From his prizewinning biographies of his favorite president -- The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and, more recently, Theodore Rex -- to his controversial coverage of Ronald Reagan in Dutch, Edmund Morris has established a reputation as a presidential profiler to watch.
In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris does what every good biographer should do: He makes you feel as if you have slogged through all the letters, diaries, and other documentation yourself, writing with the kind of detail that comes from an author's intimacy with his subject. The book won a Pulitzer and is considered the premier T.R. tome.
Rise was the first book in a planned trilogy; the second title, Theodore Rex, was released more than two decades later. Though Morris's enthusiasm for his primary subject is clear in his ability to convey Roosevelt's outsized, eccentric personality, Morris can paint an evenhanded portrait. He told NPR in 2001, "If [Roosevelt] hadn't been such a funny man, such a comical man, I don't think I could have spent 21 years writing about him."
But this biographical achievement is not what many readers think of when they think of Morris; most likely, it's the controversy surrounding his Ronald Reagan biography, Dutch, that comes to mind. Reagan had appointed Morris as White House biographer in 1985, affording the author a seemingly ideal post from which to write the story of the actor-turned-world leader. But in the writing, Morris created fictional characters -- a version of himself, his "son," and a columnist -- that figure in Reagan's early life. Morris later called them "projectors" of Reagan's story, devices employed to get the story across; but many howled in protest, calling the stunt egotistical or just plain irresponsible. Though Dutch earned praise from one New York Times critic, among others, for effectively conveying the Gipper's mystery, the paper's Michiko Kakutani found the book "bizarre, irresponsible and monstrously self-absorbed." Times columnist Maureen Dowd jibed that Morris had become "Forrest Gump, historian."
Critics speculated on the reasons Morris had employed this technique. Was it writer's block? A response to the problem presented by a subject whose memory was being eaten away by Alzheimer's disease? The closest answer was that Morris, after all the time spent with Reagan, still felt his subject was both mysterious and, as he told PBS's NewsHour in 1999, "alarmingly boring" at times. He told the Oakland Tribune that same year, "I certainly did not want to write a dry book. Its method grew directly out of Reagan's own way of seeing the world. He was the central character in a lifelong movie, and I could only write about him from a view of a lifelong spectator."
Though the sagacity of using this "spectator" or "projector" method was roundly questioned, Morris adopted the technique fully anticipating (even welcoming) the controversy it caused. He defended it thusly on NewsHour: "I rejoice in the method because I know the movie I project, the story I tell is true and good; I know that my intentions as a biographer are honorable; everything's documented. It's a true story."
Morris returned to Teddy Roosevelt for his next installment of the trilogy, Theodore Rex -- a controversy-free, lauded second book on the Bull Moose, which covers the first decade of the 20th century, when Roosevelt acceded the presidency. Here, Morris was back in his element -- his adept rendering of this pivotal period spurred critics to use words like "breezy," "dazzling," and "exhilarating" to describe the book's effect. Whether or not he will be brave enough to pull any more creative stunts in his future biographies, Morris has already established himself as an undeniably engaging writer and the foremost Roosevelt authority.
Good To Know
Morris is married to biographer Sylvia Jukes Morris, author of a volume on Theodore Roosevelt's wife, Edith.
He dropped out of college in South Africa and moved to London, becoming an advertising copywriter before immigrating to the U.S. in 1968.