BOOK REVIEW: ‘This Living Hand and Other Essays’

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By Edmund Morris
Random House, $32, 497 pages

Fans of award-winning biographer Edmund Morris will exult in this personal volume of essays culled, as the author puts it, from 40 years of capital — “the raw material from which any mature style must derive.” In 59 contributions to magazines and newspapers, we are given a buffet of the author’s wide and varied interests. The essays include commentary on literature, biography, politicians and classical music. Because the author is haunted by the visual when writing, handsome illustrations — photographs and drawings — are well-placed throughout.

Edmund Morris was born and educated in Kenya and went to college in South Africa. His essays about colonial life and education at the Prince of Wales School in Nairobi, Kenya, during the early 1950s hint at an earlier period, before World War I. We can just see him, wearing flannel uniforms in equatorial heat, poring over “damp-smelling texts of ancient publishers.” He dropped out of college, moved to London and then in 1968 emigrated to the United States. It was not until he was watching the impeachment of Richard M. Nixon on television, and its “drama of democracy,” that he was inspired to become an American citizen.

It should come as no surprise that the biographer of Theodore Roosevelt once dreamed of becoming a famous pianist; his own trilogy of Roosevelt is a study of musical orchestration. Essays on Bach and Beethoven — including a fascinating commentary on Beethoven’s deafness and the aural effects in his work — are accompanied by musical scores. The Random House audio edition of “This Living Hand” enables one to hear them.

Some of the strongest essays deal with the craft of writing and biography. An examination of Roosevelt the writer and several other essays on the technique and essence of biography should be mandatory reading for those attempting to embark on the same career. Critics of “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan” will not be swayed by the author’s passionate defense of his art form and how, in this work, he purposely mingled fiction and fact (“The Ivo Pogorelich of Presidential Biography”). But perhaps some of the outcry will soften after the author’s sensitive treatment of President Reagan’s farewell letter he wrote to the American public when he discovered he had Alzheimer’s disease (“This Living Hand”).

Not all of the essays are serious. “Hunters of the wild guffaw,” to use the author’s phrase, will be amply rewarded with his “Diet for the Musically Obese,” where the “hearty announcers” of New York’s radio station WQXR “all sound as if they wear orange socks and eat too much cheese.” A semicentennial visit to order a suit from Savile Row is eagerly anticipated as, cramped in economy class, the author flies across the Atlantic musing “on my future splendor, with the pleasure of a man who has been shabby too long.” (Unlike H.L. Mencken, who long ago discovered that London tailors require clients to be as slim as a trout, Mr. Morris happily fits that criterion, so was able to indulge himself with dark blue pinstripe and “sumptuous shipments” of shirts made of poplin and cotton.)

Equally autobiographical are Mr. Morris‘ literary portrait of his wife, author Sylvia Jukes Morris; his impressions upon visiting South Africa during the last days of apartheid; and his sorrow at losing a beloved and healthy pine tree, needlessly chopped down by a sadistic neighbor on Capitol Hill.

In his preface, the author says he hopes that “the clash of subject matter” will be agreeable to readers. While topics include Justice Holmes, Mark Twain, Nadine Gordimer, Tom Bostelle, the Library of Congress and Winnie-the-Pooh, references to Beethoven, Roosevelt and Reagan mostly abound in this volume. So, too, does Evelyn Waugh. Waugh’s influence on Mr. Morris can be traced throughout, not in his life — Waugh, as Mr. Morris notes, was a “beastly little man” “tormented by demons” — but in his writing style. Reminiscences of Mr. Morris‘ school days remind one of Waugh’s “A Little Learning,” that first volume of memoirs never to be continued. As with Waugh, the prose shines with the same sparkling clarity, tenderness, self-deprecation and satire.

As a schoolboy, Mr. Morris was once told by a teacher: “You have the most precious gift of all — originality.” That originality is evident in this “scrapbook of one man’s literary life,” and as such provides 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.”

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast” (Oxford University Press, 2005), now out in paperback.

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