On writing biographies

Edmund Morris, biographer of Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt, explains why writers have to inhabit other lives so that they can come up with their best work

November 07, 2019 04:59 pm | Updated 04:59 pm IST

“Writers like to inhabit other lives, other dimensions, other cultures. If you are born in a colony, particularly one as young as Kenya was, I grew up feeling deprived of the culture of the “mattering” world. All around me was Africa…no radio, no influence of the outside world. The place where books were written, were movies were made, where symphonies were composed was elsewhere…in a world elsewhere…I grew up longing for that world. I discovered the adventures of Tom Sawyer at the age of ten and identified completely with Tom! So, it was with no sense of strangeness that I felt I had arrived when I came to London, a culture I could write about,” says Edmund Morris author of the new biography of Thomas Edison.

Morris, who is also known as the biographer of Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt, passed away before he saw his new book in print. On writing biographies, Morris says, “You have a feeling that your subject is in flight and you have to pursue him. Any biography has to consist of one or two or more strands which you eventually resolves.”

Morris who speaks disparingly of “colonies” and their backwardness, moved to the United States in 1968 after which his biographies rolled out along with prizes beginning with the Pulitzer prize for his biography of Roosevelt. “Oddly enough at the same time when I met Tom Sawyer, I also met Roosevelt. Nairobi had brought a little book with many famous people who were visiting at that time. One of them was the former president of the United States, Roosevelt. There was something about the photograph…his teeth…that caught my attention. Whenever I see his teeth I think of this line from Somerset Maugham, “He had rather more teeth than seemed necessary for any practical purpose…The picture impregnated in my mind, I guess, but I had forgotten him. I went back to learn about him when I heard a passage he had written on the death of his young wife. …I was browsing at a bookstore and quite by chance picked up the Guinness Book of World Records. I opened it up and it said, “On January 1st 1907, Theodore Roosevelt shook more hands that anybody else in history…” I decided to investigate that day…anybody could visit the White House and shake hands with the president. I wrote a prologue where the readers can go through the White House and shake hands with the President. The book grew out of that…” Morris has written three volumes on Roosevelt.

Morris reflects, “What is it about some people that makes one develop this vast curiosity? I don’t know. There are only some characters like that… Napoleon, Beethoven… Theodore also…over the writing of biographies, I learnt to eliminate the author…only the subject remained.”

Morris’s wife, Sylvia, also a biographer, wrote on Edith Roosevelt while Morris was writing on Theodore. “She is verbal and likes to read what she has written. I cannot talk about what I write…our method and style are very different.”

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