I am very impressed that so many ( actually only two) RPCVs had anything to say about the “Great Peace Corps novel” so let’s see what we can generate regarding ‘other’ books about the Peace Corps Experience: Peace Corps Memoirs.
God knows we have more than a few academic and commercial books, as well as, self published books of what the Peace Corps was like going back to the first days of the agency.
The very first Peace Corps memoir (written by an RPCV) is Arnold Zeitlin’s To the Peace Corps with Love published by Doubleday in 1965. Zeitlin was a PCV with the first group of Volunteers to Ghana, in 1961. Zeitlin had been a young reporter before going into the Peace Corps, and after his tour he was a journalist all his life, living around the world until his recent retirement.
Another journalist, after his Peace Corps years, is Leonard Levitt. He wrote a terrific book, An African Season, published in 1966 by Simon and Schuster. Levitt served in (then) Tanganyika from 1963-66). He wrote a piece for my first collection of writings by RPCV called Going Up Country. That book was published by Schribners in 1994. Levitt’s piece is about his return to his Peace Corps school in upcounty Tanzania.
In 1968 Alan Weiss (Nigeria 1963-64) published High Risk/High Gain, his account of Peace Corps Training in the U.S. at Columbia University in New York. Weiss was a troubled soul who had as many enemies as he had friends and he lasted about a year in Nigeria, then ETed so that he could marry the girl he left behind. He never published another book besides his tale of Peace Corps Training, though he tried to be a writer and published a few short piece. He also started work on a book about Nigeria.
Years after the Peace Corps, years after he was married, he was a writer-in-residence at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. While there he read a piece he had written about attending a lecture by Malcolm X while he was in Nigeria. He wrote later, “about 100 people listened to my reading and it got an electrified response. Rocking response.”
Late one night while at Breadloaf he drove into town and had an accident. He smashed his van into a bridge abutment. The van was totaled and he went into a coma. He recovered, seemed normal, but after a few months he became manic. He then became depressed. Nine months later on March 10, 1971 he shot a bullet through his heart. He was 33.
Other Peace Corps memoirs came fast and furious in those early years of the Peace Corps. One of the best was The Making Of An Un-American: A Dialogue With Experience by Paul Cowan who was in Ecuador from 1966-67. This book was published by Viking in 1970. And, of course, Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle by Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965-67) that set the standard for Peace Corps memoirs. Moritz published his book in 1969.
It wasn’t, however, to the eighties that a flood of Peace Corps memories began and we had had some wonderful books by RPCVs. Over the next few weeks, I will give you what I consider the best books by PCVs, doing it by regions. I hope you have time and the inclination to respond with your favorite memoirs. I will start with Africa which has produced the largest number of accounts of Peace Corps tours and where it will be very difficult to pick a favorite. Stay tuned.