I want to take a moment to lament the passing of one of the finest scholar-biographers of our time Edmund Morris. The great biographer of Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt died May 24. He was 78 years old.
Morris was born in Kenya on May 27, 1940, to South African parents. He moved to Britain in 1964. Without a college degree and no training in historiography, he began his career as a biographer in the 1970s in New York. His biography of Roosevelt was intended to be contained in a single volume, but TR proved too big for such narrow confines. Morris eventually produced a 2,500 trilogy.
Volume one, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” is regarded as one of the finest biographies of the 20th century. Published in 1979, it won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. I remember reading it in the 1980s. It takes Roosevelt from his birth in New York City in 1858 to the moment when he came into the presidency through the back door, following the assassination of William McKinley in September 1901. I can actually remember some of the places where I read the book, and conversations I had about it with my friend, Steve Hinrichs.
Much of that volume is about Roosevelt’s four-year sojourn in the North Dakota badlands, where he invested in two ranches, helped to create a locally governed grazing association, hunted big game animals, played cowboy and sheriff’s deputy, grieved the simultaneous deaths of his wife and mother (on Valentine’s Day 1884) and indeed healed his broken spirit. As a North Dakotan, a citizen of a backwater state, least and last visited, a black spot in the nation’s consciousness, I remember feeling deep state pride in reading a magisterial account of TR’s rite of passage in the badlands that I loved and love.
I remember feeling a sense of awe that this man Edmund Morris — I knew nothing about him at the time — had written such a magnificent book. There is no scholar, no biographer, no historian who would not have wished to have written “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” — a book that well-written, that insightful, that compelling and entertaining. It didn’t hurt that he was writing about one of the most colorful individuals of American history, but the sense one got in reading “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” was that Morris would have written an equally fine book about any number of other great figures of American history.
Eventually, Morris produced two more volumes on Roosevelt. “Theodore Rex” was published in 2001, and the final volume of the trilogy, “Colonel Roosevelt,”: came out in 2010. Volumes two and three were not as powerful and masterful as “The Rise of Roosevelt,” but they were still great, and all three are must reading for anyone who wishes to come to terms with the hectic, brilliant, boisterous, heroic and deeply charismatic Roosevelt. The only quibble I have with Morris’ Roosevelt is that he seriously undervalued Roosevelt’s intellectual and cultural achievements, including the 40 books he wrote. Fortunately, that subject has been addressed by Thomas Bailey and Katherine Joslin in “Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life,” published in 2018.
Unfortunately, Morris interrupted his work on Roosevelt to write a thick one-volume biography of another cowboy president, Ronald Reagan. “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan” was published in 1999. In some respects, the Reagan biography shattered his career. The Reagans chose Morris because Ronald Reagan had a deep admiration for Theodore Roosevelt and because Morris was regarded as one of the best biographers in the English-speaking world.
Morris was granted virtually unprecedented access to President Reagan. But when he sat down to write the official biography of one of the more consequential presidents of the 20th century, he came to the conclusion that there was really no central core of Reagan, that his life outside the presidency was not very interesting, that if there were a compelling center of Reagan’s soul, it was so deeply hidden and protected that he could not write a great biography using traditional methods. At that point, Morris made a fateful decision. He inserted himself into the biography as a fictional character who knew the president from childhood.
The result was a book that broke hearts. The Reagan family was hurt, even outraged. Reagan admirers and lovers of presidential biography felt betrayed. Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan dismissed “Dutch” as a “belly-flop into the pools of Narcissus.” The book was severely criticized by historians and the publishing establishment. Even people who were not offended shook their heads and concluded that an important opportunity had been lost.
As usual, Thomas Jefferson provides a key insight. He wrote, “Every human being must be viewed according to what it is good for. For not one of us, no, not one, is perfect. And were we to love none who had imperfection, this world would be a desert for our love.” Morris’ greatness far exceeds his biographical degradation of the Gipper.
Morris came to North Dakota two times in the last decade of his remarkable life: once when Dickinson State University hosted the annual Theodore Roosevelt Association meeting; but even more interestingly when the U.S. Forest Service obtained the Eberts Ranch north of Medora, directly in the viewshed of the Elkhorn Ranch unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I played a tiny part in that event, part of which took place at the Eberts Ranch, another part at the Burning Hills Amphitheater in Medora.
Morris was a remarkably elegant and articulate man, with a South Africa and British accent, a perfectly cut short beard, a finely tailored suit, just a bit of hauteur and a slightly dismissive attitude toward American civilization.
It was about 120 degrees on that hot July afternoon at the amphitheater, which can be a furnace in midafternoon. About 200 people had gathered to celebrate the saving of the Elkhorn view shed — after years of false starts and political wrangling, involving the usual suspects whenever conservation measures are proposed in western states. Former Gov. Ed Schafer gave a brief speech. Then Edmund Morris lectured for perhaps 25 minutes. I know this will sound a little gushy, but you felt you were in the presence of biographical royalty when Morris spoke.
At the end of a finely crafted address, Morris asked for our indulgence. He would like to read from the opening of a chapter entitled “In Cowboy Land” from Roosevelt’s 1914 autobiography. I sat forward. That chapter opening, in my opinion, is one of the finest things Roosevelt ever wrote. He wrote 40 books, depending on how you count, all by himself, some of them classics. But this was a special passage even by Roosevelt standards.
“It was still the Wild West in those days, a land of vast silent spaces, of lonely rivers and of plains where the wild game stared at the passing horseman. We worked under the scorching midsummer sun, when the wide plains shimmered and wavered in the heat; and we knew the freezing misery of riding night guard round the cattle in the late fall round-up. In the soft springtime the stars were glorious in our eyes each night before we fell asleep; and in the winter we rode through blinding blizzards, when the driven snow-dust burned our faces. There were monotonous days, as we guided the trail cattle or the beef herds, hour after hour, at the slowest of walks; and minutes or hours teeming with excitement as we stopped stampedes or swam the herds across rivers treacherous with quicksands or brimmed with running ice. We knew toil and hardship and hunger and thirst; and we saw men die violent deaths as they worked among the horses and cattle, or fought in evil feuds with one another; but we felt the beat of hardy life in our veins, and ours was the glory of work and the joy of living.”
When he finished reading that fabulous passage, Morris looked up at the audience, paused, and said, “I wonder if you Yanks will ever produce another president who can write something like that.” The audience laughed, a little hesitantly, a little nervously, and then stood up to honor the best Roosevelt scholar in the world, in Medora, North Dakota, a venue made possible by the civic mindedness of the Eberts family, the political mastery of North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, by the tourist infrastructure made possible by the vision and philanthropy of Harold Schafer and, of course, a young New York assemblyman’s decision to become the Theodore Roosevelt of our national memory and mythology in the badlands of the Little Missouri River valley in western North Dakota.
The greatest biographers of our time have been William Manchester, who wrote about Churchill; Robert Caro, the 83-year-old scholar who is still trying to get Lyndon Johnson through Vietnam; and Edmund Morris, whose biography of Roosevelt will be read and studied as long as there is American history.
“Biography, in a way, is a strange form of love,” Mr. Morris told the Globe in 1999. “It has all the ingredients of love except it should not have too much affection. But in it one finds the mystery of the initial attraction; the insatiable curiosity, which never flags; the long-term commitment; and the interaction of character. The only ingredients that are missing are adoration and, of course, sexuality.”
— Harrison Smith, Washington Post