Review of Letters From Moritz Thomsen by Christopher West Davis (Kenya 1975-78)

letters-moritz-140Letters From Moritz Thomsen
by Christopher West Davis (Kenya 1975–78)
Create Space
$ 11.95 (paperback)
137 pages

Review by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)

WHEN YOU OPEN A BOOK and read the first paragraph that begins:

One lazy spring afternoon in 1981, a high school friend from New York, Peter L., showed up at the door of my basement apartment in Washington, D.C. with a scruffy old geezer in tow. The old guy was writer Moritz Thomsen, 64 at the time, once dubbed “the greatest American writer you’ve never heard of,” who was making a rare trip north from his self-imposed exile in Ecuador to visit his literary friends and agent in New York, and take the train down here to D.C. to attend a lecture by another of his friends, Paul Theroux, at the Library of  Congress.

Well, you know you are dealing with a real writer. Christopher West Davis is a real writer, and he has pulled together a small book (137 pages) of  letters he received over a decade from another real writer, Moritz Thomsen.

Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65) is perhaps our most famous “real” RPCV writer, and Moritz is perhaps our least known “real writer.” My guess, however, is that even Tall Paul bows in the direction of Thomsen (Ecuador 1965–67). What a writer Moritz Thomsen was. What a character. What a sad ending to a gifted man.

living-poorThomsen published four books in his life, and the first was his famous Peace Corps memoir, Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle, published in 1978 by Random House when he was in his late fifties, and  republished in 1990 (and still in print) by the University of Washington Press. It is not only a Peace Corps classic. It is a classic classic.

That book by Moritz drew a lot of Peace Corps would-be writers to his door, or they sought him out by mail. It was difficult not to reach out to Thomsen after you read his books.

Over the years, I have published in our old newsletter and on the web recollections from RPCVs who tracked him down in Quito or on his farm on the river of Emeralds. These RPCVs would  sit at his feet, grab what scraps of knowledge and insight they could from the man about being a writer, being an ex-pat, being a lovable old son-of-a-bitch.

I even have a few Moritz’s letters myself, tucked away and kept for literary historians when they come around to honor this man and his writings. They’ll ask,  “say, do you have any letters from Thomsen?” Maybe I’ll give them up. Maybe not. I can be a son-of-a-bitch, too.

Chris Davis, however, is a nice guy and he has given up his letters, and he has done us — and the world — a huge favor by printing and publishing letters that were written by Thomsen from 1981, shortly before Moritz’s third book came out, his travelogue through Brazil (The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers), and spanning the next ten years, until shortly before his death.

In the preface of this collection,  Davis describes going with Moritz to the Library of Congress to hear Paul Theroux’s lecture on that spring evening in 1981. It is a wonderful narrative as Davis, the outsider, the young RPCV writer, observed the famous and the gifted, and the literary types who gravitate to such toney events. These twenty pages of observations and descriptions are worth the price of his book alone.

The meat of the book, however, are Moritz’s letters to Chris from the end of June 1981 to May 5, 1991. It is amazing how Thomsen’s personality comes through in these long ago sentences. It is like looking through glass, like seeing smooth pebbles in the bed of a swift moving mountain stream, nothing is hidden of the man. He poured his soul into sentences that were written in pencil, “scrawled on a page torn out of a spiral-bound notebook.”

I wouldn’t recommend this book to people who have not yet had the opportunity and pleasure to read Moritz books. It would be wasted on them. Those readers would think Moritz was a crabby, cranky old man, and indeed he was. There was such a sadness about him. Chris describes him accurately when they first meet in his basement apartment.

Moritz Thomsen was gaunt and wild-looking, with his beaky nose and dry, thin stretched lips. Slow moving, he had weathered, creased skin and an enviable generous head of scarecrow gray hair badly in need of a trim. He wore what looked like brand new, baggy jeans and a dark brown herringbone tweed sports coat that seemed to float just above his shoulders without making contact. He looked as if he might have been doing hard time on a tropical penal colony, an extra from central casting for the movie Papillion. He lit up a Marlboro every fifteen minutes or so.

At the end of Moritz’s life, Chris writes his last letter to him. Chris explains in his book, “On August 28, 1991, Moritz Thomsen died of cholera in his apartment, having refused a simple treatment that probably would have saved him. . . . I learned about his death months after mailing the letter and have no idea whether or not he ever saw it.”

Chris Davis’ last letter was written on the 3rd of May ’91. He was worried about how sick Moritz was and wrote, “Christ, Moritz, if you’re sick, then how sick? And what are you doing about it! If there’s anything I can do, please tell me and stop signing off with infuriating things like ‘I’m sick, sick, sick!’ So am I, by the way. So is this whole fucking planet, for that matter!”

After all these years since Moritz Thomsen died I still receive emails from all over the world that come to me because readers from faraway places type “Thomsen” into a search engine on the Internet and up come the interviews I have done on my Peace Corps Writers sites, the profiles, the reviews of his books, the articles written by other RPCVs. These strangers from far away have read one or the other of Moritz Thomsen’s memoirs, the long stories of his short life. And always, and no matter who they are, Moritz has grabbed their attention with his wise words on the printed page.

It is amazing really that this man could attract the attention of so many readers from so many walks of life.  They marveled at his wit, his wisdom, and his wonderful and finally very sad life.

In ending his book of letters, Chris Davis quotes from a review by the fine writer Tim Cahill who reviewed My Two Wars, Thomsen’s last book  published five years after his death. Cahill wrote, “The man lived in lacerating voluntary poverty, a ragamuffin wordsmith little read or appreciated outside of a small coterie of awestruck writers and editors. This is his fourth and last book. Like the other three, it is a masterpiece.”

Well, add to memoirs, after all these years, Letters From Moritz Thomsen published by a young RPCV writer who one lazy spring afternoon back in 1981 opened the door of his basement apartment in Washington, D.C. and met a scruffy old geezer from Ecuador who was even then a legend in the Peace Corps world, and today is a legend in the world where great writing is still cherished.

Thank you, Chris, for giving us the last of  Moritz Thomsen’s prose and poetry.


Leave a comment
  • Nice touch, John. My favorite Thomsen book is “The Saddest Pleasure” within which he describes a boat trip down the Amazon, sprinkling in commentary and memories of his father. Paul Theroux’s introduction is touching: “I liked him the minute I met him…” and also very insightful.

  • Sad, I never met Moritz…but felt he was always inside that newly minted Volunteer that comes along every now and then, with a touch of Moritz in how they view their community and Peace Corps site. Now that we no longer have “book lockers” issued to new Volunteers, why not a copy of Living Poor before they are allowed to be sworn in! Thanks John…and thanks Moritz. Bob

  • I am a RPCV (Chad 78-79, evacuated) who never heard of Thomsen until read I Paul Theroux’s The Tao of Travel this week. He is on my short list after reading a few paragraphs from Paul and a few online reviews. Thanks for sharing this.

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