, couldn’t figure out how to tell the story of Reagan’s early life, so he decided to create a fictional character who watched Reagan’s life from afar. He even provides documentation about this fictional character-Dutch. He creates a couple of other characters, including Dutch’s son.

I would consider this a good idea, clever, if he had just mentioned in the footnotes, or somewhere in the book that this “Dutch” character was a device he was using to convey how Reagan was thought of during his early years. But, from what I understand, if you don’t know going in that Dutch isn’t real you will think that he is. The footnotes that document him will do this.

The nature of modern-day biographies is that often the person being profiled will have his thoughts speculated on by the author, which has come to be accepted as a standard, and an important part of the genre. But, I think this is going too far, it seems dishonest- when he doesn’t tell the reader that this character did not exist.

I must admit that I am basing my opinion on excerpts and articles written in Newsweek and the LA times, so I might be wrong on the facts. If that is true I apoligize.

Here is a link that discusses the topic.


I believe that the character Morris “created” was Morris himself. He backdated his own life to before his own birth so as to “see” Reagan for his entire life.

But just so this debate, which interests me, starts off right, the fictional character’s name is not Dutch. It’s Morris.

Livin’ on Tums, Vitamin E and Rogaine

This absolutely drives me insane–if you don’t want to do your research like a grown-up, you have no business writing biographies. Just call it a “novel” and be done with it.

Why would anyone in their right mind read this book? Morris has admitted HE MADE STUFF UP. Ergo, it is no longer a work of non-fiction.

I mean jee-ZUS. I just read two marvelous bios by Claire Tomalin, of Jane Austen and Nelly Terman (the latter was Dickens’ mistress). If she managed to find enough information on these two long-dead subjects to make good, readable and factual biographies, then how the hell does Morris come off whining, “Oh, I just couldn’t get a bead on my subject?”

Well, then, buck-o, you have no business calling yourself a biographer.

Oh, my.
You are right manhattan, I misread the article, they were saying that the created character observed “Dutch” not that he was Dutch. My goof.

You are right, he does backdate his own history in order to “become” the observer, but thats a little worse, than just creatinng a character, don’t you think? He makes it sound as if he were there to observe things. Which, is great if you are writing fiction, but, since he wasn’t its not so great. Also, he did create a fictious family of Morris’.

I’m in agreement, but Morris is no precedent-setter.

Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” immediately springs to mind.

Nowhere does he say that his work is a very fictionalized account of the Clutter murders.

Sold 3,000,000 copies, would you believe.

How’s that for gall?

I am a real stickler, and there have always been, sadly, lazy biographers. Two cardinal sins, which are committed far too often:

  1. Biographers who imagine conversations. Unless you are quoting from a recorded interview or letters, this is a major no-no.

  2. Biographers who assume too much. A recent bio of gay actor William Haines stated that Haines was in New York in the mid-1920s and so was gay director George Cuker–so therefore, they MUST have had an affair. Huh?

There are a lot of good, factual and very readable biographies out there, but there are also a lot of boobs who are simply incapable of doing their homework.

My understanding was that all the Reagan incidents were true, however, he couldn’t make it sound interesting until he hit upon the idea of using a fictional narrator.

I do not know to what degree the reader is warned about the narrator’s fictionality. But as long as no false information about the subject is printed, I don’t see why this is not an acceptable form of biography.

Chaim Mattis Keller

“Sherlock Holmes once said that once you have eliminated the
impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be
the answer. I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible.
The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it that the merely improbable lacks.”
– Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective

Because as soon as you lose faith in a biographer, how do you know what to trust? If he makes up one little thing, it’s the thin edge of the wedge–who’s to say what else is made up?

Biographers–all writers of non-fiction–must be, like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion.


Two answers to this:

  1. Why lose faith? As long as he’s upfront about the narrator’s being used only as a device, I don’t see that he’s broken faith with his audience.

  2. Copious footnotes, which I understand the book has.

Chaim Mattis Keller

I disapprove of Morris’ technique, even though I haven’t read the book (I’ve seen some excerpts, but not enough to get a real feel for the essence of the biography). It’s just too gimmicky.

I think the problem is that Morris, like many people in the Age of Oprah, didn’t think it was enough to do thorough research and write a standard, old-fashioned history book. Nowadays, nobody seems to want to read a list of facts, dates, events and anecdotes. Rather, people want a lot of pop psychology, a lot of delving into emotions, motivations, and neuroses. Well, if THAT’s what you’re after, Ronald Reagan is going to be a VERY frustrating subject!

It’s no secret that I’m generally a hard right-winger, and I admired Reagan. That’s not to say he didn’t have flaws, it’s not to say he’s exempt from criticism, it’s not to say that some of his decisions didn’t have disastrous consequences (as in Beirut), not does it suggest that he had no neuroses or inner demons. However, Reagan was a man from a different generation. He didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. He wasn’t given to revelatory emotional moments. He’d have made a terrible guest on “Donahue” because he wasn’t a navel-gazer. He simply didn’t THINK about things like “his inner child” or how his feelings about his parents had shaped him. NOWADAYS, people think that makes him either shallow or repressed- Reagan himself probably wondered why anybody would WANT to talk (or ask) about such things!

As a result, though he had numerous great accomplishments, even people who worked closely with him often concede that they really don’t know what made him tick. And you know what? That probably suited Ronald Reagan just fine!

My hunch is, Morris did a lot of research, put together all the facts, and found that ALL the facts in the world don’t give anyone a clear sense of the inner Ronald Reagan! Now, one hundred years ago, an historian could have left it at that! But Morris knew that if he wanted a best seller, a dry recitation of facts wouldn’t cut it. He needed a gimmick, some way to get inside Ronald Reagan’s head. Hence, the gimmick of “Edmund Morris,” Reagan’s childhood chum.

A silly technique, based on an even SILLIER desire to psychoanalyze Reagan, rather than just lay out the facts.

I’m with Flora and Astorian. I think that Morris used a reprehensible technique to inject a “people” angle into a biography of a person who’s led a fascinating, but not particularly introspective life.

As Astorian pointed out, many people who worked in the Reagan administration and came out admirers of the man have nonetheless commented that he seemed distant, almost disconnected from the kind of soul-searching that seems the norm nowadays. He had a set of beliefs and made policy based on them. Nothing wrong with that, in my book.

I suspect that Morris’ frustration may have come partly from the notion that a person may wish to provide an inside look to one’s authorized biographer, even if to no one else in the world, so that history might get an insight.

But on the deep-thinker personal level if, as they say, “there’s no there there,” than write it. Let the chips fall where they may. To label a fictional account as non-fiction risks distorting the historical record in 50, 100 years time.

Livin’ on Tums, Vitamin E and Rogaine

Morris was interviewed on 60 Minues - he admitted he was frustrated because he couldn’t get into Reagan’s head and get a personal perspective on him. This, he implied, resulted in writer’s block until, one day, he had this nifty notion to put himself into Reagan’s life and that did the trick. Haven’t read the book, but I don’t like this technique either. BTW, at the end of the interview, he said he admired Reagan, thought he was a great president.

Anyone who saw that 60 Minutes interview will also know Morris was devoted to researching and writing that book for 14 years. This guy lurked in cabinet and other meetings on a regular basis, interviewed Reagan once a month for the greater part of his Presidency… the amount of research this guy did is incredible. Anyone who suggests he created the fictional character for lack of factual information is just plain wrong.

Morris told the audience he could not figure out a good way to describe the inner workings of a man nobody (including his own wife) could ever figure out completely, until he used the literary device at issue. I dunno why everyone insists on throwing out the baby with the bathwater on this.

Btw… Truman Capote used no such fictional characters in In Cold Blood. That account of the Clutter is basically factual. Capote did include a fair amount of describing what was going through people’s minds during the events in question, but this in no way detracts from the underlying story. Cripes, you want a bare descrription of the “facts,” read your newspaper instead of a novel.

I don’t know, Nickrz. He made up a lot of stuff that didn’t occur and put words and thoughts into people’s mouths.

When I read the book many years ago, I thought it was a brilliant piece of literature.

But the people of Holcombe don’t see it that way.

I’ve read some articles that convincingly denounce the accuracy of his work and basically find it journalistically dishonest.

I realize this isn’t worth a rat’s ass without citations. Unfortunately, I don’t have any.

I wouldn’t blame you if you put it in your Bigfoot file.

Millions long for immortality, yet don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

I saw the 60 minutes interview and while the guy made a good stand in his favour, all I could think was you must be an awful writer not to be able to think of another literary device.

Look at the book Sybil. That was supposedly true in everyway, other than the names were changed. Well as it turns out it wasn’t. It kind of destroys credibility whether it is deserved or not.

If he couldn’t write a biography any other way why could he not have enlisted the help of another writer?

My impression of the biographer was, he was honest but his intent was to make a book that would sell well.

I haven’t slandered Edmund Morris, nor have I suggested that he didn’t do exhaustive research. I’m sure he worked very hard, and collected all kinds of facts. It may very well be that, if I could overlook the gimmicky “edmund Morris” narrator, I’d find a decent biography underneath it.

The fact remains, though, that Morris felt a powerful need to get INSIDE Ronald Regan’s head, and to find the “real” Reagan. Frustrated by his inability to do so, Morris resorted to a gimmick. But my fundamental question is… WHY did he feel so compelled to get inside Reagan’s mind?

Historians of an earlier era felt no such silly compulsion. Thucydides didn’t try to psychoanalyze Pericles! Livy didn’t try to understand the “inner” Hannibal. Gibbon didn’t try to assess what was in Marcus Aurelius’ heart and soul. It was enough to describe what happened in an interesting way.

Only in MY lifetime have biographers and historians felt the need to expose the inner lives of important people. Frankly, I don’t see the point. This approach CAN be interesting, even gripping, but it’s ultimately empty and irrelevant. Even if you COULD get to the inner person, how would that really help us to understand history?

It’s POSSIBLE that, if Abe Lincoln were alive today, a medical doctor would diagnose him, as a manic-depressive or a syphilitic. But we don’t KNOW that, we CAN’T know that. All an historian can REALLY do is discover what Lincoln said and did- psychoanalyzing him, or ascribing his actions to medical or psychological conditions we can’t possibly know about, is just plain silly.

Now, there’s PLENTY to write about in the Reagan years, and there’s plenty a biographer/historian could profitably study without attempting to get inside Reagan’s head. Wouldn’t it be enough to lay out Reagan’s policies, and analyze their success/failure? Couldn’t an historian analyze the pros and cons of SDI (“Star Wars”) without trying to fit the idea into a pre-conceived psychological profile of Reagan? Couldn’t an historian attempt to find out all the deatils of how the Iran-Contra scheme went down, without trying to put Reagan on the analyst’s couch?

You see, it strikes me that psychological portraits of historical figures, while sometimes interesting, are merely diversions from what’s truly important. If Adolph Hitler had lived and died as a house painter, NOBODY would care how his parents treated him, or what kind of fantasies he entertained. It’s only because of the things he did as a world leader that Hitler matters at all. In the same way, the “inner” Ronald Reagan wouldn’t matter to ANYONE if he’d remained a B-movie actor (you don’t see anybody writing such biographies about Lloyd Bridges or Robert Stack, so you?). So, why not concentrate on the things Reagan did that actually MATTER??? It’s quite easy to understand and take an interest in his policies, without delving into his psyche.

Morris squandered a tremendous opportunity and fumbled a tremendous responsibility. I just can’t figure out why. He appears to be a decent writer and obviously did a great deal of good research, so he should have been able to write a biography that was worthy of the subject and did not undercut its value by making the reader doubt its veracity. Why do all that research and then give them reader reason to wonder what you made up and what you didn’t? Even some of his footnotes are fictional, for Pete’s sake!
His claim that he had writer’s block and thus came up with this lame solution doesn’t ring true to me. It seems to me that this gimmick is just a self-indulgent way to inject himself in the story, to nudge aside the true subject so that he could pretend he was there, he was important too, he was in on the whole thing.
Not that he would be the first to do that, of course. Morris may have come up with a particularly annoying way to do it, but so many writers these days insist on making themselves the focus of the story. It’s so annoying when you know there’s a good story but you have to fight through all the author’s self indulgent navel gazing to get to it.
The publisher got ripped off. They ordered a biography and got an unreliable story about Reagan. That’s not the same as a biography, even if it is in some ways a good and enjoyable book.
I’m a nonfiction writer myself, and if you give me $3 million, a subject like Reagan, unprecedented access, and 14 years, I’ll write you a hell of a book without having to resort to a ridiculous gimmick that puts the whole book in doubt.
– Greg, Atlanta

At the meeting of the editorial board this morning, this bio came up. The publisher asked if we thought it would be successful (i.e. sell lots and lots of copies and earn Random House back their $3 million advance).

My argument was that, if Morris had written a sedate, scholarly work that accurately reflected the 1980s, it might stay on the NY TIMES bestseller list for a week or two, no one who bought it would actually read it, and it would be completely forgotten in two years. But because he’d indulged in rich fantasy, he’d produced a work more accessible to U.S. readers, and stood a better shot for the Big Bucks.

This is not to say that I think Morris did the right thing. But I believe the accountants at Random will be happier with what they’ve got than if he had done a serious job.

BTW, I personally would rather have matches held to the soles of my bare feet than read that SOB’s life story. Just so you all know.


What Morris did is nothing new–there have been “fictionalized biographies” for well over 100 years. But they should be referred to as such. From what I’ve been reading, Morris’ book is even worse than I’d thought–he makes up three characters, and even cites them in his footnotes! There is no excuse for that kind of laziness or unprofessionalism. Especially with a (more or less) living subject.

Good biographers–and there are many of them–can make a good, readable and engaging book, delving into their subject’s personality, without resorting to this kind of self-indulgent nonsense.

Morris should have his artistic license revoked.

It’s completely appropriate that Reagan’s biography is a work of fiction. His entire presidency was a work of fiction, dreamed up by a committee and marketed to the American public. Reagan was, and is, a delerious demon who stood as a figurehead while the conservative think tanks and the folks from Bechtel Corporation ran the country. Reagan’s great accopmlishments are: Introducing the Strategic Defense Initiative, which was (and is) not technically feasible; trickle down economics, which worked beautifully except for the trickle down part; and winning the cold war, which he had nothing to do with. How could his biography NOT be a work of fiction?