Exploring another's psyche, peering for years through microscopic, telescopic, and wide-angle lenses, will reveal much, but not all.
"The moment you decide you've really come to understand somebody, you can be quite sure they'll surprise you. There are always many, many more stones," said Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Edmund Morris. He labored 14 years on an 874-page story of Ronald Reagan. And he devoted 13 years over a 35-year span to three volumes on the extraordinary Theodore Roosevelt.
Morris, 71, will speak at 7 p.m. Monday in the McMaster Center of the Main Library as part of the Authors! Authors! series sponsored by The Blade and Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. Tickets will be sold at the door, 325 Michigan St.; $10; $8 for students. The hour-long talk will be followed by a Q&A and a book signing.
"All characters are going to have areas of secrecy and mystery which just cannot be penetrated. The challenge is to acknowledge this ultimate impossibility of really penetrating into the soul of anybody," he said in a telephone interview from his Manhattan home. "And some characters are more mysterious and enigmatic than others."
Writing biography is a snail-like process. Robert Caro, biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson, will turn out his fourth volume on LBJ this year; he published the first in 1982. Morris' wife, Sylvia Jukes Morris, is finishing Rage for Fame, a 14-year project that will be her second volume about Clare Boothe Luce.
For Morris, biography is "endlessly fascinating detective work," demanding results that engage and ring with authenticity. "The art of writing a story is just about the most difficult of all aspects of writing."
He lauds the 2001 literary biography, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson, by Alfred Habegger. Among the best, he cites Lord David Cecil's 1954 take on Lord Melbourne (Lord M, or the Later Life of Lord Melbourne) "that could only have been written by a supremely gifted writer with literary sensitivity," and Boswell's 1791 The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.
Born and raised in Kenya, Morris was in his 30s when he chose the Republican Roosevelt as his subject because there was no substantial biography of him. He was paid $7,000 in four installments (signing, half-completed, completed, published). "So we starved for four years." The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1980.
Roosevelt, who died in 1919 at the age of 60, had enormous character, and his life naturally fell into three books: before, during, and after his 1901 to 1909 presidency.
"Theodore Roosevelt needed no interpretive device at all. He was so vivid a personality that he just filled up the page by himself," he said. "One writes biographies according the nature of the subject."
In 1981, Morris was hired as Reagan's in-house historian/biographer and provided with access to the man and his papers. Dutch stirred controversy upon its 1999 publication, when Reagan was living with Alzheimer's disease. Reagan presented different challenges than Roosevelt.
"He had no curiosity about himself. Therefore, anything he said about himself was not interesting and nothing he wrote about himself was revelatory, so I had to describe him from outside as it were, because that's the only way he was seen: Reagan in Action," he said. "Biographers generally need to be interior, they need to be able to convey what's inside a person, and in this case, that was impossible. There was enormous substance, but it was exterior."
Morris determined Reagan's personality type to be "thespian."
"Actors are people who are empty vessels that need to be filled with roles. Reagan performed about seven major roles in his life, the last of which was president. And in each of these roles he was very impressive, but once the role came to an end the vessel was empty again. That's the nature of the actor and of this particular man. They only live in the performance."
In Dutch, Morris created a fictional version of himself, born at the same time as Reagan, likewise in Illinois. This fictional Morris "meets" Reagan as a youth, and continues observing him and the world throughout Reagan's pre-presidential decades. He also creates a back story for his character. He suggests readers view the character as a movie projector showing the documentary film of Reagan's life.
After the Reagans move into the White House, Morris reports as himself.
One reviewer said: "To the author's supporters, the device is a creative, even inspired, literary technique that improves the book; to his critics, the device blurs the line between fact and fiction and leaves the reader confused as to what to believe."
Morris called it an "intensely nostalgic and memoiristic form and woven into it is the fabric of his own memories of himself and his life." Reagan, he wrote, was "endowed with a happy nature, his optimism unquenchable, his smile enchantingly crooked, his laughter impossible to resist." However, "there never was a politician less interested in the past."
Near the end of his presidency, Reagan was old and sometimes forgetful, he said. "I had noticed that he was becoming withdrawn; a quietness descended on him."
But it wasn't until after his final role was played that Reagan's Alzheimer's made its public appearance: At his 82nd birthday party, he toasted Margaret Thatcher at length, and then toasted her again using the same words. The hundreds of guests, understanding, responded with dual standing ovations.
How does one spend 14 years focused on an individual? With total immersion, doing stupendous amounts of research.
In addition to the nearly eight years in the White House, Morris interviewed hundreds of people, read Reagan's diaries, and pored over thousands of papers at the Reagan library and untold newspaper articles. He walked the streets of every place Reagan lived, studied gubernatorial work, and for a few years, rented an apartment in Santa Monica to experience Reagan's Hollywood.
When not working, Morris loves books and music.
"I read. And I play the piano and spend a lot of time studying music, analyzing works, playing them, reading them, listening to them," he said. "I like to be able to use language to describe things which are almost indescribable."
Music, he said, paraphrasing Mendelssohn, is a superior language. "When you apply words to it, you're using an inferior means to convey something superior." His own sophisticated musicality plays across the pages of Beethoven: The Universal Composer, a 2005 biography on which Morris spent a year.
Beethoven's irascible personality didn't render him more difficult for Morris.
"I'm completely objective about people I write about. I would not want to write about somebody I detested just because I think it would be unpleasant. I do like to write about substantial people. My current subject, Thomas Edison, was a great inventive genius. It's their work that makes them interesting. And their characters, whatever the characters are, I want to portray as accurately as I can."
He'll publish a collection of miscellaneous writings, The Bumstitch and Other Essays, 1972-2012, this year.
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