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From the News column in the December 1999 Perspectives

Edmund Morris's Dutch: Reconstruction Reagan or Deconstructing History

Kate Masur, December 1999

In a recent interview, Edmund Morris said he knew all along that writing fictional characters into his biography of Ronald Reagan "was going to cause burst blood vessels in academe." On that point, at least, he struck an unvarnished truth. But it's more complicated than that. Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan has elicited sharp and impassioned criticism from professional historians that also reveals fissures in the historical profession itself.

Professional historians began lambasting Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan even before its September 30 release. Most have insisted that the book, which is populated by made-up characters and bolstered by fabricated documents, should have been marketed as fiction, not biography. According to John Demos (Yale Univ.)—who has written on history and narrative form—one of the cardinal rules of unconventional history writing is to "be as clear as possible to your reader about what you're doing." Morris and his publisher, Random House, clearly flouted this rule.

Morris played fast and loose with footnotes. The notes in Dutch refer readers willy-nilly to real archival materials as well as nonexistent documents. For historians, footnotes represent scholarly rigor, hours dedicated to dusty documents, creative links among archives, thoroughness, and depth. False footnotes cheapen the real work of writing history. As Kathryn Kish Sklar (SUNY-Binghamton) pointed out, "Historians work hard to recover evidence about the past. . . . If the rules governing their craft permitted them to invent evidence, then all their labor would be in vain."

Nothing in Dutch reveals Morris's promiscuous mix of fact and fiction. People who read the book's dust jacket or glimpse coverage of it on television, radio, print media, or the Internet will know. But given that libraries often discard dust jackets, "How will readers in 10 years learn about the inventions of the author?" Joyce Appleby (UCLA) asked. "Let's call it biofiction or biofantasy or bioimaginings, but not biography, which has a venerable tradition."

Although Dutch is deliberately deceptive and undeniably bad history, professional historians also recognize that the book raises basic questions about historical practice. The debates are about the relationship of truth to fantasy, about speculative leaps and our ability to know the past. They are about the nature of historical writing. They are about audiences, ivory towers, and academic historians' often-unrealized desires for more authority, respect, and remuneration.

No one—including Morris himself, who says he was inspired to put fictional characters in the manuscript as he stumbled over an acorn on the campus of Eureka College, Reagan's alma mater—would rank Dutch as a sophisticated contribution to philosophical debates about objectivity and narrative. But the book strikes a chord in a field whose relationship to such debates is ambivalent.

For some historians, the backlash against Morris's blatant fabrications represents a vindication of the empiricist tradition that, they believe, has long defined the discipline. Morris's book has taken speculation in history "beyond the point where it's legitimate," said Joseph Ellis (Mount Holyoke Coll.), who reviewed Dutch for the Washington Post. "Historians remain defenders of traditional principles that there is such a thing as reality," he said. "I'm going to heaven on that."

Few historians would try to claim that reality doesn't exist. Fewer still would defend Morris's decision to publish Dutch with no explanation of his method. Nevertheless, many historians would not reject his method out of hand. According to Demos, who had not read Dutch before he was interviewed, "I'm not opposed to crossing the border into fiction or creating material that can't be documented down to the very last detail." Such tactics, he said, are valid if they enable the historians to "tell the story better." He noted that he had been part of an American Historical Review forum (December 1998) in which three historians and Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood had concurred that the ambiguous border between literature and history was a rich and fruitful domain.

Historians have long been interested in the literary aspects of history writing and the extent to which all history is, at least in part, fictional. Their questions are often inspired by philosophers, literary critics, and some historians—often loosely identified as postmodernists—who have argued that historical narratives follow formal conventions of plot and character that, in turn, shape the history they write.

Some historians insist that the distinction between fiction and history is clear, however. According to Ellis, historians operate on "a tether that ties your imagination to the evidence." Historians' speculative leaps are bound by the tether—which represents the ineffable yet crucial standards of the profession—while novelists are free to fly as far as their imaginations will allow. Robert Rosenstone (Caltech) does not dismiss the existence of "verifiable data points," but he emphasizes the process through which historians transform evidence into history: "History is not a collection of details. It is an argument about what the details mean. The moment you start connecting facts into a meaningful story, you are indulging in certain forms of fiction."

Is this the top of a slippery slope toward relativism? Does it suggest that all stories are as true as Morris's claim that he was born in Illinois in 1912, not in Kenya in 1940? Demos, for one, thinks history and fiction exist on "a spectrum with all sorts of intermediate positions."

Morris's "memoir" of Reagan touches another raw nerve associated with postmodernism. What are historians supposed to do about their subjective relationship to their sources? Annelise Orleck (Dartmouth Coll.) said postmodernist theories have generated a "healthy cynicism toward the idea that history can be strictly empirical." They have convincingly demonstrated that historians' own identities—their age, race, class, sex, or position in the profession—influence "the so-called facts we choose to incorporate and the speculative leaps we choose to make." Yet, Orleck said, historical writing that foregrounds the historian's subjective experiences can also be self-indulgent and distracting for readers. She said she has yet to discover a satisfying way to put herself directly in the texts she writes.

Finding a way to represent historians' relationships to their subjects may be especially challenging for those who write in the venerable tradition of biography. Biographers develop intimate relationships with their subjects, even those who are long dead. Rosenstone said he wrote himself into Mirror in the Shrine, his biographical study of American encounters with Meiji Japan, because "it seemed the only way of distancing myself was admitting that I was implicated." Once he had given himself a bit part as the historian creating the work, he said, the book could go forward.

Others believe that the biographer has absolutely no place in the story. Biographers' reflections on their experiences belong in introductions and conclusions of books and in separate articles. As Warren Goldstein (Univ. of Hartford) put it, "The Making of the English Working Class is not about the life and times of E. P. Thompson."

Sklar, author of two biographies, said this is more than a matter of personal taste; biographers must manage their psychological relationships to their subjects. "Part of historians' skills lies in repressing their own egos and letting the evidence lead them—often to places where they might not otherwise have known to go," she said.

In addition to putting evidence before ego, professional historians also tend to pride themselves on writing clear prose and telling good stories. They often contrast their writing to the "jargon" of their peers in other scholarly fields and maintain that historical writing should be widely accessible. But despite their populist aspirations, most professional historians write largely for their academic colleagues.

In this context, many historians find Dutch especially insulting. Lynn Hunt (UCLA) called it a "cheap trick." Referring to the hefty advance Morris received from Random House, Blanche Wiesen Cook (CUNY) called the book an "awesome 3 million dollar fraud" whose "bold racism" should not have passed muster with an esteemed publisher. The book makes reference to African American youths "lounging menacingly" and GIs "returning stateside from French whorehouses" who "furtively ogled your wife." Cook said Morris's stereotyped representations of African American men cast doubt not just on his skills as a historian, but also on his publisher's ability to balance integrity with the profit motive.

In the face of Morris's audacity, professional historians devoted to archival research and scholarly standards—but also desirous of finding extra-academic audiences—stand to look even duller. As Sklar said, Morris's representation of Dutch as history puts principled historians "at an even greater competitive disadvantage" in reaching a "wider public."

It doesn't take a book like Dutch to provoke historians to consider this audience or experiment with new and more popular forms of writing. Orleck notes that professional historians have begun writing histories of movements or institutions in which they were personally involved. She sees this as a "potentially powerful new genre" that might help get history "out of a ghetto of perceived irrelevance." "I'm all in favor of new ways to refresh historical writing," she said, emphasizing, however, that she doesn't favor genres that involve making things up.

Goldstein, who reviewed Dutch in the Chronicle of Higher Education, argued that historians themselves have inadvertently fueled the Morris phenomenon by ceding ground to pundits and popular culture. "The more we hide in only scholarly publications, the more we contribute to how badly the culture at large understands the practice of history," he said. Goldstein said it is incumbent upon historians to explain their work to a broad audience and to show how history is "urgent to public intellectual life."

Pointing out that our society is saturated with history, represented in films, museums, journalism, fiction, and television, Rosenstone said it's counterproductive to maintain "that there is only one mode or series of procedures for evoking the past and making it meaningful." Rather than dismiss or malign popular representations of history, he believes historians should acknowledge and engage with "the larger world of making meaning and interpreting the past" that exists outside the discipline.

Dutch may also be emblematic of the formidable challenge of understanding Reagan's presidency as history. With tongues in cheeks, many commentators have pointed out that the book is an apt tribute to a Hollywood president notorious for mingling fantasy and reality. Some historians see no irony here, however. Cook condemned Morris for treating politics in "the most simplistic or imaginary ways" instead of dealing with questions crucial to Reagan's political legacy such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rightward trend in U.S. politics. She attributed Morris's personalistic vision of the former president to Morris's own "unwillingness to contemplate the human costs of political decisions."

Reagan is "looming as one of the most significant statesmen of the 20th century," Ellis said. Morris's decision to portray Reagan as a cipher rather than take him seriously as a political leader is a disservice to readers. When all is said and done, Ellis lamented, Dutch cannot help us understand the power of Reagan's ideas or the ways he "spoke to some of the deepest impulses in American political culture."

—Kate Masur is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan and is currently a staff assistant to the AHA's Research Division.