Monday, August 27, 2012

Dutch A Memoir o Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris

Dutch is a complex work and the most different style of memoir or biography I have ever read.  This was a $1 book sale find; published in  1999; 672 pages increasing to 874 pages with Appendix, Acknowledgements, Bibliography, Notes, Illustrations and Index.  As I read I flicked back to many of the detailed notes.  I am all the more mystified after reading it as to the writer's opinion of Reagan, I truly cannot tell if he admired him or not.  He emphasizes the riddle of Reagan as an inscrutable but likeable giant personality but one which he does not clarify, one which he believes defies clarification by anyone.  Perhaps that's the true purpose of an excellent biographer, not to persuade the reader about the subject  but just to point them out, and allow the reader to ponder.  

Morris is commissioned by the Reagans to be the official biographer, the first time a sitting president would do so.  As such he spent time on the "front lines" with the Reagans and yet was given literary freedom to write. On the first page of the  Prologue Morris describes a conversation with Reagan, ".. mildly amused but wary.  Most public, yet most private of men, he does not welcome undue familiarity with his past."  Page xii continues..." .. Perhaps his youthful readings in Calvin Coolidge taught him not to encourage interlocutors.  It only winds them up for twenty minutes more. Even as a  teenager, he had taken no personal interest in people.  They were and remained, a faceless audience to his perpetual performance. " 

Morris would  drop insightful  hints throughout the book about the Reagan character,  Prologue xv, ..." how quickly and lightly the words spooled out, every punch line dropping like a fly on the stream.  Joke telling requires a special kind of intelligence, as anyone knows who has tried to write one out: a few syllables too many, a vital phrase misstated and the humor dies.  Reagan lacked wit..he was too cautious to risk repartee and many of his jokes were hoary, but one could only marvel at their apparent spontaneity." 
Back of jacket
The cover flap explains that  Edmund Morris is one of the first literary guests at the White House.  Reagan read and admired Morris' Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Theodore Roosevelt and so engaged his services although the author was reluctant at first to accept because he  is planning further research about Theodore Roosevelt.  I love the quote at the opening, from Charles Dickens "Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain  of iron or gold of thorns or flowers that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."  That suits Reagan and this book.   

The book begins as though they are childhood acquaintances although the President never so acknowledges.  It had me thinking so but as I read about the author on the  jacket flap I knew that could not be so, he had embellished and in doing so communicated the mystery of Reagan whom he describes as " the dreamy son of an alcoholic father and a fiercely religious mother."  The epic work begins with Reagan's birth in 1911 and ends with his announcement of Alzheimer's. 

This is a book which makes it difficult to select one or two quotes because it is replete with excellent descriptions but as he details Reagan's gravitation toward politics when he is a spokesperson for GE, I think the first line of a speech Reagan gives to the California Fertilizer Association  is a cross stitch for movie buffs:  "The past is a screen on which memory projects movies..."

Pg 414,  "Are there no flaws, then in this image of a supremely happy person?  What do the 42 million Americans who tried to keep him out of the White House worry about?  Well for a start, his Daliesque ability to bend reality to his purposes..." 

It is an intriguing work that took serious reading.  I enjoyed it but would be hesitant to recommend it to a casual reader, even those Reagan fans.  It is contemplative,  historical and grandly presented.  A massive literary work.  I am glad that I read it increasing my knowledge about our 40th President; I have been a fan since he was our Governor in California and more so after I  became acquainted with his late daughter, Maureen.      I  give it 4 stars  ****