Forrest Gump as biographer?

Not exactly. But disarmingly, in one of this fall's biggest nonfiction books, Edmund Morris, author of the long anticipated official biography of Ronald Reagan, "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan" (Random House), inserts himself throughout the text as a fictional character.

In the movie, Gump stumbled onto historic moments, unaware of their import. Author Morris knows exactly what he is doing.

Will the literary technique make for good history? Such artistic license is highly unusual among serious historians. It has raised more than a few eyebrows both in the professional historian community and with close advisers to the former president. These Reaganites thought they were cooperating in a straight-up biography by Morris, whose previous presidential biography, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" (Ballantine, 1978), won a Pulitzer Prize.

The publisher, contrary to industry practice, has not made review copies available before the pub date of Sept. 30.

I read "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" when I was a high school English teacher. It was, and still is, the most riveting biography I have ever read. It was as if Teddy grabbed me by the hand, pumped my elbow, and yelled "Bully" in my ear.

Certainly, Ronald Reagan has secured his place in history. Is Morris trying to play Boswell to Reagan and piggyback himself into a greater status than official biographer? Does history in a post-literate, television age require a guide, like Virgil in Dante's Inferno, to hold its reader's hand?

One thing is certain, the definitive history of Reagan's life is still a few generations in the future. Everyone alive now is too "close" to the "great communicator." He's not history yet.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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