Life and career
Morris was born in Nairobi, Kenya, the son of South African parents May (Dowling) and Eric Edmund Morris, an airline pilot. He received his early, British-influenced education in Kenya and then studied music, art, and literature at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Dropping out of college in 1961, he worked in the retail advertising department of a menswear store in Durban. Most of the brochures and advertisements he designed and wrote were for the Zulu market, and he later claimed that this early training in "making words move merchandise" was invaluable to the formation of his literary style. Moving to Britain in 1964, he abandoned dreams of becoming a concert pianist and was employed as a copywriter in the London office of Foote, Cone & Belding, an American advertising agency. In 1966 he married Sylvia Jukes, an English teacher, and emigrated with her to the United States two years later.
Morris's first book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, was published when he was thirty-nine. The first volume of what would eventually become a trilogy on the life of the 26th president, it won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for biography.
In 1981 Ronald Reagan became President of the United States and was impressed by a reading of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Senator Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon and Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin urged Reagan aides to appoint Morris as the president's official biographer. Morris met with Reagan on several occasions in 1981-1983, but was reluctant to put aside work on Theodore Rex, the second volume of his life of Roosevelt. However, in 1985 Morris recognized that Reagan had become a figure of high historical importance, and signed a $3 million contract with Random House to write his authorized biography. He reached a private agreement with the president and first lady that granted him regular interviews with them and their children, as well as unlimited access to the White House, by means of a pass that made him a non-governmental observer of the administration. This "fly-on-the-wall" privilege was made doubly unusual by Reagan's willingness to let Morris write his biography without any editorial control.
Morris spent the next fourteen years researching and writing the story of Reagan's life in Washington D.C. and Santa Monica, California. He continued to see the former president in retirement, and worked extensively in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, enjoying special access to Reagan's personal papers. His manuscript, prepared under conditions of great secrecy, was edited by Robert Loomis, executive editor at Random House. The biography's long gestation was the result of a radical change in narrative method, caused by Morris's frustration with what he has described as Reagan's lack of "curiosity about himself." Morris confided this frustration in 1989 to a group of fellow scholars at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. His remarks were leaked to the press and gave rise to rumors that Morris did not understand his subject.
In 1999 Morris published Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. The book caused an international sensation because it was presented, without explanation or apology, as a work of nonfiction by an imaginary author. Although the story of Reagan's life was authentic and documented with 153 pages of notes, the parallel "story" of its author, one "Arthur Edmund Morris" born in Chicago in 1912, enraged many critics and readers who had been expecting a conventional presidential biography. Dutch rose quickly to No. 2 on the New York Times Best Seller list. But despite a minority of favorable reviews, and the endorsements of three of Reagan's children, reactions to it were generally so negative that it soon fell off the list.
Morris explained in many interviews that his book's unique narrative form -- a memoir written by a close observer of whom Reagan is never really aware -- was a literary device reflecting the essentially thespian nature of his subject. Reagan, he said, was an enigma to anyone who sought to explain him by orthodox means. Widely beloved, the man had no close friends; seemingly passive and gentle, he yet exerted unstoppable force; although his id was formidable, he had no personal vanity. "He was truly one of the strangest men who's ever lived," Morris told Lesley Stahl on CBS's 60 Minutes. "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 said that literary comprehension came when he stopped trying to separate Reagan the performer ("I've got the biggest theatre in the world right here," the president once joked in the Oval Office) from the performance itself. Like most born actors, "Dutch" came alive only on stage. His biographer therefore had to be, in effect, his audience -- right from the time when "Arthur Edmund Morris" first became aware of "Dutch" Reagan in the early 1920s, through to the actual acquaintance of author and subject half a century later. Morris believed that any reader willing to join him in watching The Ronald Reagan Story [his original title for the book] would yield to it as a drama true in every biographical detail.
Theodore Rex, which followed Dutch in 2002, was in contrast a straight account of Theodore Roosevelt's Presidency (1901-1909). Morris pointed out that "TR" was a subject so self-explanatory as to obviate any authorial intrusion into the narrative. The book, published by Random House, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography in 2002. Three years later Morris published Beethoven: The Universal Composer, a short biography that sought to convey in plain prose the essence of great music. Colonel Roosevelt, the final book in Morris's Theodore Roosevelt trilogy, came out in 2010. City Journal called it "one of the best biographies in modern literature".
In October, 2012 Morris published This Living Hand and Other Essays, an autobiographical collection of pieces on literature, music, and the presidency. Random House simultaneously announced that his next book would be a biography of Thomas Edison.
Edmund Morris has written extensively on travel and the arts for such publications as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Harper's Magazine. He lives in New York City and Kent, Connecticut with his wife and fellow biographer, Sylvia Jukes Morris.
- The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. 1979. ISBN 0-375-75678-7.
- Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. New York: Random House. 1999. ISBN 0-394-55508-2.
- Theodore Rex. New York: Random House. 2001. ISBN 978-0-394-55509-6.
- Beethoven: The Universal Composer. New York: Atlas Books/HarperCollins. 2005. ISBN 0-06-075974-7.
- Colonel Roosevelt. New York: Random House. 2010. ISBN 978-0-375-50487-7.
- This Living Hand and Other Essays. New York: Random House. 2012. ISBN 978-0-8129-9312-7.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
“Theodore Roosevelt, in this meticulously researched and beautifully written biography, has a claim on being the most interesting man ever to be President of this country.” --Robert Kirsch, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“A biography which aspires to scholarship should make a significant contribution to the understanding of the effects of character on events, as well as they way in which behavior reflects reality. Judged by such standards, Morris’s book leaves a good deal to be desired.” – Miles F. Shore, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XI:2 (Autumn 1980), 294.
Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan
“As you read on — and such is the force and fascination of Morris’s narrative that you can’t help reading on – you begin to see the benefits of his highly unorthodox technique, which turns out to be a conjoining of imagination and reality.... To judge from the book’s extensive notes, it in no way distorts the record of Mr. Reagan’s life, only the viewpoint from which it is told. It’s difficult to approve the technique in theory; in less skilled hands it will doubtless prove a disaster. But it certainly succeeds in this case.” – Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times, 30 September 1999
“Mr. Morris has produced a book that is anything but scholarly and substantial. He has produced a bizarre, monstrously self-absorbed book – a Ragtime-esque ‘memoir’ featuring a self-annotating narrator out of a Philp Roth novel and childlike hero out of Being There. Even worse, this loony hodgepodge of fact and fiction is being sold not as a novel, but as ‘the only biography ever authorized by a sitting President.” -Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, 2 October 1999.
“A reader who surrends to Morris’s self-indulgent blend of scholarship and imagnation will be led through a riveting story to a transcendent conclusion with a surprise twist.... Dutch never fails to evoke the power and mystery of its subject.” – Steven R. Weisman, New York Times Book Review, 10 October 1999
“As a literary work on Theodore Roosevelt, it is unlikely ever to be surpassed. It is one of the great histories of the American presidency, worthy of being on a shelf alongside Henry Adams’s volumes on Jefferson and Madison, and the younger Arthur Schlesinger’s volumes on Franklin Roosevelt.” --Ernest R. May, The Times Literary Supplement
“Superb . . . The new book is every bit as detailed and imaginatively written as its 1979 predecessor.... What distinguishes Theodore Rex is, if anything, not the copious research (there are 180 pages of notes) but rather its deeply novelistic construction, the numerous writerly touches, and the acts of emotional sympathy.... Add to this some beautiful smaller touches, and you end up with a biography that’s as good as fiction.” —Daniel Mendelsohn, New York Magazine
Beethoven: the Universal Composer
“Since Morris is famous only for his lives of Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, his profound knowledge of Beethoven and his music comes as a surprise. His book is full of unexpected insights and makes sense of the sometimes bewildering contrast between the music and the man.” –Alexander Chancellor, The Guardian, 16 March 2007.
“Morris has the ability to impart genuine aesthetic and technical information to his audience without devolving into jargon.... The works that give Beethoven his ‘universal status’ ... deserve a critic with the vast reserves of feeling, fancy, and intelligence that Morris brings to the task.” –Tim Page, The Washington Post, 18 December 2005.
“In the main, Mr. Morris succeeds in the tricky balancing act of engaging the full range of musical readers.... But there are moments, I confess, when [he] is boring, when the music lover/biographer is both too technical and too impressionistic at the same time.” –Carl Rollyson, The New York Sun, 28 September 2005.
“With Colonel Roosevelt, [Edmund Morris’s] magnum opus is complete. And it deserves to stand as the definitive study of its restless, mutable, ever-boyish, erudite and tirelessly energetic subject. Mr. Morris has addressed the toughest and most frustrating part of Roosevelt’s life with the same care and precision he brought to the two earlier installments. And if this story of a lifetime is his own life’s work, he has every reason to feel immensely proud.” --Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“The eternally restless Roosevelt, who always wanted to be ‘in the arena,’ makes the third volume of Edmund Morris’s epic biography as entertaining and energetic as its predecessors.... And, as before, Morris builds his story around some marvelous set pieces.... It is probably impossible to write a bad book about Theodore Roosevelt. Morris has written a great one.” --John Barron, Chicago Sun-Times
This Living Hand
“[Morris] writes with originality and surprise every time, whether about presidents (not just Roosevelt and Reagan, but also Jefferson, Madison, Clinton, Obama), Nadine Gordimer, his wife, classical music (he is a man possessed by Beethoven), or the art of biography.... The collection’s first entry and earliest piece, “The Bumstitch,” a lament for the rarest of fruits ... is, to me, the best. It is effortless, hasty, tasty, autobiographical, strange, surprising, twisting, graceful, rich, beautiful, haunting, and devastating.” –Jimmy So, The Daily Beast, 22 October 2012
- Wilson Company, H.W (1990). Current biography yearbook.
- Edmund Morris, This Living Hand and Other Essays (Random House, 2012), 9-12, 90-91.
- CSPAN-Q&A Television interview Nov. 21, 2010, 1 hr interview with host Brian Lamb, discussing all his works. (Transcript and video both available at CSPAN website); Morris, This Living Hand, 356-357.
- "1980 Pulitzer Prizes". Retrieved 7 August 2012.; National Book Award List of winners of the National Book Award in Biography, hardback, http://www.nationalbook.org/nba1980.html.
- Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (Random House, 1999), xiii-xvi, xix; This Living Hand, 445-446.
- Morris, This Living Hand, 446-448.
- Edmund Morris, "Life and Letters," The New Yorker, 16 January 1995, and "A Celebration of Reagan," The New Yorker, 16 February 1998; "Where the written word reigns". Duke Magazine 93 (3). May–June 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-13.; Morris, This Living Hand, 452-453.
- Morris, This Living Hand, 449.
- "Publisher's Note" in paperback edition of Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (Modern Library, New York, 2000), viii; Morris, This Living Hand, 460.
- "Doreen Carvajal, "Writer as Character in Reagan Biography," The New York Times, 18 September 1999; Newsweek, 27 September 1999.
- See, e.g., Maureen Dowd, "Forrest Gump Biography," The New York Times, 22 September 1999; Michiko Kakutani, "A Biographer Who Claims a License to Blur Reality," The New York Times, 2 October 1999; "Publisher's Note" to Dutch, xi-xiv.
- See, e.g., Patti Davis, "Finally Seeing My Father -- Through Edmund's Eyes," The Washington Post, 10 October 1999, and Ron Reagan, "Reflections," The New Yorker, 18 October 1999.
- "Publisher's Note" to Dutch, xi-xiv.
- Stahl, Lesley (interviewer) (June 9, 2004) Morris: "Reagan Still A Mystery." CBS News.com
- Morris, This Living Hand, 352
- "Publisher's Note" to Dutch; see also "The Ivo Pogorelich of Presidential Biography," in Morris, This Living Hand, 442-475.
- Cole, Ryan L. "The Last Word on Teddy." City-journal.org
- Booknotes interview with Morris on Dutch, December 5, 1999.
- In Depth interview with Morris, October 6, 2002
- C-SPAN Q&A interview with Morris, November 21, 2010
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