Letters from Moritz Thomsen: Peace Corps Legend

Years ago Chris Davis graduated from the University of Virginia and went to Kenya (1975–78) as a PCV. He served a year in Maasailand, another year in Kikuyuland and also volunteered with the Flying Doctors, did some field research with a primatologist in Amboseli, and had time to play rock guitar in the pit of the Kenya National Theatre.

Coming home, Chris got a job as a speechwriter for the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. And while he was at the NEA, he met Peace Corps writer Moritz Thomsen, and that is what is really important to know.

After meeting Moritz, Chris went onto work as a staff writer at U.S. News & World Report covering science and medicine as he had minor in pre-med at UVA.

Moving back to New York he worked as a news writer at NBC at 30 Rock and then went to work at Hearst Magazines on two magazines: Popular Mechanics and Motor Boating & Sailing before moving onto Reader’s Digest.

He also started free lancing for The New York Times, covering Westchester County from 2001 to 2005, and doing feature articles for Reader’s Digest  (and several of its foreign editions). He is still writing for Readers’ Digest, and is also writing for Discovery Channel Magazine on everything from the International Space Station to the hominid fossil finds on Flores, Indonesia.

In 2005 he was named Aerospace Journalist of the Year by the Royal Aeronautical Society (London) for an article he wrote for McGraw-Hill’s Business and Commercial Aviation magazine about Lear jets. Most recently he was commissioned to write a book about a neurosurgeon in Virginia who, over the past 15 years, has built a hospital in Ghana.

But what does all that have to do with Moritz Thomsen?

Well, as Chris wrote me the other day:

I met Moritz Thomsen in 1981 through a friend in D.C. and accompanied him to a lecture at the Library of Congress given by Paul Theroux. Theroux had recently given Moritz a 3-page cameo in his Patagonia book and it was a big rush to hobnob withboth of these illustrious ex-Peace Corps gents at the reception.

Moritz took an interest in my writing and in fact took some of it back to New York to show to his agent. He returned to Ecuador and we never met again but stayed in touch writing the kind of indulgent, thoughtful, extravagant letters that most Peace Corps volunteers depend on to stay sane. Moritz and I shared a passion for great music and great literature, so we were never at a loss for stuff to kick around. He also entrusted me with editing his third book, The Saddest Pleasure, though my contributions to the final product are minimal, if there at all. I also tried to help get what would have been his fifth book, Bad News from a Black Coast, published, which led to the brief falling out we had, but mended.

What did come of our correspondence, however, was a deep and abiding friendship, which I think is clearly evident in these letters. He was a brilliant intellect with a deep generosity of spirit and zero tolerance level for bullshit. The ideal correspondent. letters-moritz-150His letters have always been a treasure to me, an encouragement to keep at it, and I thought it proper to share them with anyone who might be interested in reading them. Ideally, it will lead people back to his four books, which are never dated or dusty reads, but just as alive and vital as when they were written. I think his work has been unfairly left behind. This is the 20th anniversary of his death. Maybe he’s due.

What Chris Davis did was collect and publish the letters in his new book Letters from Moritz Thomsen that came out this month. You can find it at Amazon. Now this is a great holiday gift for any and all of us.


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  • My mother and Moritz went to college together and were friends. I have a cancelled check signed by him (a donation she made) that I use as a bookmark in Geraldine Kennedy’s anthology, FROM THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. My name is next to Moritz’s on the back cover. I must confess it was a thrill to see it there.

  • I never met Moritz, though he lived and worked in a village just north of our PC site on the coast of Ecuador. He was there the 2nd year that my husband and I served in Manta. I do know his books, and “The Living Poor” is also about Ecuador, as is our book “The Barrios of Manta.” I am happy to get word of this collection of his letters, and look forward to reading this new offering. Rhoda Brooks

  • Here’s a question about Moritz Thomsen that I’ve wondered about that perhaps someone on this board who is familiar with the publishing industry can answer for me. I noticed the first time I read “Living Poor” in 1969 that that on the copyright page for the book the copyright holder is University of Washington Press, not Moritz Thomsen.


    Why didn’t Thomsen hold the copyright to his own book? Was it so hard to get a book published about the Peace Corps in the 1960s that authors had to give up their rights and their royalties to the publishers to get their books into print?

    Thomsen’s later books starting with The farm on the river of Emeralds were all copyrighted under Thomsen’s name. Why was “Living Poor” different?

    Best Regards,

    Hugh Pickens

  • Only Thomsen, an intimate friend or a representative of the University of Washington could answer that. I have not read his book of letters. Perhaps the answer is in it.

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