Behind the Pen: Martha Gellhorn on what journalism gave her

Martha Gellhorn

Behind the Pen logoIn previous posts I’ve used my ‘Behind the Pen’ feature on RobAroundBooks solely for interviews. However, moving forward I want to share and discuss more about the beautiful minds who gift us their words. And so I’m expanding this feature to include more than just interviews. I will be drawing on my vast and ever growing library of letter collections, journals and diaries etc. to hopefully bring a new and exciting aspect to RobAroundBooks, where the writers themselves and their extraordinary lives are brought into focus.

Following what I said about her in my reading journal on Friday, I want the first of these expanded features to focus on a portion of a letter from Martha Gellhorn.

In the preface to her Letters of Martha Gellhorn collection, Caroline Moorehead tells us that Martha was a natural letter writer. “Because there was seldom a significant stretch of time when Martha was not moving around,” she tells us, “letters were what held her life together.” And indeed Martha’s penchant for letter writing was to aid her in later life when she was gathering memories for her only memoir, Travels with Myself, and Another. In the opening chapter of that book Martha tells us that serious travel writers not only see and understand everything around them, but can ‘command erudite cross references to history, literature and related travels’. Martha on the other hand couldn’t even remember where she’d been. “I think I was born with a weak memory,” she quips, ” [just] as one can be born with a weak heart or weak ankles.” Thank heavens then she was able to call in part on a collection of letters she had previously sent to her mother over the years, to help her in writing her travel memoir.

Today however, I wish not to focus on the letters that Martha may have used to help construct her travel memoir, but to focus instead on a letter that she sent in December 1943 to her then husband, Ernest Hemingway. It’s an important letter because in it Martha explains what journalism had given to her. This is significant because as she says in the letter itself, everything she had ever written up to that point – and after as it happens – had stemmed from her journalism *:

quotation markDearest Mucklebugletski; Today I got four letters from you so it is a national holiday.

…I’d like to explain to you about journalism but don’t know whether I can and am maybe too sleepy. I see perfectly that it is bad for you; as it is not really a good enough trade for you and it has also a faintly or permanently non-grown-up thing about it. But it is good for me. It gives me many things for my eyes and mind to feed on, and they need to feed on actual sights rather than reading, simply because they are not first-rate; but that is their best food. It gives me a chance to meet people I would never otherwise meet, and I want to know them. It has been wonderful knowing the bomber boys, the plastic surgeon and those men out there, the slum kids of London. Really wonderful. I would not miss it; I like them and I am fascinated by them. Besides, deviously, everything I have ever written has come through journalism first, every book I mean; since I am not Jane Austen nor the Bronte sisters and I have to see before I can imagine, and this is the only way I have of seeing…

*all credit to the Estate of Martha Gellhorn, and to Caroline Moorehead and Chatto & Windus
About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).