A Look into the Wondrous Life & Expansive Work of the Late Jan Morris, Who Wrote the Entire World

Jan Mor­ris spent her long life and career writ­ing about the world. Her volu­mi­nous body of work includes books about coun­tries like Spain, the Unit­ed States, and her ances­tral home­land of Wales; cities like Oxford, Tri­este, and Syd­ney; and even city-states like Hong Kong and her beloved (if some­times resent­ed) Venice. And yet, as she declared on CBS Sun­day Morn­ing twen­ty years ago, “I hate being called a trav­el writer, and I don’t believe I am one. When I go to a place, I describe its effect upon my own sen­si­bil­i­ty. I’m not telling the read­er what they’re going to find there; I’m just telling peo­ple what effect the place has had upon me.” To The Paris Review she called her­self a “a bel­letrist, an old-fash­ioned word,” and a bel­letrist “most­ly con­cerned with place.”

“It’s hard not to be fas­ci­nat­ed by Jan Mor­ris,” says Observ­er edi­tor Robert McCrum in the BBC pro­file just above. This would be true of any writer who had seen and con­sid­ered so much of the Earth, which in Mor­ris’ case also hap­pens to include the top of Mt. Ever­est, con­quered in 1953 along with the his­to­ry-mak­ing expe­di­tion of Sir Edmund Hillary.

She reached the sum­mit as a he, hav­ing lived for her first forty or so years as James Mor­ris; becom­ing Jan, in her per­cep­tion, con­sti­tut­ed a jour­ney of anoth­er kind. “I have inter­pret­ed this thing roman­ti­cal­ly, coy­ly, and tweely as some sort of a quest that has been imposed upon me,” she said in a 1974 talk-show appear­ance pro­mot­ing her nar­ra­tive of tran­si­tion Conun­drum — “an arro­gant book, an ego­tis­ti­cal book about myself, and I’m afraid that you must take it or leave it.”

Just as Mor­ris nev­er called her­self a trav­el writer, she nev­er spoke of hav­ing under­gone a sex change. “I did not change sex,” she told her final inter­view­er, The Guardian’s Tim Adams. “I real­ly absorbed one into the oth­er. I’m a bit of each now.” For her many read­ers, this great­ly deep­ens her val­ue as an observ­er. “I’ve writ­ten as an out­sider, always,” as she puts it to McCrum. “I’ve nev­er pre­tend­ed to get inside the spir­it, or the thoughts of oth­er cul­tures, oth­er peo­ple, oth­er cities, even. I’m always the onlook­er.” And yet this very nature made her, among oth­er things, “the kind­est, shrewdest and most inde­fati­ga­ble mas­ter por­traitist of cities,” as her fel­low writer of place Pico Iyer tweet­ed in response to the news of her death on Novem­ber 20 at the age of 94.

Among Mor­ris’ work not filed under “trav­el” one finds sub­jects like Abra­ham Lin­coln, the Japan­ese Bat­tle­ship Yam­a­to, and the rise and fall of the British Empire. To my mind, this his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive did a good deal to make her a mod­el “city crit­ic,” and one whose work lights the way for writ­ers of place to come. She con­tin­ued pub­lish­ing that work up until the end — and indeed will con­tin­ue past it, a delib­er­ate­ly posthu­mous vol­ume called Alle­go­riz­ings hav­ing been com­plet­ed years ago. “When I die, which I’m going to one of these days, I think peo­ple will be able to say that I’ve writ­ten an awful lot of books about the whole world at a par­tic­u­lar moment,” Mor­ris said in a recent inter­view on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb. She enjoyed a longer moment, not to men­tion a wider expanse, than most; through her writ­ing, we’ll car­ry on enjoy­ing it our­selves.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Venice in Beau­ti­ful Col­or Images 125 Years Ago: The Rial­to Bridge, St. Mark’s Basil­i­ca, Doge’s Palace & More

Watch the Rise and Fall of the British Empire in an Ani­mat­ed Time-Lapse Map ( 519 A.D. to 2014 A.D.)

Watch Sir Edmund Hillary Describe His Ever­est Ascent, on the 60th Anniver­sary of His Climb

The Dig­i­tal Trans­gen­der Archive Fea­tures Books, Mag­a­zines & Pho­tos Telling the His­to­ry of Trans­gen­der Cul­ture

The Best Writ­ing Advice Pico Iyer Ever Received

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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