Biography with a dose of fiction nothing new

October 03, 1999|By Judith Shulevitz

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 me as distinctly possible but shortsighted, literarily speaking. I won't defend what Mr. Morris has written -- I 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.

Just because Mr. 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 careens toward the facts, the next it swings away from them.

Literary debates

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.

I think the outcry about Mr. 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.

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 Mr. Morris' own earlier, award-winning biography "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt."

For instance, I spotted two bits of fantasy on the very first page! The scene being set is that of the day of Roosevelt's inauguration in 1907:

A shiver of excitement strikes the line of people waiting four-abreast 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.

Was this based on fact? 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, others set inside some character's head.

Novel invention

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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 in verifiable or even plausible fact."

The Edmund Morris who is Mr. 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 Mr. Reagan's more straightforwardly filmed movie.

He may not be less true than the little fabrications and self-inventions in which Mr. Reagan specialized; in fact, given Mr. Morris' 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.

Judith Shulevitz wrote this for Slate magazine.

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