The Gift of a Good Read

While I was growing up, there was always a book with my name on it under the tree on Christmas morning.  It might be a Nancy Drew (The Mystery of the Old Clock), a popular girls’ read (Donna Parker in Hollywood), or a classic from Louisa Mae Alcott, but no matter the title,  I spent holiday afternoons off school poring over a new story.

Later, one of the things I relished while Christmas shopping for our young daughters was choosing books for them, and these days I look for just the right ones for our grandchildren.  I still try to find books for the adults on my list, though gift certificates to Barnes and Noble or Half Price Books also serve the purpose.

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Here’s one I recommend for anyone who prizes history and biography.  Edmund Morris, biographer of presidents and earner of the Pulitzer and American Book Award, compiled forty years of his work in 2012 in This Living Hand and Other Essays.  Some of the 59 pieces were previously unpublished; they range from researching Roosevelt and Reagan to describing his own journey as a writer and a naturalized American citizen.

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I gifted myself the book in 2014 before we heard him speak in New York City.  I have been working on it since then, but admit I have not gotten to them all.  Absorbing individual essays is quite a bit slower than taking a joyride through a novel which keeps asking you to finish just one more chapter before putting it down.

Arranged in chronological order of the dates they were written, the first is from 1972, about a boyhood experience in Kenya when he discovered an improbable and forbitten fruit called a bumstitch.  The last is an explanation of his unorthodox point of view for Dutch, Ronald Reagan’s biography.  An illustration or photograph heralds each chapter, squeezing out more of its intent.

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Morris is a master of thoughts and an artist with the words to convey them.  He writes of figures in history, music and literature: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Adams, Ludwig van Beethoven, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh, James Gould Cozzens, Thomas Edison…

His time at work in the Library of Congress probably transcends that of any living writer.  We read about the great institution, which he compares to Thomas Jefferson’s brain, in one chapter: serendipitous experiences like holding a William McKinley autographed piece of silk once meant for promoting a campaign, and the voluminous journals of Theodore Roosevelt.  It is a place where he discovered original musical scores composed by the father of Clare Booth Luce, something Edmund’s wife Sylvia had dreamed of finding for her own book’s research.

Sylvia Jukes Morris, biographer of Luce and Edith Roosevelt, is also the subject of a chapter, but you have to read it yourself to get an idea of the admiration and respect her husband has for her.  It is great.  He paid her a high compliment in saying that if something happened to him while writing one of his books, she could finish it herself.

Edmund Morris’s writing is both serious and funny.  It comes from many years of trying to get to the bottom of what made people do what they did.  It is for readers of books, lifelong learners like himself; and not much like the noise of bits and pieces we get from electronic media today.  This is one of those books that may be called just one thing: a gift.

Humor in Rough Rider’s Uniform

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“Nobody ever had as good a time as I did as president,” Theodore Roosevelt reflected in 1909.  His serious side, which included negotiating peace between Russia and Japan, breaking apart trusts, and preserving the wilderness for generations of Americans, was balanced with pillow fights and outdoor adventures with his children — and boxing matches and Japanese wrestling with friends in the White House.  He often drew funny cartoons in letters he wrote to his family.

TR loved to tell stories and laugh at them.  He said, “When they call roll in the Senate, the senators don’t know whether to answer, ‘Present,’ or ‘Not guilty.'”  His eldest child was notorious for living it up, to which he responded, “I can be president of the United States or I can control Alice.  I cannot possibly do both.”

Those who served as chief of the executive branch before and after him could let their sense of humor show, too.

George Washington: When a junior officer boasted he could break a spirited horse and was thrown off head over heels, Washington was so “convulsed with laughter tears ran down his cheeks.”  He also wrote in a letter about a duel:  “They say Jones fired at his opponent and cut off a piece of his nose.  How could he miss it?  You know Mr. Livingstone’s nose and what a capitol target it is.”

John Adams: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm and three or more is a congress.”

Abraham Lincoln: “If I were two faced, would I be wearing this one?”  Lincoln’s stories were legendary — it was not always what he said but how he said it.  He was an expert mimic.  During the horrible days of the Civil War he often got relief by listening his two secretaries with knee-slapping laughter.  “Tell it again, John!” he said to young John Hay.

Calvin Coolidge: After a hostess said she’d made a bet she could get more than two words out of him, he replied, “You lose.”  He said in 1929 he didn’t want to run for president again.  There was no chance for advancement.

Franklin Roosevelt: “Twenty-two minutes,” he said, when asked what the next Fireside Chat was to be about.

 Harry Truman: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

Lyndon Johnson made some famous analogies but that doesn’t mean they should be repeated.

Jimmy Carter: “It’s nice now that when people wave at me, they use all their fingers.”

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Ronald Reagan, a natural storyteller, was the only president with a prior career in entertainment.  He poked fun at himself: “Just to show you how youthful I am, I intend to campaign in all thirteen states.”   When horseback riding with Queen Elizabeth, her mount passed a substantial amount of gas.  She apologized: “I’m sorry.”  Reagan shot back, “Why, Your Majesty,  I thought it was the horse.”

George W. Bush: “These stories about my intellectual capacity really get under my skin.  For awhile, I even thought my staff believed it.  There on my schedule first thing every morning it said, “Intelligence Briefing.”

Barack Obama: At an observance of International Woman’s Day he said, “I salute heroic women from those on the Mayflower to the one I’m blessed to call my wife, who looked across the dinner table and thought, ‘I’m smarter than that guy.'”

Some information in this post came from http://www.npr.org, http://www.revolutionaryarchive.org, http://www.alternet.org, and http://www.politicalhumor.org.

The Morrises

One writer likes to listen to stories of another, but when they’re coming from Pullitzer Prize and American Book Award winner Edmund Morris, ears upshift to a different plane.

A great storyteller, like the presidents he’s written about.  (Thornwillow Press photo)

Morris gave a book talk last Friday night in New York for members of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, something my daughter and I had looked forward to attending for several months.  The author spoke about his new collector’s volume, Nine Lives of Theodore Roosevelt, exquisitely produced by Thornwillow Press.  Who but Edmund Morris to choose nine categories profiled by Theodore’s writings?  Who but the creator of the trilogy The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt, which total 2,500 pages?  Morris oughta know the essence of the twenty-sixth president: He spent thirty years of his life studying the sixty of TR’s.

In person, as in print, he didn’t disappoint us — my favorite story was of Margaret Thatcher quoting TR’s “Man in the Arena” impromptu at a party for the Reagans.  Morris described the speech as “catnip for other orators,” a metaphor which put me in mind of the times our old housecat escaped to a patch of the stuff out by the barn.  Catnip for orators!  I love his words, even the ones that keep me from speed reading his books because I have to look them up.

This Living Hand and Other Essays (Random House, 2013), is a chronological collection of Morris’s work from 1972 to 2003.  Most of them have been published elsewhere, a few haven’t, and some are talks he’s given.  He chose images for the beginning of each piece which represent his thoughts as he was composing.  You need to read this.  He was pleased to hear that I had, when I got to speak with him after the presentation.

 

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One of the essays in Living Hand is “Lady of Letters,” a tribute to his wife, Sylvia Jukes Morris.  She was also at the Friday event and also a joy to speak with.  Sylvia, whose Edith Roosevelt biography is a classic, just published Price of Fame (Random House, 2014), the second half of the life of Clare Booth Luce.  I told her I had started it but that it was taking me some time to absorb.  She said, “Yes, she had so much depth, and so many layers, didn’t she?”

 

Sylvia Jukes Morris (newyorksocialdiary.com photo)

Mr. and Mrs. Morris’s depth in literature, wit and audience appeal is hard to match.  They are distinguished and down-to-earth.  I could listen to them every Friday night, but I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with reading their books.  That will not be hard.