It's a fact that Edmond Morris will always be known as the man who wrote Dutch, which is to say that he's the mind behind one of the greatest literary blunders of the 20th century. He was offered one of the most important assignments any biographer could assume—the official biographer of Ronald Reagan—and he completely botched it. If you don't know already, Morris's central creative decision was to create a fictional character in Dutch named Edmund Morris, an analog who shares many traits with Morris but also differs on several very important points—fictional Morris, for example, was born in the same town as Reagan, and he was lifelong friends with the president. It's a disaster from the first page to the last. Everything Morris has ever done and ever will do is to be forever judged against the squandered opportunity of Dutch.
Case in point: This Living Hand is a new collection of essays by Morris, and the essay that most people will pay attention to is the final one, which consists of Morris's response to critics of Dutch. It's as unsatisfying an essay as possible, tasting of sour grapes and packed with equivocations and ego-masturbation (Morris points out that some anonymous book types told him they loved Dutch, but the literary establishment would alienate them if they publicly confessed their love). Most of the other essays in the book are balanced between Morris's two favorite presidents—Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan—and there are plenty of examples that suggest Dutch was not a rare misstep.
Morris seems to routinely imagine himself as friends with Roosevelt and Reagan, writing dialogues for Roosevelt that feel blatant in their adoration and downright needy in their desire to get inside his head. He goes on like this in essay after essay, praising Reagan's boring prose for being as boring as it is, admiring Roosevelt's boundless energy, fawning over both men repeatedly. Morris's prose feels fusty, colonial, and highly presumptive. In his ardent defenses of the literary canon and his technical examinations of classical music, he illustrates some worthy subjects (Beethoven, Nadine Gordimer) but he does so in the least interesting way possible. Morris considers his own worldview (cultured, white, at ease with traditional power) to be unassailable. This lack of a critical impulse makes his prose turgid and tiring. In fact, Morris doesn't seem to be aware of the possibility of any other perspective; he certainly doesn't find any worth in the views that don't closely match his own. The establishment has a rabid defender in Morris, whether the establishment wants him or not.