West with the Night (Modern Library Nonfiction #85)

(This is the sixteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: This Boy’s Life.)

She remains a bold and inspiring figure, a galvanizing tonic shimmering into the empty glass of a bleak political clime. She was bright and uncompromising and had piercingly beautiful eyes. She was a stratospheric human spire who stood tall and tough and resolute above a patriarchal sargasso. Three decades after her death, she really should be better known. Her name is Beryl Markham and this extraordinary woman has occupied my time and attentions for many months. She has even haunted my dreams. Forget merely persisting, which implies a life where one settles for the weaker hand. Beryl Markham existed, plowing through nearly every challenge presented to her with an exquisite equipoise as coolly resilient as the Black Lives Matter activist fearlessly approaching thuggish cops in a fluttering dress. I have now read her memoir West with the Night three times. There is a pretty good chance I will pore through its poetic commitment to fate and feats again before the year is up. If you are seeking ways to be braver, West with the Night is your guidebook.

She grew up in Kenya, became an expert horse trainer, and befriended the hunters of her adopted nation, where she smoothly communed with dangerous animals. For Markham, the wilderness was something to be welcomed rather than dreaded. Her natural panorama provided “silences that can speak” that were pregnant with natural wonder even while being sliced up by the cutting whirl of a propeller blade. But Markham believed in being present well before mindfulness became a widely adopted panacea. She cultivated a resilient and uncanny prescience as her instinct galvanized her to live with beasts and brethren of all types. It was a presence mastered through constant motion. “Never turn your back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead,” wrote Markham when considering how to leave a place where one has lived and loved. This sentiment may no longer be possible in an era where one’s every word and move is monitored, exhumed by the easily outraged and the unadventurous for even the faintest malfeasance, but it is still worth holding close to one’s heart.

In her adult life, Markham carried on many scandalous affairs with prominent men (including Denys Finch Hatton, who Markham wooed away from Karen Blixen, the Danish author best known for Out of Africa (to be chronicled in MLNF #58)) and fell almost by accident into a life commanding planes, often scouting landscapes from above for safari hunts. Yet Markham saw the butcherous brio for game as an act of impudence, even as she viewed elephant hunting as no “more brutal than ninety per cent of all other human activities.” This may seem a pessimistic observation, although Markham’s memoir doesn’t feel sour because it always considers the world holistically. At one point, Markham writes, “Nothing is more common than birth: a million creatures are born in the time it takes to turn this page, and another million die.” And this grander vantage point, which would certainly be arrived at by someone who viewed the earth so frequently from the sky, somehow renders Markham’s more brusque views as pragmatic. She preferred the company of men to women, perhaps because her own mother abandoned her at a very young age. Yet I suspect that this fierce lifelong grudge was likely aligned with Markham’s drive to succeed with a carefully honed and almost effortlessly superhuman strength.

Markham endured pain and fear and discomfort without complaint, even when she was attacked by a lion, and somehow remained casual about her vivacious life, even after she became the first person to fly solo without a radio in a buckling plane across the Atlantic from east to west, where she soldiered on through brutal winds and reputational jeers from those who believed she could not make the journey. But she did. Because her habitually adventurous temperament, which always recognized the importance of pushing forward with your gut, would not stop her. And if all this were not enough, Markham wrote a masterpiece so powerful that even the macho egotist Ernest Hemingway was forced to prostrate himself to editor Maxwell Perkins in a letter: “She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.” (Alas, this did not stop Hemingway from undermining her in the same paragraph as “a high-grade bitch” and “very unpleasant” with his typically sexist belittlement, a passage conveniently elided from most citations. Still, there’s something immensely satisfying in knowing that the bloated and overly imitated impostor, who plundered Martha Gellhorn’s column inches in Collier’s because he couldn’t handle his own wife being a far superior journalist, could get knocked off his peg by a woman who simply lived.)

In considering the human relationship to animals, Markham writes, “You cannot discredit truth merely because legend has grown out of it.” She details the beauty of elephants going out of their way to hide their dead, dragging corpses well outside the gaze of ape-descended midgets and other predators. And there is something about Markham’s majestic perspective that causes one to reject popular legends, creating alternative stories about the earth that are rooted in the more reliable soil of intuitive and compassionate experience. For Markham, imagination arrived through adventure rather than dreams. She declares that she “seldom dreamed a dream worth dreaming again, or at least none worth recording,” yet the fatigue of flying does cause her to perceive a rock as “a crumpled plane or a mass of twisted metal.”

Yet this considerable literary accomplishment (to say nothing of Markham’s significant aviation achievements) has been sullied by allegations of plagiarism. It was a scandal that caused even The Rumpus‘s Megan Mayhew Bergman to lose faith in Markham’s bravery. Raoul Schumacher, Markham’s third husband, was an alcoholic and a largely mediocre ghost writer who, much like Derek Stanford to Muriel Spark, could not seem to countenance that his life and work would never measure up to the woman he was with. Fragile male ego is a most curious phenomenon that one often finds when plunging into the lives of great women: not only are these women attracted to dissolute losers who usually fail to produce any noteworthy work of their own, but these men attempt to make up for their failings by installing or inventing themselves as collaborators, later claiming to be the indispensable muse or the true author all along, which is advantageously announced only after a great woman has secured her success. Biographers and critics who write about these incidents years later often accept the male stories (one rarely encounters this in reverse), even when the details contain the distinct whiff of a football field mired in bullshit.

I was not satisfied with the superficial acceptance of these rumors by Wikipedia, Robert O’Brien, and Michiko Kakutani. So I took it upon myself to read two Markham biographies (Mary S. Lovell’s Straight on Till Morning and Errol Trzebinski’s The Lives of Beryl Markham), where I hoped that the sourcing would offer a more reliable explanation.

I discovered that Trzebinski was largely conjectural, distressingly close to the infamous Kitty Kelley with her scabrous insinuations (accusations of illiteracy, suggestions that Markham could not pronounce words), and that Lovell was by far the more doggedly reliable and diligent source. Trzebinski also waited until many of the players were dead before publishing her biography, which is rather convenient timing, given that she relies heavily on conversations she had with them for sources.

The problem with Schumacher’s claim is that one can’t easily resolve the issue by going to a handwritten manuscript. West with the Night‘s manuscript was typed, dictated to Schumacher by Markham (see the above photo). The only photograph I have found (from the Lovell biography) shows Markham offering clear handwritten edits. So there is little physical evidence to suggest that Schumacher was the secret pilot. We have only his word for it and that of the friends he told, who include Scott O’Dell. Trzebinski, who is the main promulgator of these rumors, is slipshod with her sources, relying only upon a nebulous “Fox/Markham/Schumacher data” cluster (with references to “int. the late Scott O’Dell/James Fox, New York, April 1987” and “15/5/87” — presumably the same material drawn upon for James Fox’s “The Beryl Markham Mystery,” which appeared in the March 1987 issue of Vanity Fair, as well as a Scott O’Dell letter that was also published in the magazine) that fails to cite anything specific and relies on hearsay. When one factors in an incredulous story that Trzebinski spread about her own son’s death that the capable detectives at Scotland Yard were unable to corroborate, along with Trzebinski’s insistence on camera in the 1986 documentary World Without Walls that only a woman could have written West with the Night, one gets the sense that Trzebinski is the more unreliable and gossipy biographer. And Lovell offers definitive evidence which cast aspersions on Tzrebinski’s notion that Markham was something of a starry-eyed cipher:

But this proof of editing by Raoul, which some see as evidence that Beryl might not have been the sole author of the book, surely proved only that he acted as editor. Indeed his editing may have been responsible for the minor errors such as the title arap appearing as Arab. Together with the Americanization of Beryl’s Anglicized spelling, such changes could well have been standard editorial conversions (by either Raoul or Lee Barker – Houghton Mifflin’s commissioning editor) for a work aimed primarily at an American readership.

The incorrect spelling of Swahili words has an obvious explanation. In all cases they were written as Beryl pronounced them. She had learned the language as a child from her African friends but had probably never given much thought to the spelling. Neither Raoul nor anyone at Houghton Mifflin would have known either way.

In his letter to Vanity Fair, and in two subsequent telephone conversations with me, Scott O’Dell claimed that after he introduced Beryl and Raoul “they disappeared and surfaced four months later,” when Raoul told him that Beryl had written a memoir and asked what they should do with it. This is at odds with the surviving correspondence and other archived material which proves that the book was in production from early 1941 to January 1942, and that almost from the start Beryl was in contact with Lee Barker of Houghton Mifflin.

When Raoul told his friend that it was he who had written the book, could the explanation not be that he was embittered by his own inability to write without Beryl’s inspiration? That he exaggerated his editorial assistance into authorship to cover his own lack of words as a writer?

From the series of letters between Beryl and Houghton Mifflin, it is clear that Beryl had sent regular batches of work to the publishers before Raoul came into the picture. As explained earlier, Dr. Warren Austin lived in the Bahamas from 1942 to 1944, was physician to HRH the Duke of Windsor and became friends with Major Gray Phillips. Subsequently Dr. Austin lived for a while with Beryl and Raoul whilst he was looking for a house in Santa Barbara. The two often discussed their mutual connections in Raoul’s presence. Dr. Austin is certain that Raoul had never visited the Bahamas, reasoning that it would certainly have been mentioned during these conversations if he had. This speaks for itself. If Raoul was not even present when such a significant quantity of work was produced, then that part – at the very least – must have been written by Beryl.

Lovell’s supportive claims have not gone without challenge. James Fox claimed in The Spectator that he had seen “photostated documents, from the trunk since apparently removed as ‘souvenirs’ and thus not available to Lovell, which show that Schumacher took part in the earliest planning of the contents and the draft outline for the publisher and show whole passages written by Schumacher in handwriting.” But even he is forced to walk the ball back and claim that this “proves nothing in terms of authorship.” Since Fox is so fixated on “seeing” evidence rather than producing it, he may as well declare that he visited Alaska and could see Russia from his AirBnB or that he once observed giant six-legged wombats flying from the deliquescent soup he had for supper. If this is the “Fox/Markham/Schumacher data” that Trzebinski relied upon, then the plagiarism charge is poor scholarship and poor journalism indeed.

So I think it’s safe for us to accept Markham’s authorship unless something provable and concrete appears and still justifiably admire a woman who caused Hemingway to stop in his tracks, a woman who outmatched him in insight and words, a woman – who like many incredible women – was belittled by a sloppy, gossip-peddling, and opportunistic biographer looking to make name for herself (and the puff piece hack who enabled her) rather than providing us with the genuine and deserved insight on a truly remarkable figure of the 20th century.

Next Up: Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie!

5. Compassion Fatigue (The Gray Area)

Emma is a top-notch psychiatrist who can change the lives of the most difficult patients imaginable. But there’s a great personal cost to her formidable talents that she’s not telling anyone about, an internal torment eating away at her inner life that she’s hiding from her patients and her professional peers and that a quiet survivor of an abusive relationship may just have the answer for. (Running time: 25 minutes)

(This story contains intense and emotionally disturbing scenes that may unsettle some listeners. Listener discretion is advised.)

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Written and directed by Edward Champion

CAST:

Emma: Colette Thomas
Jenna: Devony DiMattia
Jack: Jack Womack
Gordon: Michael Saldate
Receptionist: Zachary Michael
Subway Preacher: Albert Hastler

Music by Thomas Ragsdale
Houston Person, “As Time Goes By” (courtesy of Free Music Archive, CC)
Sound Design and Editing by Edward Champion

Foley Sources: Edward Champion and nofeedbak (CC).
Subway Sounds Recorded on Location in Brooklyn, New York

Special thanks to Sacha Arnold, Austin Beach, Christopher Byrd, Claudia Berenice Garza, Pam Getchell, Jen Halbert, Gabriella Jiminez, Argyria Kehagias, Pete Lutz, Lauren Nelson, John Osborne, Rina Patel, Marc Anthony Stein, That Podcast Girl, Tim Torre, Georgette Thompson, Jack Ward, and many others I may have inadvertently forgotten for their invaluable help, feedback, kindness, inspiration, and support during the production of this episode. I would also like to thank the psychiatrists and compassion fatigue experts who I spoke with on conditions of anonymity for their considerable assistance with this story.

Thanks for listening!

4.5. The Waiting Room (The Gray Area)

Virginia Gaskell finds herself on the other side of the portal that lured her in, greeted by an extremely exuberant (and strangely familiar) receptionist, some squawking avians that aren’t quite okay with her love of chicken fajitas, and further mysteries about how the universes rupture into each other. (Running time: 7 minutes)

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Written and directed by Edward Champion

CAST:

Virginia Gaskell: Chris Smith
Receptionist: Zachary Michael
Demon: Pete Lutz
Ed Champion: Edward Champion
Bird People: Fiona Thraille, Benjamin Macon Fort
Sound Design and Editing by Edward Champion

Foley Sources: Edward Champion

Special thanks to Sacha Arnold, Austin Beach, Matthew Boudreau, Jason Boog, Christopher Byrd, Jen Elyse Feldman, Claudia Berenice Garza, Pam Getchell, Jen Halbert, Gabriella Jiminez, John Osborne, Tom Parsons, Michael Saldate, Marc Anthony Stein, Georgette Thompson, and many others I may have inadvertently forgotten for their invaluable help, feedback, kindness, inspiration, and support during the production of this episode.

Thanks for listening!

4. Loopholes (The Gray Area)

As a thriving empire faces war with ferocious barbarians, a mischievous scholar named Minerva hopes to bring law and civilization to a great realm populated by talking birds, giant rats, gregarious knights, elemental gods, and menacing malasanders. An unanticipated dispute among the knights gives Minerva an opportunity to uphold the doctrine of moral principles, but Minerva finds herself testing her loyalty to her aide-de-camp while helping others to learn what honor, empathy, and identity really mean. (Running time: 32 minutes)

Play

Written and directed by Edward Champion

CAST:

Minerva: Rori Nogee
Eris: Gerrard Lobo
Henrietta: Monica Ammerman
Fire: Samantha Cooper
Watson: Christopher Akpobiyeri
Boleyn: Rachel Baird
The Magister: Sarah Golding
Talking Birds: Alan Barrows
Knights: Michael Charles Foote, Jim Kampfil, Matt Leong, Pete Lutz, Tanja Milojevic, John Xavier Miller III, Julia Morizawa, Hans Detlef Sierck, Fiona Thraille, Richard H. Thorndyke, Jack Ward, Tao Yang.

Sound Design and Editing by Edward Champion

Foley Sources: Edward Champion, jobro (CC), _def (CC), Taira Komori (CC), avakas (CC), Martin-Eero Kõressaar (CC), the_toilet_guy (CC), the_toilet_guy (CC), Shanay Groen (CC), jason130178 (CC), baryy (CC), huggy13ear (CC), HDM2013 (CC).

Music: “The Long March Home” by Tim Juliano (licensed through NeoSounds)

Art: Rushen (CC)

Special thanks to Sacha Arnold, Austin Beach, Matthew Boudreau, Jason Boog, Christopher Byrd, Jen Elyse Feldman, Claudia Berenice Garza, Pam Getchell, Jen Halbert, Gabriella Jiminez, Argyria Kehagias, John Osborne, Tom Parsons, Rina Patel, Michael Saldate, Marc Anthony Stein, Marjorie Stein, That Podcast Girl, Georgette Thompson, Neil Varma, Jo Anna Van Thuyne, and many others I may have inadvertently forgotten for their invaluable help, feedback, kindness, inspiration, and support during the production of this episode. We are especially indebted to Robert Cudmore, Matthew McLean, and Steve Schneider, whose collective insight, inspiration, unfathomable generosity, and encouragement were vital during the development of this highly ambitious story.

Please be sure to also listen to A Scottish Podcast, which is run by many of the fine people who made this program possible, Lost in Williamsburg, whose work with overlapping dialogue has served as partial editing inspiration, and Tom Parson’s forthcoming Organism.

We also recently launched Inside the Gray Area, a behind-the-scenes podcast available for Patreon subscribers who contribute at the $5/month level. Become a Patreon member and enjoy access to this, along with our annotated scripts, which contain many key references that will help unravel the bigger story.

Thanks for listening!

Donald Trump is a Filthy Animal Who Must Be Impeached

It is now impossible to ignore the facts. We live with a corrupt and incompetent and highly dangerous monster who is causing great and unfathomable harm to this country, a dark Lovecraftian creature who has not made this country “great again,” but who has, in fact, made us the laughing stock of the world. This is a rapacious tyrant who openly ridicules the weak and the infirm, sustaining a callous and anti-intellectual streak that not even Richard Hofstadter could have foreseen originating within the Executive Branch. Only 39% of Americans approve of keeping this traitorous train wreck of a leader in office, and one ponders exactly what sterling qualities this minority sees within such a walking piece of offal. Is there some virtue in believing in a bedraggled oaf who cannot sustain a single thought for longer than twenty seconds? Or who cannot read any vital memo longer than a page? Or who openly invites white supremacists and hatemongers into his Cabinet?

But for most Americans, Donald Trump remains the rightly despised cancer, a disgusting fecal morsel that you can never seem to flush down the toilet, a tenth-rate Napoleon who openly resists any reasonable probing into his wanton business dealings and his possible collusion with Russia. He is an illiterate and indolent tax dodger incapable of exercising his mind or his body, yet he amazingly wants you to osculate his liver-spotted and hateful backside. He is surely one of the most oversensitive and graceless world leaders in human history. And now with his repulsively misogynist tweets to Mika Brzezinski, it is safe to say that Donald Trump is an unhinged megalomaniac incapable of practicing the basic duties of dignity that the office requires and who must now be taken out by impeachment. If our two houses lack the courage or the effrontery to do this, then we must lead a campaign to replace any Senator or Representative standing in the way of preserving American’s future in next year’s midterm elections.

This disheveled animal has proven himself unfit to be called President of the United States, much less President of the Alfalfa Club or the self-appointed bipolar king of a psychiatric ward, with his lack of discretion with state secrets, his disastrous meetings with other world leaders, and his openly racist travel ban on innocent Americans. This repulsive beast is not a man, but a mentally unbalanced rapist whose true hues blind the public whenever he is even vaguely challenged. He is a savage and abhorrent mongrel who has caused reading the headlines to become an act of embracing shellshock and chronic fatigue. He is a bully whose pathetic cries for attention, which range from the fake Time Magazine covers that have adorned his clubs and his chronic insistence for sycophantic obeisance, must now be pissed on, ridiculed, openly mocked, and resisted with every principled fiber that this country still has left. The inevitable demise of this feral manboy, who sustains a remarkable vulgarity at seventy-one years that outshines even someone suffering with Tourette’s syndrome, will surely be cause to pop open the champagne. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to attend Trump’s ineluctable funeral just to kick Trump’s mangy and bloated corpse further into the dirt to ensure that the evil bastard is indeed dead and that he will not harm the country for another second.

So what do we do to stop him? It begins with the amoral Jack Dorsey, the Twitter CEO who is surely one of the most spineless profiteers in recent American history and the man who created this mess by failing to curtail this despicable demagogue’s rise through trolling and harassment during last year’s election, displaying some stones for once in his sad, passive, hell-ravaging life. Dorsey must perform his patriotic duty by suspending Our Fearless Leader’s account for regularly violating Twitter’s policy against harassment and abuse. Dorsey banned the hateful Milo Yiannopoulos and has suspended many alt-right accounts. Since presidential precedent has been so thoroughly eroded, this is a reasonable measure.

It continues with Republicans uniting with Democrats to reject this faux statesman’s stature, as Senators Lindsey Graham and Ben Sasse did this morning, by demanding the largest binpartisan investigation imaginable, one that rivals Watergate and Iran-Contra in scope, given the many unanswered questions and Trump’s increasingly secretive affairs. If Republicans can vehemently demonstrate with their actions that they understand Trump is an aberration and potentially a bigger fraud than Rutherford Hayes was in the disputed 1876 election or even the hanging chads when Bush represented the comparatively saner interloper, then we might see some small restoration of representative democracy. All one needs to do is to regularly call their offices and remind these legislators that they will inevitably have to run for re-election, and to not stop doing this. This must be accompanied by active and regular protest.

But most importantly, America must stop calling Donald Trump its President of the United States until he has earned the right to that title. Thus far, Trump’s greatest achievement has involved uniting an increasing majority of Americans against him. He has accomplished nothing especially remarkable in policy or achievement, save the hard-won confirmation of Neil Gorsuch as Supreme Court Justice, our withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord, and a series of internal firings that has rivaled Nixon in speed and scope. He has intimidated FBI directors, besmirched London’s first Muslim mayor, shared classified information where he should not have, demonstrated an inability to perform basic arithmetic in his proposed budget, and used Twitter to destroy our alliances. This is a man who neither comprehends nor cares for the way politics operates. Trump has had six months to establish a doctrine, but it essentially involves throwing a random dart into the Seven Circles of Hell and seeing what lands.

When a pestilent rodent invades your property, you don’t let it scuttle around for eternity. The time has come to call the exterminator on Donald Trump. This man is incompetent. He must not be respected. He must be resisted. He must be acknowledged as poisonous vermin eating the walls of this democratic republic. He must be impeached by any means necessary.