Ghostwriting History

  • Themes: Culture

The author on the cover of a political memoir may not necessarily be the author of the work.

Napoleon in exile on St Helena dictates his memoirs to the French writer and geographer Emmanuel Comte de Las Cases.
Napoleon in exile on St Helena dictates his memoirs to the French writer and geographer Emmanuel Comte de Las Cases. Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

This year marks the bicentenary of the publication of the bestselling non-fiction book of the nineteenth century. No, it’s not by Darwin. Or Marx. It doesn’t even have the author’s name on the cover. Emmanuel de Las Cases, firmly enamoured by the cult of Napoleon, had volunteered to join the vanquished Emperor on the miserable island St Helena following the French defeat at Waterloo. Persuading a bored Napoleon to reveal his life story, Las Cases dutifully wrote it up as ghostwriter, eventually publishing The Memorial of Saint Helena in 1823, from when it became a sensation. Not only was it engaging in narrative form (Las Cases had written much of it verbatim from the dialogue he had exchanged with the Emperor), but enough time had passed since Napoleon’s defeat for it to serve as a revisionist tome, recasting Napoleon from tyrannical despot into enlightened liberator. Las Cases work redefined Napoleon’s legacy in France and across Europe for generations. His tale is a testimony to the power of ghostwriters to shape the legacy of their ‘clients’ – but serves up important questions about the authenticity of authorship and the manipulation of historical memory at the hands of a collaborative amanuensis.

What reached gargantuan success in the nineteenth century with Napoleon was utilised into the twentieth century by some of its greatest figures. By the mid-twentieth century, the practice had become practically de rigueur for political memoirs. But where can one draw the line between research and penmanship? If an ‘author’ has not immersed themselves in the archives or ploughed their way through reams of books, but merely recrafted with a literary flair the research notes – or drafts – of their assistants, then are they truly the author of the product that results? Time and time again, throughout history, the author on the cover is not the author of the essential work.

Accusations of ghostwriting haunts some historical figures but emboldens others. Two former US presidents embody this dichotomy. Ulysses S. Grant turned to writing his memoirs out of two necessities: one financial (a corrupt business partner had nearly bankrupted him) and one personal (by 1884, the civil war hero had been diagnosed with terminal throat cancer). The huge sales and compelling narrative of Personal Memoirs set tongues wagging about the extent to which Grant’s publisher, his friend Mark Twain, had to do with writing the text itself. Although Grant had a team of former staff officers to help him recount details of battles, Twain always insisted he only made small edits to the manuscript and his main goal was to ensure a nest egg for Grant’s family out of the royalties. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, whose post-presidential memoir An American Life was ghostwritten by the journalist Robert Lindsay, was much more laissez-faire about defending his role in its production. Stringing together anecdotes from Reagan’s life, Lindsay accurately mimicked ‘The Gipper’s’ stylistic voice to influentially depict him as an astute, compassionate and charismatic leader, countering a growing view of Reagan as a disengaged, incurious and unwell commander-in-chief. Appreciative of the positive depiction he had received in his own autobiography, Reagan quipped to his editor after the book’s publication: “I hear it’s a terrific book! One of these days I’m going to read it myself.” For Reagan, the ghostwriter-as-memoirist was indistinguishable from ghostwriter-as-PR-advisor.

Few presidents were more self-conscious of their use of ghostwriters as John F. Kennedy. He had become so dependent on Ted Sorensen, a brilliant and youthful lawyer, to produce his speeches and articles that Kennedy had taken to referring to Sorensen as his ‘intellectual blood bank’. When Kennedy once lost his voice during the presidential campaign, Sorensen ostensibly read the candidate’s speech to a room of reporters. They were later to learn that the pages he appeared to be reading from were blank. The President and his ghostwriter were so entwined that one New York Times article observed that ‘when Jack is wounded, Ted bleeds’.

Outraged at claims that Sorensen had ghostwritten Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, Kennedy complained to detractors that the claims made challenged his ability to write such a book, his intellectual honesty, and his integrity in accepting the Pulitzer Prize that had resulted. The executives of the television network that had broadcast the claims eventually relented, issuing a public apology to President Kennedy for suggesting that the work was not wholly his own. One irony remained: Sorensen had written the retraction.

It is important to note that neither Kennedy, nor Reagan, nor Napoleon considered anything about the writing of their book to be unethical. Nobel Laureate Winston Churchill maintained a small army of researchers in writing his multi-volume The Second World War, revealing a particular brand of collaborative history that compromises authenticity and epitomises memoir as history by placing himself at the centre of events. Of course, most understand that top figures in the political sphere are often busy people who have not crafted each and every one of their speeches or articles, but receiving similar help on a book seemed to strike no-one involved as odd. ‘It was standard practice,’ journalists Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie argue, ‘for American politicians in the midcentury – and later – to get significant assistance on books that appeared under their name alone’.

Collaborative environments aimed at jointly bringing about speeches, articles, and books must be treated differently to those produced in majority by one sole other. In comparison to others, Sorensen and Emmanuel de Las Cases were quite truly ‘ghosts’ – working individually to produce significant portions of a book, their work largely unknown to the reader, but essential to the book’s production.

On page 222 of Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy quotes Abraham Lincoln:

There are few things wholly evil or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of Government policy, is an inseparable compound of the two, so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.

Perhaps the same is true of the work itself.


Andrew Mumford and Katherine Bayford