Peace Corps Writers
Howls from a Hungry Place

Part II
The Farm on the River of Emeralds

Part III
The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers
My Two Wars

To preserve and to learn
Howls From a Hungry Place, Part I
Mortiz Thomsen’s
Living Poor

by Mark Covert

 More Peace Corps history:

A Peace Corps Test    

 Establishing the PC   

Living on the Edge: Paul Theroux   

The Marjorie Michelmore Postcard

Outward Bound -
Puerto Rico training

2/15/62 - PA newspaper doubts future
of Peace Corps

PCV Accused of
Murdering His Wife

The Real Job of the Peace Corps - a ’60s staff member’s view

March 1, 1961

Schickele Peace Corps film

The Museum of the Peace Corps Experience

THERE IS A BIT OF A DONNYBROOK taking place in the world of book lovers these days. It seems Jonathan Franzen, on tour to promote his latest offering, The Corrections, has been expressing his dismay at being chosen as one of the Anointed Few to be invited by OprahPrinter friendly version Winfrey to appear on her monthly book club program. Oprah heard of his hesitancy to take her oft-suckled teat and liked it not; as a result she withdrew her offer, setting the stage for a good old-fashioned brawl between “elitist” authors like Franzen and “popular” authors like those championed by Winfrey.
     This sort of flareup is not exactly new, but Salon’s Laura Miller saw this latest battle as her chance to make some pointed observations on this long-standing feud. In her article of October 26, “Book Lovers’ Quarrel,” Miller absolutely nails “the deeply unattractive tendency for book people to act like stingy trolls sitting atop a mound of treasure they don’t want to share. If they did, it would be a lot harder to use their reading habits as a way of feeling better than other people.”
     That’s quite a statement to lob into the fray, made all the more stinging by the fact that it’s true. Perched squarely atop my own precious pile of treasured authors is a man named Moritz Thomsen. While I may offer in my own defense a long-held desire to write about him, possibly something along the lines of a full biography, I must confess a certain troll-like satisfaction that nobody I mention him to has ever heard of him. It’s a trite phrase, I admit, but Moritz Thomsen could well be the finest American writer you’ve never heard of.
     Thomsen wrote four books in his lifetime: Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle, The Farm on the River of Emeralds, The Saddest Pleasure, and My Two Wars (a fifth manuscript, Bad News from a Black Coast, is still being shuffled about by hesitant publishing companies). His life came to a painful end on August 28, 1991, in his apartment in Guayaquil, Ecuador. He was 75 years old, suffering from advanced emphysema brought on by years of chain-smoking, combined with cholera, a scourge of third-world countries; his body broken as well from a lifetime of toil as a farmer and Peace Corps Volunteer. He joined the Peace Corps at the age of 48, spent about four years as a Volunteer in Ecuador, and just never left. That’s about as much biographical information you would need to introduce excerpts of his work or even to put on dust jackets, since Thomsen’s four books are all memoirs; they contain everything he cared to say about his extraordinary (my word, not his) life.
     Thomsen’s choice of memoir as his genre may partly explain his “little-known” status. When writing a memoir, it’s easy to slip into writing an autobiography, and from there into outright self-aggrandizement or self-pity, and Thomsen has been accused of both by his detractors. Tim Cahill, for one, wrote a mostly positive review of The Saddest Pleasure for the New York Times Book Review, but expressed “. . . an urge to grab Mr. Thomsen, to shake some sense into him” for what he saw as Thomsen feeling sorry for himself. But Thomsen avoids these pitfalls as long as readers see that he is writing down stories of his impressions and the stories of others’ lives, with Thomsen taking center stage only when the time has come for a good dose of self-deprecation. If he needs to point out the foibles and eccentricities of humans, he has at his disposal his favorite target for scorn — himself.
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