I first encountered Jan Morris, who died this week at age 94, on the discount rack.
For years, I’d spent my lunch hours haunting an antiquarian bookstore a few blocks from the SCHOLAR’s office in Washington’s Dupont Circle. Weather permitting, a dozen carts of beat-up books would occupy the sidewalk out front, meant to attract the interest of passersby and perhaps lure them inside to look through the many rarer, pricier volumes on offer. I shamefully admit that, in the spring of 2014, when I fished a soiled paperback of Heaven’s Command (1973) from a shelf of spy thrillers and outdated guidebooks, I’d never heard of its author and knew little of its subject—the rise of the British Empire. Standing there, I read the first page, then another. I paid a dollar and kept on reading, obsessively. Within a few months, I had blown through the two subsequent volumes of Morris’s Pax Britannica trilogy, totaling some 1,700 pages. My interests had long since moved from history and biography to literature, but Morris reminded me of the immense potential of nonfiction not only to inform but to enlighten and entertain. Numerous times, devouring her detailed portrait of the Victorian world, I had found myself smiling or even laughing. Her voice displayed deep authority and knowing wit, her words an effortless cadence of enchantment. She became, for me, the prose giant of the past century, and her trilogy the supreme example of what can happen when the right writer finds the right subject.
I won’t belabor the well-known highlights of her life—her reporting from Edmund Hillary’s historic 1953 ascent of Mount Everest (documented in Coronation Everest), her controversial sex change from James to Jan in the early 1970s (described in Conundrum), her classic history of Venice, or the many other books and essays she wrote about the many, many places she visited. Morris was already nearing the end of a singularly successful writing career by the time I discovered her. Still, I hoped that I might persuade her to work with me. At the time, the SCHOLAR was publishing a weekly online column called “Writing Lessons,” in which we asked our favorite writers about the best advice they had ever received. I emailed Jan to invite her to contribute. “Alas, I’m the wrong person for this particular operation,” she responded. “You mustn’t think me conceited, but the truth is, I was simply born to the job, for better or worse, and neither sought nor received advice from anyone. Destiny said, ‘Go, join the company of middle-rank authors’—and here I am!”
Middle-rank authors? What does that make the rest of us?
It took some convincing, but eventually Jan did contribute to the magazine, and she did so on several occasions, including an essay about growing old, titled “Keep Smiling.” Even back then, she felt herself failing—forgetting names, misplacing things, stumbling. But her prose remained as characteristic as ever, addressing the fearful prospect of advanced age and death with a wink and a sage grin: “Old age is the right to be absolutely ourselves. Laugh, cry, satirize it, my friends, when your time comes—but make the most of it, too!” She urged her readers to look for the good in their lives, to persist in the face of adversity, and above all, to be kind to each other:
I myself require no holy mumbo-jumbos, miracles and exorcisms, angels and ascensions. I simply believe that everything one does in life can be measured against a scale of kindness. None of us can ever achieve full marks on the scale, and kindness itself must sometimes be weighed in the balance—is it ever kind to be cruel?—yet it seems to me that if there is any ultimate judge out there beyond the Milky Way, we can hardly be faulted if we have done our kindly best.
And just as Jan’s kindness came through in her work, so it did in her life. As I look through my correspondence with her, and at the pieces she wrote for us, I see something repeated over and over: the exclamation point! Where other writers fear exclamations, Jan reveled in them, and not by accident or inattention: her use of ! reflected very clearly her boundless enthusiasm for, well, everything. For me, her use of the exclamation point exemplifies her fearless idiosyncrasy, as both a person and a writer. Any of us might easily pick out one of her sentences from a lineup, perhaps without knowing why or how. Such is the mark of a masterly stylist.
The comma, too, I will always associate with Jan, albeit for less exalted reasons. Once, when I attempted to insert a serial comma in one of her pieces, in accordance with our house style, Jan responded: “Drop the comma, or drop the piece.” No doubt Jan was in a poor mood that day, but she taught me an important lesson: editors should enforce the rules of grammar, but also recognize when they should be ignored.
Needless to say, I dropped the comma.
Strangely enough, the day before I learned that Jan had died, I was idly flipping through my Folio edition of Pax Britannica, which holds on honored place on my shelf. In its pages, I found a note from her that I’d squirreled away. It was written in ballpoint ink on personalized notepaper, with JAN MORRIS emblazoned across the top—just a simple note of thanks for some long-forgotten transaction. But even here, in four words, I found her personality leaping from the page, radiating the warmth and friendliness that I had come to know: Thanks! Keep Smiling! Jan.
I’ll do my best, Jan, but it will be a little harder now that you’re gone.
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