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!

Amanda Vaill (The Bat Segundo Show #549)

Amanda Vaill is most recently the author of Hotel Florida.

Author: Amanda Vaill

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Subjects Discussed: Household accidents, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” and various claims attesting to its authenticity, staged photography, Capa’s origins, Ernest Hemingway’s bluster, his journalistic weaknesses, Virginia Cowles’s bravery, the dubious qualities of To Have and Have Not, John Dos Passos, journalistic skepticism, Hemingway’s disillusionment with the Spanish Civil War, Martha Gellhorn, Gellhorn’s 1983 interview with John Pilger, Gellhorn’s condemnation of government, Gellhorn’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, Gellhorn making up the facts (fabricating a Mississippi lynching) for her news story, “Justice at Night,” Henry Luce’s attention to Robert Capa, what coverage of the Spanish Civil War was real, Spain as the front line against Hitler, constraints of journalists on the Nationalist side, whether or not any amount of art and journalism could have averted the fate of Spain, the Non-Internvention Agreement, American isolationism, the civil war within the Civil War, left-wing factions squabbling against each other, Arturo Barea’s The Forging of a Rebel, Barea as a late bloomer, Barea’s stint as the Unknown Voice, confidence and post-traumatic stress, how to determine the precise words that floated through someone’s head or mouth from seven decades ago, Hemingway’s The Fifth Column, The Spanish Earth and the current print status of Spain in Flames, Archibald MacLeish and Contemporary Historians, Inc., orphan business entities, the brawl between Orson Welles and Hemingway during voiceover recording sessions, the fight between Hemingway and Max Eastman, what women thought of all the needless male fighting, George Seldes’s reception in the Spanish Civil War, Henry Buckley’s The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, the legend of the luggage that Martha Gellhorn took to Spain, Joan Didion in El Salvador, Love Goes to Press, the American matador Sid Franklin, Ilsa Kulcsar, Gellhorn’s bravery and influence upon Hemingway, the recent Russia press gag on bloggers, comparisons between the Spanish Civil War and Syria, photographs as Instagram in slow time, whether there’s any Hemingway again, and contemplating J.K. Rowling going to the Crimea to write a novel.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You’re doing okay, I take it.

Vaill: Except for my broken finger.

Correspondent: Oh, you broke your finger?

Vaill: Yes, I did. I had one of those household accidents. I tripped over my shoes.

Correspondent: And, of course, it’s the right hand as opposed to the left hand.

Vaill: Of course it is. So I cannot write and I cannot shake hands and I cannot sign my name. Except that it is getting better so I can now do that.

Correspondent: Although you have a good shot at taking over Spain.

Vaill: I hope so.

fallingsoldier

Correspondent: The Spanish Civil War. We have many characters and many figures and I’ll do my best to get to all of them. But let’s start with good old Robert Capa. One of the fascinating and oft argued issues in photography is, of course, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” — the picture of the militiaman on the Andalusian hill falling to his death in battle. Some have contended that it is fake. Some have contended that it is real. Some have, as you have, tried tracking down interviews. You tried to find an NBC Radio interview with Alex Kershaw on October 20, 1947 in which Capa claimed to have killed the miliciano. But the purported truth of the story behind the photo is almost as murky as the purported truth of the photo, which in turn has us contending with the purported truth of the War. So how do even begin to come to terms with the photo — in terms of scholarship, in terms of authenticity? And how does the struggle affect our ability to wrestle with the complexities and the ideological involutions of the Spanish Civil War? Just to start off here.

Vaill: Well, that I could write a whole dissertation on. And people have. But let’s start first of all with the word “fake,” which is a…

Correspondent: Staged.

Vaill: Yes. There is a big difference. Something that is faked is in some way manipulated so that something that is not true can be made to be true. Something that is staged is something that is perhaps not quite as extreme as something that is faked. And you have to bear in mind that in 1936, when this photograph was taken, there was no history of war photography at all. No one had taken live action photographs on a battlefield. Matthew Brady took pictures of corpses, which he manipulated and moved around so that they would be in a pose that he liked. In World War I, you couldn’t go on the battlefield. You were not allowed. And furthermore there was no equipment that you could take on there. You have big cumbersome cameras and slow film. And it was only in the 1930s, when you had 35mm film and cameras that could accommodate it, that you could take your camera onto the battlefield. So there was no rulebook for how you handled photography in wartime and no one was used to allowing photographers to be where there was combat. So when Capa and Gerda Taro, his lover and cohort in photography, came to Spain, they at first were not even allowed to go onto the battlefield. They were only given access to troops behind the lines and they tried to make them look good. But this was just not happening. They couldn’t get anything that looked like real battle. And finally, when they were near the area of Córdoba, on the Córdoba front. They had this chance to take photographs of a group of soldiers and Capa has told many stories about what happened and how he got this shot. He was an inveterate tale-teller. He was a real entertainer, Capa. He loved to charm and entertain people.

Correspondent: He felt compelled to create his own legend.

Vaill: He totally did. And he did. He created his name. He was born Andrei Friedmann in Budapest. So he created a whole persona of Robert Capa, the famous photographer, and he created not just that, but this legend of himself that he felt perhaps compelled to live up to. In 1936 though, remember, he’s 22 years old. He’s just a kid. He doesn’t know what he’s doing really. And it is my belief, based on interviews — they aren’t even interviews; conversations that he had with those close to him at times when he, in fact, was not on. The conversation that I base most of my reconstruction on this incident on is one that was with a friend. He wasn’t trying to entertain this person. He wasn’t showing off for an interviewer. He was confessing something. And what he confessed was that a real man had been killed by something that he had done and he was conscious-stricken about it, which is the kind of thing that really squares with the portrait that I received of Capa. That Capa was a very kind, very generous, very loving person and easily hurt by things and didn’t want to give pain to others. And that this thing had happened, I think, was horrifying to him.

Correspondent: Since we are talking about various artists who came to Spain and essentially either set themselves up as legends or became legends later, let’s move naturally to Ernest Hemingway. For all of his bluster about being a “real man” and a “real journalist,” he didn’t actually cover Guernica in April 1937. And he didn’t mention this devastating battle in his dispatches from Spain. Virginia Cowles, on the other hand, she headed into the Nationalist zone and not only covered it, but did so when a Nationalist staff officer said, “You probably shouldn’t be writing about this.” So you write in the book that Hemingway may not have thought this important enough, but why do you think he ignored it? Was he just not that thorough of a reporter?

Vaill: Well, actually, I hate to say this, but he wasn’t that thorough of a reporter. For all that he had a great background as a gumshoe reporter back in the day, when he was at the Kansas City Star, when he was in Toronto, he was a newspaperman. He was on the city beat and he was the cub reporter sent out to cover fires and God knows what all else. But by the time he went to Spain, he had become a legend. And he was a legend, in part, in his own mind, as much as in the minds of others, and I think he got to the point where what he really wanted to do was to sit at the big table with the big boys and get the big story, and let somebody else worry about all the little details. And in this case, Guernica happened in the Basque Country. It was in a zone that it was almost impossible for him to get to without great difficulty.

Correspondent: But that didn’t stop Cowles.

Vaill: Well, it didn’t. Because, of course, she was still building her reputation. I think Hemingway felt he didn’t have to pry. I also feel that he didn’t think it was that important. And he didn’t think it was that important because the very contemporary news reports of it were very dismissive at first. It really wasn’t until people like Cowles found out what had gone on there that it became evident that there had been a horrific disaster. So Hemingway just basically thought, “I’m going to give this a bye. It’s too much trouble. I’ll risk my neck getting there. I don’t need it. I’m heading back. Screw it.”

Correspondent: I will confess that your book had me finally, after many years, reading To Have and Have Not.

Vaill: (laughs)

Correspondent: I had been avoiding this for a long time and, as it turns out, rightfully so. Brilliant in parts, terrible in others. I mean, was Hemingway just not up to snuff during this particular period?

Vaill: I think he was struggling. And I think that many writers do. They reach a period where they’re trying to break through to some other level and they’re not comfortable. The instrument isn’t sharp in the way that they want it to be sharp to do the work that they suddenly have decided they want to do. Hemingway after writing two extraordinarily well-received novels and an amazing bunch of short stories and maybe two of his, I think, finest works — “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” I think he was looking to do something different. The ’30s were a period of great relevance. The engagé writer was what you were supposed to be and he hadn’t been. And even though he scoffed at a lot of this stuff and said that he didn’t want to get that involved in politics and he didn’t want to hue to any -isms of one kind or another and all he really believed in was freedom, he couldn’t help noticing, particularly when his friend John Dos Passos ended up on the cover of Time Magazine in the summer of 1936, that writers who were writing about the big political themes were getting a lot of attention, the kind of attention he had always gotten, and I think he was looking for some way to do that and To Have and Have Not represented that kind of fiction for him. He wasn’t comfortable writing it, I think, and I think that was the problem of it.

Correspondent: Speaking of Dos Passos, I felt tremendous sympathy for this poor man. I mean, he comes to Spain. He’s looking into the mysterious disappearance of his friend, Jose Robles Pazos, and he’s spurned by Hemingway.

Vaill: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Hemingway is well-connected with the Loyalists and he tells Dos Passos, “Don’t put your mouth to this Robles business. People disappear every day.” Which is an extraordinarily callous statement. Why did Hemingway have difficulties getting around his romantic vision of the Republicans? Why couldn’t he ask the difficult questions that Dos Passos had no problem in investigating?

Vaill: Well, I think it goes back to Hemingway’s wanting to be at the big boys table.

Correspondent: And he was.

Vaill: And he was. We’ve seen some of this same problem with journalists in our own day. The New York Times‘s Judith Miller, for example. And other writers writing about our involvement in the Iraq War, they wanted to just take the story that somebody wanted to hand out. Because that person was well-connected and high up in a tree.

Correspondent: And that trumps any journalistic integrity.

Vaill: Or any journalistic — I think it would be — doubt. Just the feeling that, oh wait.

Correspondent: Skepticism.

Vaill: Maybe I can take this story.

Correspodnent: Questioning.

Vaill: Your skepticism instrument is just not working when that happens. It’s lulled into some false quiescence by all this access that you suddenly have. And I think that’s what really happened to Hemingway here. He was so in love with the access he had and he was so taken up with his passionate identification with the cause of the Spanish Republic, which I can certainly understand. They were the democratically elected government of Spain and a bunch of right-wingers wanted to nullify an election and just take things back to the way they were before.

Correspondent: So in order to get over the crest to For Whom the Bell Tolls, an absolute masterpiece, he had to go through all these needless romance and this big review point and then he had to have his heart crushed.

Vaill: And then he had to be disillusioned. And I think the problem for him was — yes, exactly, he did have his heart broken in a way. And For Whom the Bell Tolls came out of that feeling of disillusionment. He called not just what had happened in the Republic, but also what happened at Munich — the whole thing and the dismissal of the international brigades from Spain. All that to him was what he called a carnival of treachery on both sides. And that’s pretty strong language.

The Bat Segundo Show #549: Amanda Vaill (Download MP3)

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