The writer Martha Gellhorn has long fascinated me.
She was the third wife of Ernest Hemingway. Their turbulent relationship inspired a recent HBO film, Hemingway and Gellhorn, with Clive Owen as Hemingway and Nicole Kidman as Gellhorn. Both were war correspondents as well as novelists. Gellhorn could out-macho Hemingway, which, as you can imagine, didn’t please him. They were married for only five years.
I mention Hemingway to get your attention, but I assure you Gellhorn is remarkable writer in her own right.
She dropped out of Bryn Mawr in 1927 to become a journalist, moved to Europe, and became involved in the Pacifist movement. She wrote about the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War.
She also wrote political fiction.
I prefer novels to novellas, but you won’t be surprised to learn that I started with whatever I could find. At Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha, I picked up a copy of The Novellas of Martha Gellhorn, which includes four collections, The Trouble I’ve Seen, For Better For Worse, Pretty Tales for Tired People, and The Weather in Africa.
Her detailed, realistic novellas are shaped and filtered through the eye of a perspicacious reporter who doesn’t have to resort to the sentimentality and histrionics that sometimes debase journalism. Her fiction is based on her reportage and travels, but her style is fluid, literary, and subtle. She is able to capture vividly the psychological strengths and strategies by which people survived the Depression and wars: they focus on one detail at a time.
I don’t read novellas the way I read novels. When I don’t have the luxury of settling down with a novel-length story, I have to take breaks to get perspective. I am reading this more slowly than I would read a novel.
The Trouble I’ve Seen, the first collection in this volume, consists of four novellas about the Depression published in 1936, based on Gellhorn’s reporting for the White House as an investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.
The first novella, Mrs. Maddison Makes Both Ends Meet, is the best in The Trouble I’ve Seen. The heroine, Mrs. Maddison, a dauntless woman in her sixties who lives in a shack by the Mississippi, prefers to work, but she is on Relief. She scrapes, begs, and forages for whatever she can get, because her feckless daughter, Tennessee, whose husband is unemployed, and sickly granddaughter, Tiny, need food. Her son, Alec, and his slatternly wife are also doing poorly. Mrs. Cahill, the social worker, scolds her for not buying new shoes for herself. But this is the Depression, and Mrs. Maddison does what she believes is best.
When Mrs. Maddison goes to the Relief Office to see what the giveaways are–it turns out to be women’s nightgowns–she is dressed like any matron going out to play bridge.
…Everything was very clean, very stiff, her shoes had been whitened and she had borrowed paint from one of the fishermen to rim the soles and worn heels. She got her hat on finally, deciding that straight across her forehead it looked most dignified. Peering and rising on one foot, she put her rouge on somehow; two carnation-red circles over the soft wrinkly skin. She almost never made this effort; she almost never looked so trim and certain, so easy with herself and the world. She was going up-town to beg.”
Although Mrs. Maddison does what she can, and arranges a good if hard life on a government farm for her indolent son, his wife, and herself, neither of the young people has her persistence. It will he her children who bring her down, if she goes down.
In Joe and Pete, a union is destroyed during the Depression by a factory owner who hires scabs during a strike. Joe, the union organizer, is loved and respected, but the men gradually come to hate him because they can’t find work. Pete, a slow, believes absolutely in him, but at 37 finds he is already considered obsolete in a competitive workplace. He can’t find work.
The other two are good, too, but sorry, I’m not really reviewing this so I’ll leave them for you to read.
I’m looking forward to reading her journalism.