Conan O’Brien has a new project going called Serious Jibber-Jabber. In the interview above O’Brien talks with one of my favorite biographers and writers, Edmund Morris.
Morris is mostly known for his 3 volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt (TR). A truly exceptional biography. The first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book award. The 3 volume biography leaves you feeling like you’ve truly been in the presence of TR. I can’t say enough about Morris’s art and skill as a biographer.
Morris was also the official biographer of President Ronald Reagan. Morris was basically hired on as White House staff during the Reagan years so he could research and write Reagan’s official biography. After its release, the biography generated a lot of controversy over the way it was written. Morris had fictional elements in his biography of Reagan. Why did he include fictional elements in the biography? Well after years of being around Reagan, interviewing him many times, along with personal acquaintances and people who worked for the President, Morris had a difficult time figuring Reagan out, getting inside his head. As Morris said, “Nobody around him understood him. I, every person I interviewed, almost without exception, eventually would say, ‘You know, I could never really figure him out.'” Morris decided to use a fictional character in his biography in an attempt to paint Reagan as how one might see Reagan if you had known Reagan over his life and career.
I enjoyed Dutch, the book was an artistic master piece of writing and a truly innovative, even if not necessarily popular, way to understand Reagan and the man behind the Presidential facade. Of course many acolytes of Reagan, and even the former President’s wife, Nancy Reagan, didn’t care for the book because the biography didn’t always cast Reagan in a positive light. Morris might have been Reagan’s Boswell, but Morris felt his job, most of all, was to paint Reagan in full color, warts and all. I think history will ultimately render a positive verdict on Morris’s work. It is still probably the best biography of Reagan you can read.
Morris also wrote a short biography on Beethoven. And Morris just recently published a book of essays. While Morris is a superb biographer, I personally think his greatest gift and contribution to the history of letters will be as a literary artist. He prose, as one critic says, is hard but elegant. He draws, like Charles Dickens, unforgettable scenes and his play with words is masterful. I always felt I was being educated about the central character of the book and about what, if I was paying close attention, a literary artist has to teach me about writing. Morris is a giant in the world of literature.