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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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Lament for a Forgotten Fruit
NO ONE I KNOW HAS EVER HEARD OF THE BUMSTITCH, MUCH LESS tasted it. No encyclopedia mentions this rarest of fruits. Its name, which for me has such mystic overtones, provokes laughter and ridicule wherever I go.
At times I wonder, sadly, if my disbelievers are right. Am I indeed prey to some ancient delusion? Yet always, in such moments of self-doubt, that ambrosial flavor fills my mouth, and suddenly I am nine again, and in Kenya, and munching Bumstitches.
In those days, Kenya was still a quiet outpost of the British Empire: two hundred thousand square miles of grasslands, volcanic mountains, and flamingo-pink lakes, settled by fewer whites than would fill Wembley Stadium, and ruled by a fat Governor in a feathered helmet. His Excellency spent most of the year on safari, ostensibly in pursuit of elephant poachers. Every June, he would return to Nairobi (always with plenty of confiscated ivory) and hold a garden party in honor of King George VI’s birthday. My school abutted on the grounds of Government House, and if we behaved ourselves, we were allowed to sit around the great lawn and watch the festivities.
Open-mouthed, we admired a rich pageant of colonial society. Here were coffee farmers perspiring in cutaway coats and striped trousers; muscular missionary ladies in mail-order frocks; malaria-yellow Indian Army colonels (ret’d.); and occasionally, if we were lucky, a genuine Bishop in gaiters.
On one such King’s Day, I sat next to a pudgy classmate named Georgie Blowers, who had once hijacked a tractor and was confirmedly the Naughtiest Boy in the School. He was bored with the garden party, and proposed a visit to the Governor’s wattle plantation, on the far side of the lawn.
“But it’s out of bounds,” I said nervously. “We’ll get six of the best!”
“Who cares?” snorted Georgie Blowers, a veteran of many canings. “Come on, I’ll show you the Bumstitch Bush!”
I was strangely excited. “The what?”
Georgie Blowers made no reply. He jumped to his feet and dashed toward the wattle plantation, straight through the legs of the crowd. Women screamed. Champagne spilled. I shut my eyes in horror. When I opened them again, the garden party had regained its equilibrium. I went home convinced that Georgie Blowers had been seized by the Governor’s askaris and thrown into juvenile prison.
But next day at school, when the eight o’clock bell rang for arithmetic, he arrived in triumph, a bulging satchel on his back. He took his place in the extreme rear of the classroom, and as soon as the teacher turned to the blackboard, threw a pellet of paper at me.
I unscrewed it.
“HAVE 54 BUMSTITCHES,” it read. “WILL SWAP ONE FOR A GLASSY.”
Fascinated, I tossed over a marble. In exchange, I received a hard, leathery-skinned berry that looked like a desiccated walnut.
I suspected that I was a victim of a con job, and semaphored my disappointment.
“Watch me!” mouthed Georgie Blowers, extracting another Bumstitch from the satchel. He gripped its stalk between his teeth and twirled it until it broke free. Then he inserted the point of a drawing compass under the thick skin, pried off a strip, and began to chew it. I did likewise.
At first the skin seemed tough and tasteless, but soon it began to soften, and my mouth was filled with an indescribably delicious flavor, something like vintage apricot jam laced with Château d’Yquem. I masticated blissfully for several minutes, swallowed, and glanced over for further instructions.
Georgie Blowers peeled the rest of his Bumstitch, storing the strips of skin in a pocket for future reference. I followed suit, and laid bare a cluster of kerneled quarters, like the inside of a petrified kumquat. These fell apart easily under the sharp edge of my ruler: they were brown and hard, glazed with a sticky juice. I sucked one. It was, if anything, even more delicious than the skin, and to this day I am unable to remember the 7-times multiplication table, which we were being taught at the moment.
I became hooked on Bumstitches—if I may use so gross an expression for so exquisite an attachment—for the rest of the term. I squandered my entire marble collection before Georgie Blowers, relenting, led me to the Bumstitch Bush and told me to help myself. It stood about the height of a small apple tree, dropping its knobbly riches in the hot dust. Experiment proved that Bumstitches baked in this dust for a few days were tastier, though tougher, than fresh ones. We hoarded them jealously, Georgie Blowers and I. Life was sweeter for us than for other boys.
Eventually the term ended and the long holidays began. Bumstitches were forgotten in the excitement of flying bamboo kites, bicycling up the Ngong Hills, and swimming in tepid water holes. The seasonless sun blazed on, week after week. Then suddenly, climactically, the rains came, and it was time to go back to school.
At the first opportunity I returned to the Bumstitch Bush. Rain pounded down as I ran across the Governor’s lawn. The wattle plantation was bedraggled, and the Bush stood in a sea of mud. Not a fruit was to be seen on its gnarled branches. I knew there would be no more of its delights that year.
The vintage of ’50 was smaller than that of ’49 but equally good; ’51 was a bumper crop, although variable in quality. Then, on 3 October 1952, the world changed. Another of my classmates, Fatty Wright, went home and found his mother chopped into pieces. Within a week, Mau Mau terrorism engulfed Kenya. Policemen built a great wall around our school, erected a searchlight tower on the Governor’s lawn, and cut down the wattle plantation. There were no more garden parties. And no more Bumstitches.
Georgie Blowers and I grew up (he to six feet four), and went our separate ways. Many years ago, I heard that he had prospered briefly as a farmer in the White Highlands. Shortly after decolonization, however, he had thrown the new minister of agriculture into a sheep-dip and been deported. When last seen, informed sources said, Georgie Blowers was heading for Australia.
I wonder if he remembers the times we went Bumstitching together. It seems that he and I are the only people in the world who have eaten of that mysterious fruit. Perhaps we owe to it our knowledge of good and evil.
Table of Contents
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
What People are Saying About This
“A sterling collection of essays from the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Effortless, hasty, tasty, autobiographical, strange, surprising, twisting, graceful, rich, beautiful, haunting, and devastating.”—The Daily Beast
“Excellent . . . Morris’s prose is precise and engaging; his wit and thoughtfulness make for lively and often moving reading.”—Publishers Weekly