Gellhorn, by Caroline Moorehead

Gellhorn

I’ve long wanted to know more about Martha Gellhorn. Moorehead’s biography brings the brilliant war correspondent to life, enhanced by the hundreds of letters Gellhorn wrote during her life, openly detailing personal and professional undertakings as well as her own thoughts and feelings.

At 29, Gellhorn went to Madrid to cover the Spanish Civil War for Collier’s Magazine. She went on to cover the twentieth century’s wars, including WWII and Vietnam, conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and Central America, only retiring from journalism after covering the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, when she was 81.

She was desperate to see things for herself, visiting the front lines, talking with soldiers, looking for the little things that would make her reporting come alive. Instead of talking about strategy or interviewing generals, she preferred to write about ordinary people, just as she had in her first job as a journalist. Hired by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, she traveled around the U.S. to learn how the Depression was affecting people. That experience left her with a lifelong commitment to battling poverty by bringing it out into the open.

Gellhorn grew up in St. Louis, Missouri with a strict father, loving mother, and two brothers. Dissatisfied with this conventional upper middle class life and the narrow opportunities it offered for women, she was determined to create a life for herself. And that life was to be a foreign correspondent.

At the time, it was a highly unusual choice for a woman. Throughout her career, men held her back, officials refusing her permits and visas, publishers refusing to hire her, military officers trying to keep her away from the fighting. Even critics, enthralled by her affair and brief marriage with Ernest Hemingway, dismissed her as a pale imitation of her famous partner.

In addition to her journalism and nonfiction books about war and travel, she wrote novels and short stories, though she found writing terribly hard. Moorehead captures her conflict:

Having hitched her vision of herself so firmly to writing, and having inherited from both parents extremely high standards, Martha effectively created for herself a perilous and demanding world. If to write was her duty, her reason for being alive, then not to write was to fail. To fail as a writer was to fail at life, to be adrift in a formless and uncertain universe with nothing to hold on to.

A headstrong woman, she never backed down from the basic certainties she developed in her youth, many of them from her parents. Although she fell out with her father, who was dismayed by her flaunting of convention, shortly before his unexpected early death, she remained close to her mother, whom she called her North Star.

Passionate about her causes, Gellhorn hated dishonesty, cowardice and complacency. Although she sometimes fell out with friends, she was never happier than when hanging out with war correspondents who had become friends when they were under fire together in various hotspots. Moorehead says of her:

Something of Martha’s occasional deaf ear to the sensitivities of other people was connected, at least partly, to her strong feelings about social life . . . the world was divided between real friends—to whom she was, for the most part, very loyal and devoted—and everyone else, who mattered not at all.

Late in life she became the center of a group she called “the chaps”, men and women forty or fifty years younger that she. Writers and reporters who admired her work, which had recently become popular, they flocked to her flat in Cadogan Square. I’m glad that she was not isolated during her last years when her physical woes were mounting.

The biography is subtitled A Twentieth-Century Life. Indeed, although she was always out ahead of others, few things could be more emblematic of that turbulent century than the life of this remarkable woman who challenged customary women’s roles, stuck to her own moral code, and worked relentlessly at her chosen métier.

Have you read any of Martha Gellhorn’s work?

The Change Chronicles, by Paula Friedman

change

Friedman has written a thought-provoking novel set in and near San Francisco during the tumultuous years 1965-9. Subtitled A Novel of the Sixties Antiwar Movement, it is narrated by young Nora Seikh. At 22, she is still uncertain about who she is and what she will do with her life.

Her head is filled with the voices of others—an abusive former lover, another would-be lover, a pair of strict and conservative parents—all telling her who she is and what she should do. As she struggles to navigate the negative voices and figure out these things for herself, she becomes involved with the nascent Antiwar Movement.

Nora takes a job reporting antiwar news for the Berkeley Barb which sends her to local actions. She also gets involved with a couple of activists and through them with the Port Chicago demonstrations and nonviolent vigil, trying to stop the shipment of weapons—including napalm—to Vietnam.

This is also when the Second Wave Women’s Movement was taking shape. Having a female narrator enables us to experience the intersection of the two movements, the way the men in the Antiwar Movement downplayed the women’s contributions and discounted women’s issues as unimportant.

Although I was on the East Coast during those years, I certainly could identify with Nora’s journey and attest to its accuracy. For instance, when Nora distributed leaflets to returning sailors, she found—as I always did—that they wanted the same thing: End the war. Bring them home. Everyone I met who was involved in the Antiwar Movement was intensely on the side of the men sent to fight and die in an unjust war. We were against the politicians, not the men.

Another thing that people who came of age later might not understand is that we had no role models. Especially for women: we were in uncharted territory. We wanted more than the homemaker destinies of our parents. The pill had opened up possibilities of love outside of marriage. But in those pre-internet days, before Women’s History courses, we had no easy access to examples of how to navigate this new world. As my friend Jill said, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was making it up as I went along. We all were.”

We learned to talk with women living in poverty or near-poverty, women of color, women who had always worked. We read novels and poems by women. We read biographies of women artists and writers.

In this novel, Nora has turned to philosophy but, dissatisfied by the men she’s been studying, she tries to puzzle out her own.

Having left the uncertainties of the early twenties behind long ago, I was less interested in the first part of the book which was heavy with Nora’s descriptions of her feelings and attempts to work out a philosophy that would give structure to the world and her own identity. My interest perked up in the second half when the balance shifts more to the actions against the war.

The characters are well-drawn and there’s plenty of action, especially in the second part when things get worse and worse for Nora, keeping the tension high. Nora’s emerging understanding of herself and her world continues to be tested right up to the end.

Have you read a story that accurately captured a time you lived through?

The Ha-Ha, by Dave King

Ha-ha

I’d never heard of ha-has being installed here in the U.S. I’ve seen them in England, most dating from the Victorian era: walls set into a slope, separating high ground from low, like a river lock. The purpose is to keep the cows or sheep where they belong without disturbing the view. When you look out from the house, all you see lovely green lawns stretching into the distance, under the same principle of having the servants face the wall and pretend to be invisible when the lords and ladies pass them.

Here the ha-ha is at a convent, hiding the interstate that runs by their border. Howard works at this convent, mowing lawns and doing other odd jobs. Mowing the ha-ha, which is forbidden, is one of Howard’s few joys. Injured in Vietnam, only sixteen days into his first tour, Howard’s brain injury has affected his language abilities. He can hear and understand but cannot speak intelligibly, nor can he read or write. People who know him know that his intelligence is unaffected, but strangers often treat him as though he is not all there.

One person who knows him well is Sylvia, his first love, now a single mom with a drug problem. As the book opens, she is heading to rehab, asking Howard to care for her nine-year-old son Ryan. It would be a challenge for anyone to take in a child they barely know, but it is much worse for Howard given his disability and lack of experience with children.

One thing I like about this book is that we stay in Howard’s point of view throughout. Since any dialogue is going to be pretty one-sided, that means we get a lot of Howard’s interior monologue. This could have been a disaster, but the author has calibrated Howard’s voice perfectly—moving between exposition, self-pity, anger, bafflement and a range of other emotions—while making sure that there is plenty of action.

The only exception is near the end, when Howard is heading towards a crisis. I found this last part a bit unrealistic. It felt as though the author was straining for a big film-worthy climax instead of staying true to the characters.

The characters are another thing I like. All of them, even the minor characters, are well-drawn and multi-faceted. I was especially intrigued by Sylvia. Since we see her through Howard’s eyes, we rarely see him criticising her but we do see the effect her actions have on him as she ricochets from caring mom to selfish druggie to careless narcissist. It shouldn’t work, but it does. I found myself loathing her one minute and feeling sorry for her the next.

Also, Ryan is completely believable as a child in this situation: sometimes resentful and reticent, other times reluctantly affectionate. This nuanced portrait alone is worth the price of the book.

There’s a good bit of humor, too, especially between Howard and his three housemates. It’s Howard, though, who carries the book. Maintaining a strong and absorbing voice throughout a long novel is a real accomplishment, especially when so much of it must be in that voice.

I found much to consider here, about communication and families and disability. I thought about all the things we pretend not to see, all the things we try to wall out and ignore.

What do you pretend not to see?