This Living Hand: And Other Essays


When the multitalented biographer Edmund Morris (who writes with equal virtuosity about Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Beethoven, and Thomas Edison) was a schoolboy in colonial Kenya, one of his teachers told him, “You have the most precious gift of all—originality.” That quality is abundantly evident in this selection of essays. They cover forty years in the life of a maverick intellectual who can be, at whim, astonishingly provocative, self-mockingly funny, and richly anecdotal. (The title essay, a tribute ...
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This Living Hand: And Other Essays

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When the multitalented biographer Edmund Morris (who writes with equal virtuosity about Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Beethoven, and Thomas Edison) was a schoolboy in colonial Kenya, one of his teachers told him, “You have the most precious gift of all—originality.” That quality is abundantly evident in this selection of essays. They cover forty years in the life of a maverick intellectual who can be, at whim, astonishingly provocative, self-mockingly funny, and richly anecdotal. (The title essay, a tribute to Reagan in cognitive decline, is poignant in the extreme.)
Whether Morris is analyzing images of Barack Obama or the prose style of President Clinton, or exploring the riches of the New York Public Library Dance Collection, or interviewing the novelist Nadine Gordimer, or proposing a hilarious “Diet for the Musically Obese,” a continuous cross-fertilization is going on in his mind. It mixes the cultural pollens of Africa, Britain, and the United States, and  propogates hybrid flowers—some fragrant, some strange, some a shock to conventional sensibilities.
Repeatedly in This Living Hand, Morris celebrates the physicality of artistic labor, and laments the glass screen that today’s e-devices interpose between inspiration and execution. No presidential biographer has ever had so literary a “take” on his subjects: he discerns powers of poetic perception even in the obsessively scientific Edison. Nor do most writers on music have the verbal facility to articulate, as Morris does, what it is about certain sounds that soothe the savage breast. His essay on the pathology of Beethoven’s deafness breaks new ground in suggesting that tinnitus may explain some of the weird aural effects in that composer’s works. Masterly monographs on the art of biography, South Africa in the last days of apartheid, the romance of the piano, and the role of imagination in nonfiction are juxtaposed with enchanting, almost unclassifiable pieces such as “The Bumstitch: Lament for a Forgotten Fruit” (Morris suspects it may have grown in the Garden of Eden); “The Anticapitalist Conspiracy: A Warning” (an assault on The Chicago Manual of Style); “Nuages Gris: Colors in Music, Literature, and Art”; and the uproarious “Which Way Does Sir Dress?”, about ordering a suit from the most expensive tailor in London.
Uniquely illustrated with images that the author describes as indispensable to his creative process, This Living Hand is packed with biographical insights into such famous personalities as Daniel Defoe, Henry Adams, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh,  Truman Capote, Glenn Gould, Jasper Johns, W. G. Sebald, and Winnie the Pooh—not to mention a gallery of forgotten figures whom Morris lovingly restores to “life.” Among these are the pianist Ferruccio Busoni, the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, the novelist James Gould Cozzens, and sixteen so-called “Undistinguished Americans,” contributors to an anthology of anonymous memoirs published in 1902.
Reviewing that book for The New Yorker, Morris notes that even the most unlettered persons have, on occasion, “power to send forth surprise flashes, illuminating not only the dark around them but also more sophisticated shadows—for example, those cast by public figures who will not admit to private failings, or by philosophers too cerebral to state a plain truth.” The author of This Living Hand is not an ordinary person, but he too sends forth surprise flashes, never more dazzlingly than in his final essay, “The Ivo Pogorelich of Presidential Biography.”
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Prolific and protean biographer Edmund Morris exhibits his Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning skills in this mammoth collection of essays on topics ranging from Teddy Roosevelt, Mozart, and Ronald Reagan to classical music, museums, libraries, and his childhood in Kenya.

Publishers Weekly
This wide-ranging and mostly excellent collection from Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and essayist Morris draws from four decades of writing. His topics range from the Romantic imagination to an unusual and extraordinary fruit know as a bumstitch. He has a strong historical bent, and many of the essays are quite nostalgic in tone. Morris' preface helps defuse some of the more dated moments, such as an uncomfortable elision of his Kenyan upbringing's colonial context and a reference to "feminine humor," by noting that he has largely refrained from making revisions, thereby allowing us to see him as he is or "was." Morris's prose is precise and engaging; his wit and thoughtfulness make for lively and often moving reading. As many will remember from his Reagan biography, Dutch, he tends to play fast and loose with the nonfiction form, here imagining conversations with deceased presidents and inserting himself into events he couldn't have attended or that could never have occurred at all. This brand of playfulness does not diminish the collection's seriousness of purpose. The essays are a pleasure, with the mixture of humor and intellect you'd hope for in an especially well-read dinner companion. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
A sterling collection of essays from the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner. Arranged chronologically rather than thematically, in "what amounts to a scrapbook of one man's literary life," the book ranges widely in tone from the serious to the satirical. Several of the works have yet to be published, and a few have been revised or expanded. Morris (Colonel Roosevelt, 2010, etc.), who writes that he is haunted by visual images, occasionally pairs a pertinent illustration with an essay and when necessary, inserts a footnote to clarify an obsolete reference. "Outside of literature in general and biography in particular," he writes, "my non-book work has consisted mainly of commentary on the presidency and writings about classical music." Morris begins with a 1972 essay, "The Bumstich: Lament for a Forgotten Fruit," in which he recounts his time as a schoolboy in Kenya. The author concludes with "The Ivo Pogorelich of Presidential Biography," an exploration of the process of writing Dutch (1999), his controversial book about Ronald Reagan. This last essay is an updated revision of three seminars the author gave while serving as a writer in residence at the University of Chicago in 2003. In other pieces, Morris laments the disappearance of snow on Mount Kilimanjaro; probes the psyche of South African writer Nadine Gordimer; explains his passion for writing biographies; narrates his tour through Britain's Imperial War Museum; and bemoans the loss of the physical pleasure of writing with pen and ink or typewriter. "Parker man or Remington man," he writes, "one felt a closeness to the finished product that the glass screen of a computer display now coldly precludes." A splendid assemblage of significant work by one of our keenest observers.
From the Publisher
“Effortless, hasty, tasty, autobiographical, strange, surprising, twisting, graceful, rich, beautiful, haunting, and devastating.”—The Daily Beast
“A sterling collection of essays from the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner . . . a splendid assemblage of significant work by one of our keenest observers.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Morris’s prose is precise and engaging; his wit and thoughtfulness make for lively and often moving reading.”Publishers Weekly
“Merrily perverse . . . fascinating . . . His final [essay] turns out to be a near-classic overview of civilization’s long and complex contrapuntal interplay between imagination and fact.”Buffalo News

“A revealing and rewarding glimpse as to how a gifted writer has been able, in his own words, to ‘cut some of his brightest jewels from the raw rubble of experience.’”—The Washington Times
“A masterful exposition of English prose . . . Morris does for words what George Frideric Handel did for musical notes.”—The Roanoke Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812993127
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/23/2012
  • Pages: 528
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Edmund Morris was born and educated in Kenya and went to college in South Africa. He worked as an advertising copywriter in London before immigrating to the United States in 1968. His first book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1980. Its sequel, Theodore Rex, won the Los Angeles Times Award for Biography in 2002. In between these two books, Morris became President Reagan’s authorized biographer, and published the national bestseller Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. More recently he has written Beethoven: The Universal Composer and completed his Theodore Roosevelt trilogy with Colonel Roosevelt. Edmund Morris lives in New York City and Kent, Connecticut, with his wife and fellow biographer, Sylvia Jukes Morris.
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Table of Contents

Preface xvii

The Bumstitch: Lament for a Forgotten Fruit 3

How I Escaped Death by Snakebite: and Lived to Write About Beethoven 7

The Ccurfew Ttolis The Knell of Ppparting Day: Remembering Mr. Atkinson 9

The Last Snows of Kilimanjaro: A Lament 13

A Ghostly Tour with Tr: The Badlands of North Dakota 16

Documenting The Intangible: The New York Public Library's Dance Collection 24

Heard Melodies are Sweet, But Those Unheard are Sweeter: A Low-Calorie Diet for the Musically Obese 28

Theodore Roosevelt The Polygon: Address at the National Portrait Gallery 32

The Line of Concern: An Interview with Nadine Gordimer 51

A Strangeness in the Sight: The Shadow World of Tom Bostelle 56

The Pen is Mightier Than The Smith Corona: Typing and the Murder of Style 64

Music V. Musicology: Sir Donald Francis Tovey, Counsel for the Defense 68

Land of Lost Content: South Africa Revisited in the Last Days of Apartheid 76

Theodore Roosevelt The Writer: Colloquium at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars 95

Telling Lives: A Biographer's Quest for Temps Perdu 126

The Idea of North: Glenn Gould's Search for Solitude 132

A Hundred and Forty-Four Merlins: Britain's Imperial War Museum 136

We Came to America: The Irrevocable Act of Emigration 142

The Portraitist's Shadow: Biography as an Art 150

The Anticapitalist Conspiracy: A Warning 162

Every Sliver of Inlay Had to Fit: The Early Artistry of Evelyn Waugh 169

The Pain of Falling Leaves: Capitol Hill Loses a Tree 175

An Old Man Ought to be Sad: The Logical Life of Mr. Justice Holmes 180

The Ivory and The Ebony: Pianists and the Romantic Imagination 185

Women in White: The Memoirs of Laure Junot, Duchesse d'Abrantès 199

Undistinguished Americans: Short and Simple Annals of the Poor 210

Hunters of The Wild Guffaw: The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose 218

Which Way Does Sir Dress?: A Semicentennial Visit to Savile Row 229

The Rolling Tape Records, and Having Recorded, Rolls on: In support of Janet Malcolm in Masson v. New Yorker 237

From This Session Interdict: On the Eve of Another Presidential Inauguration 243

In Memoriam Christine Reagan: The President's Forgotten Daughter 247

This Living Hand: Ronald Reagan's Farewell Letter 251

Rock. Turf. Water. Lava. Sky.: Reykjavík in Retrospect 259

The Bill and Teddy Show: Mr. Clinton's Latest Presidential Performance 270

A Darwinian For Fun: The Evolutionary Education of Henry Adams 274

Pooh to You, Mr. Mayor: and Here's Fuzz in Your Eye, Mr. Prime Minister 284

A Certain Silliness: Ten Literati Choose the Century's Greatest English Novels 287

Bill Liar: Proceedings of an extraordinary meeting of the Ananias Club, 19 August 1998. Theodore Roosevelt, chairman. Agenda: Admission to membership of President William Jefferson Clinton 292

Here Comes Old Rushing Starlight: The Writing Life 296

Inside Jefferson's Cerebellum: The Library of Congress 300

Intellectual Integrity: The Novels of James Gould Cozzens 307

Sensitive Signage: Washington's Equal-Opportunity Airport 317

A Steady Hiss of Corn: The Letters of Ronald Reagan 320

Colonizing Outside of Cultivation: The Logical Fantasy of John Wyndham 326

Dot's and Dash's: Lynne Truss's Punctuation Primer 333

Leavings of a Life: Ronald Wilson Reagan, 1911-2004 337

Lady of Letters: Living with Sylvia Jukes Morris 355

A Musical offering: Bach and Fredrick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment 365

Contrapuntal Combat: Beethoven's Great Fugue 370

Wood and Wool: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand 374

A Nation Full of Will: Kent School Connecticut Centennial Address, 2006 378

Nuages Gris: Colors in Music, Literature, and Art 387

The Other Side of Silence: Beethoven's Deafness 399

The African Obama: The Prepresidential Photographs of Pete Souza 413

As Much of a Monologue as Possible: Theodore Roosevelt at 150 417

Voice, Or Ventriloquism: Language and the Presidency 422

The Adventures of Sam Clemens: Or, the Autobiography of Mark Twain 429

Edison Illuminated: The "Life & Phenomenon" of an Inventor 435

The Ivo Pogorelich of Presidential Biography: Writing Dutch 442

Acknowledgments and Permissions 477

Illustration Credits 479

Index 481

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