Morris, Edmund 1940-
MORRIS, Edmund 1940-
PERSONAL: Born May 27, 1940, in Nairobi, Kenya; immigrated to the United States, 1968, naturalized citizen, 1979; son of Eric Edmund (an airline pilot) and May (Dowling) Morris; married Sylvia Jukes (a writer), May 28, 1966. Education: Attended Rhodes University, 1959-60.
CAREER: Historian and writer. Worked as advertising copywriter in London, England, 1964-68, and in New York, NY, 1968-71; writer and biographer, 1971—. Contributing editor to New York Times, 1975-76.
MEMBER: Society of American Historians.
AWARDS, HONORS: Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the National Book Award, 1980, for The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Coward, McMann, and Geoghegan, (New York, NY), 1979, reprinted, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2001.
Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.
(Author of introduction) The Education of Henry Adams, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.
Theodore Rex, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.
Contributor to publications, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Harper's Magazine.
ADAPTATIONS: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt was adapted for audio cassette by Books on Tape, 1991. Dutch was adapted for audio cassette by Random Audio, 1999.
SIDELIGHTS: Edmund Morris told CA: "I care very much for form and technique, and find that my imagination works best when shaped by the one and disciplined by the other. For example, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt follows the symmetrical form of Bach's Goldberg Variations, and the prologue is technically written in the second person, while seeming to be cast in the third. Of course readers should not be aware of such private contrivances; if they are, then one's art has not sufficiently concealed the art. I believe that literary talent, however slight, is a gift inscrutably bestowed, and that the recipient should pay for it by working very hard at the mechanics, which are, after all, ninety-nine per cent of any perfect manuscript."
Morris was born in Nairobi, Kenya, to British parents and there attended the Prince of Wales School. He described this experience as typical of a British public school in the years before World War I, with students wearing flannel trousers, collars and ties, blazers—and all this in the searing Kenyan heat. He first became interested in literature through one of his teachers, W. W. Atkinson, and began writing novels, hiding them in his atlas while seating himself at the back of the classroom. Alexander the Great, Chuck Yeager, and Winston Churchill were his early childhood heroes, joined by Theodore Roosevelt after he saw a textbook photograph that sparked in him a passion for America. "I saw the 'friendly, peering snarl' of his face," said Morris during an interview with Martin Miller of the Los Angeles Times, and quickly added he was quoting H. G. Wells. "And I thought, 'He looks like a grown-up that would be fun to be with.'"
It would be twenty-five years before his passion for America and Roosevelt was rekindled. After graduating from high school, he studied music and history at Rhodes University in South Africa for one year. Four years later, he moved to London to become an advertising copywriter and, four years after that, he immigrated to New York where he felt he could not only explore his talents, but get paid to do so. In New York City, he wrote on a freelance basis, exploring a diverse range of subject matter—from advertising copy and mail-order catalogues, to poetry and radio scripts. He became a contributing editor to the New York Times in 1975, and—between writing assignments—independently researched and wrote a biographical study of Russian-born piano virtuoso Josef Lhévinne for WNCN radio in New York City. The three-and-one-half-hour broadcast was met with tremendous listener response.
Morris's idea for a biography on Roosevelt was actually inspired by Richard M. Nixon's words in his 1974 televised resignation speech. Nixon said of his mother, "She was beautiful in face and form . . . as a flower she lived, and as a fair young flower she died." Nixon then attributed the original words to Roosevelt. This quote sparked Morris's curiosity, and he began researching the life of Roosevelt. He soon set off for the Bad Lands of the Dakotas to research and write a screenplay, titled "Dude from New York." Although optioned by a Hollywood producer, the screenplay remained unstaged; however, Morris's agent suggested turning it into a short biography. The "short biography" grew to the 886-page The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which covers Roosevelt's life from his birth in 1895 to President William McKinley's assassination in 1901. The book became a best seller, made the Book-of-the-Month Club, and ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award.
This would become the first book in a planned trilogy by Morris on Roosevelt. However, the second book of the trio was postponed when President Ronald W. Reagan granted Morris authority to become his authorized biographer. Morris received an unprecedented level of access to Reagan and his political affairs, and, in return, was asked that the biography not be published until two years after the termination of Reagan's presidency.
Morris, however, did not want to become a historian-in-residence at the White House. In an interview with Fred Barnes for the New Republic, Morris commented "The danger is you immediately become one of the team. You become partisan. You lose your independence." However, in 1985, Morris contacted Nancy Reagan and the deal was closed. Because of his success with his first book, the remarkable access he had to Reagan and his political affairs, and public perception of the importance of Reagan's presidency, the publisher provided Morris with a $3 million advance. The Reagans left the White House and they—and the reading public—awaited Morris's book with great expectation.
The much-anticipated release of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan immediately created a controversy. The reason is well summarized by Fred Greenstein in Political Science Quarterly. He wrote: "Morris casts his book as the memoir of a fictional contemporary of Reagan's, who has observed him in Illinois as a young man and in California as a movie actor, conservative political activist, and governor of the state. That memoir writer is an altered version of Morris himself . . . the invented Morris was born in Chicago in 1912, the year after Reagan's birth. In addition to his fictionallyaged self, Morris populates his book with no fewer than nine made-up members of the Morris family, including a 1960's University of California student radical, who provides a highly selective account of Reagan's governorship."
"Morris's book is an intellectual embarrassment," Greenstein continued. "It blurs fact with fiction, substitutes effusion for rigorous analysis, and is riddled with errors. It also is seriously incomplete, especially in its treatment of the aspect of Reagan's experience to which Morris might have been expected to have the most to add—his White House years."
While Harvey Sicherman commented in Orbis that "Dutch soon became a byword for the way a biography should not be done," Rich Karlgaard, writing for Forbes, viewed the unusual style from a different perspective. He observed, "The same critics who complain about this unconventional technique whine that Morris tags Reagan as a middlebrow rube, an airhead and as intellectually incurious. Morris did this intentionally....The Morris character can't fathom how Dutch, son of an alcoholic skip-town father, is able to transcend his poverty and limitations time and time again. But isn't that precisely how snobs and intellectuals always saw Reagan? . . . Thus, the Morris technique, odd though it may be, is a brilliant way to convey snob cynicism toward Reagan."
Morris returned from his fourteen-year hiatus of Reagan research to his favorite historical figure—Roosevelt. "It's a mysterious attraction," he explained to Miller. "I find him endlessly interesting in the mysterious way all biographers find their subjects interesting. . . . I do not think I'm in love with him, which is very dangerous for a biographer," Morris commented. "To be in love with your subject is to be protective. But even worse is to be in hate with your subject." Miller noted that, whatever Morris's emotional relationship to Roosevelt, "the reading public and critics are again in love with Morris and Theodore Rex. The book immediately appeared on the major bestseller lists, and reviewers are heaping on the praise."
Theodore Rex (a title taken from a quip by Henry James) begins as the youngest president in America's history rides from Mount Marcy, New York, to Buffalo, to take the oath of office. The prologue follows Roosevelt's journey to Washington and follows Roosevelt through his seven-and-a-half-year presidency. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that "Morris succeeds brilliantly at capturing all of TR's many energized sides, producing a book that is every bit as complex, engaging and invigorating as the vibrant president it depicts."
The final volume in the trilogy will depict Roosevelt's post-presidential career, including his aborted effort to regain office as head of the Bull Moose ticket in 1912.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Historical Review, April 2001, review of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, p. 535.
Book, January-February 2002, Terry Teachout, review, "Theodore Rex, (Review and Opinion: Moderately Mad, Madly Moderate)," p. 62.
Book-of-the-Month Club News, April, 1979, Jack Newcombe, interview of Edmund Morris, p. 5.
Book World, December 7, 1980, review of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 6; October 3, 1999, review of Dutch, p. 1.
Columbia Journalism Review, November 199, review of Dutch, p. 70.
Economist, January 5, 2002, "King Ted; Theodore Roosevelt," review of Theodore Rex.
Entertainment Weekly, October 22, 1999, Clarissa Cruz, "Grate Communicator: Dutch Scores Low Approval Ratings," p. 81.
Forbes, December 13, 1999, Rich Karlgaard, "Reagan's Century," review of Theodore Rex, p. 51.
Los Angeles Times, December 26, 2001, interview by Martin Miller, "On the Trail of a Rough Rider, with Stories Yet to Tell; Biographer Edmund Morris' Theodore Rex Is Only the Second Part of the Trilogy," p. E-1.
New Republic, February 3, 1986, interview with Fred Barnes, p. 10; December 6, 1999, review of Dutch, p. 42.
New Statesman, November 8, 1999, review of Dutch, p. 56.
New York, October 18, 1999, Michael Wolff, "Dutch Treat," review of Dutch, p. 24.
New York Times, May 21, 1979, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt; September, 1999, Doreen Carvajal, "Writer As Character in Reagan Biography," review of Dutch, p. 1450-1451.
New York Times Book Review, March 25, 1979; March 30, 1980, review of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 33.
Observer, (London, England), October 31, 1999, review of Dutch, p. 13.
Orbis, summer, 2000, Harvey Sicherman, review of Dutch, p. 477.
Political Science Quarterly, winter, 1980, review of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 718; spring, 2000, Fred I. Greenstein, "Reckoning with Reagan: A Review Essay on Edmund Morris's Dutch," p. 115.
Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 200, Peter Hannaford and Robert D. Schulzinger, review of Dutch, p. 338.
Publishers Weekly, February 15, 1980, review of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 109; October 15, 2001, review of Theodore Rex, p. 55.
Wall Street Journal, June 15, 1989, review of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, p. A11; October 1, 1999, review of Dutch, p. W1.
Wilson Quarterly, summer, 1983, article by Edmund Morris, p. 165; April, 1991, review of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 56.*