www.common-place.org · vol. 1 · no. 1 · September 2000
Scott E. Casper, Associate Professor of History at the University of Nevada, Reno, is the author of Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, 1999). He's currently working on books about George Washington's family in American culture and about the ways Americans imagined their First Families before radio and television.
"Weems, like Morris, was embroiled in culture wars of his day."
The reverend author of this book before us, which we are at a loss whether to denominate a biography, or a novel, founded on fact, has presented a specimen of writing, which for variety and oddity is almost an unique in the annals of literature.
This curious comment appeared in 1810--in a review of "Parson" Mason Locke Weems's cherry-tree biography of George Washington--but it might just as well have been written about Edmund Morris's 1999 Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, a book that historian Joyce Appleby labeled "literary Forrest Gumpery" and commentator George F. Will called weird and perverse.
Biographies make strange bedfellows. Or at least the controversies over them do. The fracas over Dutch united journalists and academics, liberals and conservatives, onetime Reagan staffers and longtime Reagan detractors. Most critics claimed that the flap revealed more about contemporary culture wars than about Ronald Reagan, but few observed that it marked a shift in how we think about biography itself.
The comparison with Weems seems apt: Morris, like Weems, stands accused of inventing fictions about a larger-than-life American president. Over the past century, "Parson Weems" has become synonymous with mythmaking, hero-worship, and bad history. Yet, for much of the nineteenth century, Weems's name meant something different to American readers. His work provided patriotic inspiration to generations of young Americans. Abraham Lincoln read Weems's Life of Washington as a boy and, as president-elect, cited it before the New Jersey state senate. Ellen Humphreys, the child protagonist in Susan Warner's best-selling 1850 novel The Wide, Wide World, couldn't put the book down. Yet Weems, like Morris, was embroiled in culture wars of his day. Understanding those battles, and Weems himself, may help explain why he and the cherry tree remain with us nearly two hundred years later--and why Dutch has raised so many hackles.
The Dutch reviews split over Reagan himself, of course. In the online magazine Slate and on radio and TV, conservative critic Dinesh D'Souza noted that Morris didn't "credit Reagan's force of intellect" or consider Reagan's role in creating "the political and social framework for the silicon revolution," among other omissions. In the Washington Post, the noted historian of early America Joseph Ellis emphasized the controversies--implicitly, the downsides--that Morris failed to appraise systematically: the tax cuts and defense spending that "produced those unprecedented deficits"; "his complicity in the arms-for-hostages deal labeled Iran-Contra."
Critics focused mostly on Morris's approach to biography: inventing fictional characters--including a version of himself--whose lives intersect with Reagan's, inserting himself as biographer into the narrative. In this conceit, the teenaged Morris sees Reagan as a teenaged lifeguard; is it character Morris or biographer Morris who writes, "Watching him [swimming]--indeed, trying to imitate him--helped me understand at least partly the massive privacy of his personality" (61)? The critics' complaints recurred across ideologies and occupations. Historians may have made more of Morris's endnotes--which include correspondence from his fictional characters beside authentic documents--than did the journalists and pundits. But the larger critique was the same: Morris's book was "a tragic ruin" (wrote editor Charles Krauthammer), even "dung biography" (political scientist Larry Sabato, who was connecting the controversies over Dutch and the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensations" exhibit [Weeks, "Can Put It Down!" 1999]).
But look at where the critics placed deeper blame, and another story emerges. D'Souza argued that Morris reflected "the prejudices of the intelligentsia," and that Dutch was "an attempt to avenge Reagan's rout of the intellectual class." George Will went further: "Down from the academy has trickled the poison of postmodernism," in which "facts hardly matter, only interpretations are real." Postmodern history "invests the historian with the heroism of an artist, creating reality rather than fulfilling the mundane role of describer and interpreter of reality." (Never mind that romantic historians such as Francis Parkman and George Bancroft practiced history as heroic literary art a century and a half ago, before anyone coined the term "postmodernism.")
From the academy came a different interpretation. Joyce Appleby admitted that "some would say that questions of truth, accuracy, and representations of realities have been rendered moot by postmodernists." Appleby's postmodernists, though, included "20th-century philosophes, literary scholars, science skeptics and social critics"--not historians. Indeed, the historians identified another source for Morris's approach: up from popular culture, not down from the academy. Appleby included historical novels and movies and a "cultural milieu . . . imbued with factoids, infomercials and so on" in explaining Morris's "latest hybrid--bio-fiction, imagino-realism, history lite." Joseph Ellis linked Dutch to "docudramas" such as Oliver Stone's JFK. In the historians' eyes, Dutch wasn't the logical result of current trends in academic history. It was what happens when a writer ignores the historian's sine qua non: sticking to the evidence, at the possible cost of boring readers.
Historian Alan Brinkley reminded us that some recent historians have blended fact and fiction. He credited John Demos's The Unredeemed Captive and Simon Schama's Dead Certainties with doing so more successfully than Edmund Morris's Dutch. Brinkley's point is important: this wasn't simply a debate between conservative pundits and the supposedly liberal intelligentsia who have re-created history writing. It was also a debate within the historical profession about how far it's fair to imagine one's way into the past.
Biography, however, isn't just a branch of history. It has been a literary genre at least since Plutarch. When critics connected Dutch to James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, they placed Morris in literary company--even if, as Ellis noted, Morris's Boswellian touches were only a literary conceit. For centuries, biographies have been criticized for blurring the line between truth and fiction. One reviewer in the 1850s lambasted James Parton, America's first career biographer, for erring "on the side of conjecture" rather than spoiling "a good story." When Harriet Beecher Stowe thanked Parton for making biographies "more interesting than romance," she hoped parenthetically that "it is not by making them in part works of imagination."
As Judith Shulevitz noted in Slate, the twentieth-century penchant for biographical leaps of imagination began with Lytton Strachey, biographer of Queen Victoria, who reacted against the fact-filled, ponderous "lives and times" of great men. The twentieth century's innovations in biographical technique usually came in literary biographies. Authors and artists seemed to summon their biographers to imaginative acts of their own. Some of Dutch's critics speculate that Reagan--or the frustration of capturing his essence--cast a similar spell on Morris. Or perhaps Morris gave our first postmodern president, the man who blurred history and the movies, exactly the biography he deserved (Kakutani 1999; Vidal 1999).
For his part, Morris placed his work outside his critics' worlds. He told the Washington Post's Linton Weeks that he was more interested in how "Gore Vidal, Richard Holmes, John Updike, people of that caliber" viewed his book than in the responses of academic historians, journalists, or pundits (Weeks, "How to Pen One for the Gipper," 1999). In fact, before reading Dutch, Vidal wrote about it in the New York Times, humorously seconding Morris's "fictionalizing himself"--since, after all, show business shaped Reagan's entire ascent. Morris and his publishers envisioned a broad audience, with whom Dutch would pass what the author in 1991 called the "ultimate test of any piece of nonfiction writing": "its success in saying something--or quoting something--that a majority of readers 'can't help but believe'" (Will 1999). Morris yoked two audiences, literary writers and the book-buying public, that supposedly transcended the political and cultural wars of the talk shows and the academy.
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