I was there when Edmund Morris, the noted biographer, decided to insert into his new biography of Ronald Reagan a fictional character named “Edmund Morris” — a controversial move on Morris’ part that has sparked tremendous scorn among historians.
But let me be clear: by “I,” I mean not David Corn, but “David Corn,” a fictional version of myself who, via the “literary projection” method adopted by Morris (as opposed to “Morris”), had access to Morris (again, not “Morris”) when he was writing “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan.”
As first reported in the New York Times, Morris, who previously penned an acclaimed biography of Theodore Roosevelt, writes in his long-awaited Reagan biography of a fellow who shares the name of the book’s author but not his history.
The “Morris” of the book happens to have been born in 1912 in Illinois, where Reagan grew up. Consequently, “Morris” is a contemporary of Reagan, able to describe Reagan’s exploits in high school and college, as well as reminisce about Reagan when Reagan was working in an Air Force film unit during World War II. (Fortunately for Morris, “Morris” bumped into Reagan then).
Morris the author possessed none of these real-time recollections, given that he was born in Africa in 1940. But Morris cites as source material the diary of “Edmund Morris.”
Since history demands a rigorous aherence to accuracy, I shall be careful in recalling the encounter between Morris and “Corn.” It was several years ago, at a writers support group. Morris had been toiling on the Reagan bio for years at the time, and he was frustrated.
Reagan had designated Morris as his official biographer while he was still in the White House, and had granted the author unprecedented access for that purpose — which helped Morris win a $3 million advance for the book. But at our group meeting, dressed in a blue blazer and well-pressed khakis, Morris complained that he had been spoiled by this access.
He could write with first-hand knowledge about Reagan’s time as president — a privilege most historians would relish. But Reagan’s earlier years remained beyond Morris’ experiential reach. Morris slammed his hand against the arm of his chair and proclaimed, “I will find a way to go back in time. I will go where no historian has gone before.”
Those who wonder how I can recall with confidence the exact words he spoke can find them recorded in the written diary of one “David Corn.”
It is obvious that in this quest Morris fell too far under the influence of his subject. In explaining — or defending — his novel device, Morris has said that this style derives “from Ronald Reagan’s own way of looking at his life.”
Indeed. Reagan did have a penchant for blurring fact and wish. He occasionally referred to his World War II service in a way that suggested he had been overseas, when actually he had made training films in Los Angeles. And when he was president he twice told visitors to the White House — including Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir — that he had filmed the Nazi death camps at the end of the war. Unfortunately, that was not true. Perhaps “Ronald Reagan” had done so.
Writing nonfiction that comes to life and jumps off the page is a hard task. I (Corn, not “Corn”) know this. A few years back, I wrote a biography of a notorious CIA official. As many nonfiction writers promise when pitching their projects, I told my publisher that it would read like a novel. It would be real-life le Carre.
I discovered, however, that such a thing — history as novel — generally cannot not be concocted in good faith. I had wanted the book to be a series of linear scenes. CIA chief walks into an office, pounds his desk, and shouts to a subordinate, “Castro has to be taken care of! Now. permanently.” That sort of stuff.
But after five years of research, I found that the tens of thousands of documents and the scores of notebooks with interview transcripts I had amassed still did not contain enough of the kinds of details needed for writing history as a novel. Moreover, people’s descriptions of past conversations, meetings, actions (even murder plots) were too hazy to be rendered in the concrete fashion of fiction writing, and far too often, there were contradictions among different sources. They could not agree on whether it had been a dark and stormy night — or a cheery, sunny day — when a key decision was taken to set up a secret army in Laos.
After that, whenever I came across history written like a novel — with lots of direct quotations and well-defined and well-detailed scenes rendered dramatically — I was a bit suspicious. This was one reason that for my next book I turned to fiction and wrote a novel.
But that was before Morris — or is it “Morris”? — showed us writers a new way. There’s apparently no need to choose between fiction and nonfiction. If you want to write history, you don’t have to be hindered by conventions — or facts.
Perhaps for my next historical nonfiction project, “Corn” will grow up with Lee Harvey Oswald and end up encountering him on the bus the morning of Nov. 22, 1963. Or “Corn” might be a young girl who taught Bob Dylan how to make a bar chord. Or a hardware store owner who shared old copies of Popular Mechanics with a geeky adolescent named Bill Gates.
I just hope that “Corn” him- or herself doesn’t sell any of these stories elsewhere — before I can get my own big-money contract.