Echoes in "Dutch" of a 1994 short story

The narrator and his son, it turns out, aren't the only things that Edmund Morris faked.

Published November 3, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

If things weren't already bad enough for Edmund Morris, author of "Dutch," the new biography of Ronald Reagan that has been much criticized for Morris' inserting a fictionalized version of himself into the narrative, he's now being implicated in ... well, it's hard to say what, exactly, but it ain't pretty.

In the Nov. 15 New Republic, assistant editor Ryan Lizza points out that Morris used a device -- the revelation at the book's end that his fictionalized self had been rescued from drowning by Reagan in 1928 -- that was also used by a writer named Daniel Voll in the Spring 1994 issue of Story magazine. In Voll's short story, "Dear Mr. President," the narrator, a transvestite named Roosevelt Haynes, is obsessed with Reagan because, as he reveals at the story's conclusion, he was also saved by Reagan (albeit in 1932).

Morris told Lizza that he'd never read Voll's story, and Lizza himself concedes, after some ominous rumblings, "Perhaps it is not strange to find such similarities in two works about the same person," especially when both writers credit Garry Wills' 1987 book "Reagan's America," in which Reagan's six-summer stint as a lifeguard (during which he saved 77 lives) is described, as their inspiration for the device.

Having established that the similarities between Morris' semi-fictionalized biography and Voll's story are remarkable but not, when you get right down to it, all that suspect, Lizza goes on to observe "more serious problems" -- that Morris has played fast and loose with certain facts about a real-life rescue recounted in a newspaper clipping mentioned in the Wills book.

Morris, it turns out, is guilty of a "slightly inaccurate" description of the article, which sported a mere one-column headline instead of an "eighteen-point banner." Morris also messed around with the truth by having his fake narrator give the fake name of Jim Raider to the Dixon Evening Telegraph reporter who covered the rescue -- even though Jim Raider was in fact an actual person rescued by Reagan. Instead, Morris (who told Lizza that he'd tried in vain to track down the real Jim Raider) has the fake Edmund Morris falsely call himself by the name of a fake character ("Jim Raider, Rocketeer") in a fake novel by himself, the fake narrator of "Dutch." Whew! It's a scenario that would've done Philip K. Dick proud.

What all this adds up to, Lizza concludes, is that despite the assertion in "Dutch" that the "thoughts and acts" of "every historical character in the text" are "matters of fact and of record," in the case of the elusive if not especially significant Raider, they're not. To the widespread critical perception that "Dutch" looks kind of fishy in general, Lizza makes the contribution that it also looks kind of fishy up close. And anyone reputed to have received a $3 million advance for the book in question can expect to have that pointed out over and over again.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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