Maureen Dowd of the New York Times apparently has not actually read Edmund Morris's "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan," but that did not deter her from casting vitriolic judgment on it last week, nor did it prevent Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic, who also apparently has not read it, from saying: "If this is the authorized biography of Ronald Reagan, I think I'll wait for the unauthorized biography."
That lame witticism gave Dowd the coup de grace with which to conclude her scurrilous denunciation of Morris, whom she called "Edmund Gump, historian" and dismissed as a practitioner of the "Ally McBeal school of historiography." It is a pity that Dowd's erudition does not extend beyond the frivolous parameters of American mass entertainment, for she might have found meatier comparisons in more fertile ground--literature, for starters--but that, no doubt, expects too much of Dowd, who seems incapable of a genuinely serious thought.
So let the decks be cleared before another word is written: I, too, have not read Morris's book, which has been embargoed until this Thursday. I had meant to withhold comment on issues raised by it until I could read it, but the journalistic pack is yapping so loudly at poor Morris's heels that it looks like now or never. It is fortunate, therefore, that the point I aim to make can be argued independent of the book itself.
It is by now well known that Morris--with whom I am friendly in a social way, whom I like and respect--has invented a fictional narrator, "Edmund Morris," who is a quarter-century older than the real Edmund Morris and whose life parallels Ronald Reagan's in what are intended to be revealing ways. This is how Morris has attempted to gain access to the inner world of Ronald Reagan, to confront the most vexing problem that any (and every) biographer faces. Certainly it is possible that this is a rash solution to the problem--a question that can be addressed only by someone who has read the book--but it strikes me at first glance as an imaginative and courageous one, perhaps because (if you will forgive me the sin of self-quotation) I have wrestled with the same problem:
"Biography is a vain and foolhardy undertaking. Its essential conceit, that the unimaginable distance between two human beings can be crossed, is insupportable; each of us is inherently unknowable. The biographer may be able to locate his subject in place and time--to describe the clothes he wore, the food he ate, the jobs he held, the opinions he expressed--but that subject's inner essence is, by its very nature, forever inaccessible."
This is the opening paragraph of a biography that I published two years ago. I wrote those words because I thought it obligatory to caution readers (the book has had precious few!) about the risks and inherent limitations of the venture I had undertaken. The book was the third biography I had written, by which point I had extensive knowledge of the frustrations indigenous to the genre, knowledge gained not merely by my own efforts to grapple with them but also through conversations with other laborers in the same vineyards, Edmund Morris included.
With characteristic spitefulness, Dowd describes Morris as "swanning around town, dining at fancy tables, whining that he couldn't quite get a grip on his subject." Well, the tables at which Morris dined with me were anything but fancy, and what I heard was not whining but the pained and troubled testimony of a serious writer who had discovered that the truth about a man to whom he had dedicated years of scrutiny was entirely elusive. He had been granted extraordinary access to a sitting president, he had assumed that this would open a path to the inner man, and he had found himself confronted, instead, with a sphinx. It never crossed my mind to feel anything except sympathy and empathy.
Biography, as it happens, has had a rough go of it lately. John Updike, Stanley Fish, Peter Ackroyd and other eminences have taken whacks at it in various places and on various grounds. The cumulative import of what has been said is that biography (literary biography especially) serves little real function beyond cluttering the landscape, obscuring the lives and accomplishments of its subjects behind mounds of meaningless trivia. It has also been said, if not in these exact words, that biography is a cheap way out for writers who want to tell stories but do not have the imagination to invent stories themselves; it offers, free of charge, plot, characters, themes and settings, the basic raw materials of fiction.
As one with experience in the field, I am here to testify that these complaints are valid; I suspect that Morris would agree, in principle if not in all particulars. A number of my other friends are biographers--scoundrels travel in packs--and many have expressed similar sentiments. None except Morris has gone so far as to invent a fictional narrator and then to represent him as an actual person, but all worry about the pitfalls and difficulties inherent in the genre.
Not having read "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan," I am at a loss to imagine how at this point I could pass judgment on it. A copy will come my way soon, and when it does I may have something specific to say. As to others who have not read it, I offer the wise counsel of Southern mothers since time immemorial: Shut yo' mouf.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.