Aesthetic Realism Consultant Nancy Huntting


Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998)  American author and journalist


Aesthetic Realism Seminar
The Fight in Every Woman Between Selfishness & Generosity
by Nancy Huntting
presented at an Aesthetic Realism Seminar, New York City, December 2001

Part 2: Generosity Begins with the Desire to Know

"As soon as one has the desire to know," Eli Siegel said in an Aesthetic Realism class in 1974, "selfishness is being fought." What, I believe, made Martha Gellhorn less selfish than many people was her desire to know. Her parents encouraged this, as she grew up with three brothers in St. Louis. Her father was a doctor who established free medical services for the poor; her mother and grandmother were passionate fighters for women's suffrage and educational reforms.

Yet, I think she also used her family, the fact that prominent people in politics came to their home, to be superior.  There is a certain relation of arrogant dismissal with a yearning for something big in the following—a friend recalls Martha saying:

"St. Louis has taught me all I know and I'm leaving." Later she said the same thing about Bryn Mawr . . . . Adventure -- she just loved it.
But in her decision during her 3rd year at the posh Eastern college Bryn Mawr to move to a settlement that cared for persons living in poverty there was generosity and feeling for people, not just a desire for adventure. 

To convince her parents of her seriousness, she refused any financial support from them; it wasn't easy and sometimes she even had to pawn her typewriter.  In her 1988 collection of articles, The View from the Ground she writes about this time:

Because of my own poverty... I absorbed a sense of what true poverty means.... Maybe that was the most useful part of my education.
It was the early 1930s and the Great Depression.  Martha Gellhorn got a job with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, visiting suffering families all over the U.S.  The Roosevelt Administration's providing of food, shelter and jobs saved thousands of unemployed from homelessness and starvation.  In 1936 she wrote The Trouble I've Seen, stories based on people she met—a mother who has to move from place to place; two factory workers fired for organizing a strike; an 11 year old girl forced into prostitution.  There is this moving description of a wife thinking about the feelings of her husband, who had been looking for a job every day for four months:
Perhaps he even stopped people on the street and said: "Could I clean your front steps?  Could I wash your car...?"  She didn't want to think of that.  And when he came back home nights, there was no use asking him what luck he'd had.  The way he held himself told enough, and the empty unfixed look in his eyes. 
This writing is honestly unselfish—it comes from the desire to find out what another person goes through, to try to feel as they feel. 

In her long career as a journalist, press colleagues tried to weaken her and appeal to vanity in her.  When Time reviewed her war novel A Stricken Field, they headlined it "Glamour Girl," writing mainly of her blonde hair and "long legs." 

Meanwhile, it is likely during her career she heard of Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism.  Had she and others of her profession studied Aesthetic Realism, so much of the horror of our century would not have been.  History will see the most brutal selfishness as that of members of the press, who have kept from others the greatest and most needed knowledge ever come to.

Martha Gellhorn was never sure what to value in herself.  As her life went on, after large feeling would impel her to passionately fight injustice, she would retreat to some tropic island, which she called once her "escape from the world."  Then she couldn't stand herself for turning her back on people, and again and again showed something so generous and courageous—at 59 going to Vietnam, at 75 to El Salvador and Nicaragua to report honestly —reports no American newspaper would print—at 80 writing passionately against nuclear weapons.

3.  What Does It Mean to Give Ourselves to Another?

"Selfishness is incompleteness," Mr. Siegel explained; and Aesthetic Realism shows that we want to care for another person because we feel through that person we can be less selfish, more complete.

Martha Gellhorn met Ernest Hemingway in 1937.  She had read all his work, respected him tremendously and wanted to learn from him.  And his high opinion of her and how unselfishly she was dedicated to her work is in his statement: "she will get up earlier, travel longer and faster and go where no other woman can get and few would stick it out if they did." 

Their relation is complex, but like men and women right now, they had a fight between two purposes: one that was selfish, and one that was large and made for honest generosity between them and towards others. 

When they first met they found they both felt strongly about the Loyalists, the democratically elected government of Spain fighting for its existence against the fascist forces of Franco, and they encouraged each other to go there.  Hemingway helped make the documentary "The Spanish Earth," to raise support; she wrote articles for Collier's from Madrid while it was under bombardment.  She gave lectures in 22 American cities in two months—telling that Franco had 140,000 troops supplied by Hitler, warning it could lead to a "world crisis." 

But in November 1938, with thousands fleeing the country and arms and supplies nonexistent because of the American embargo, she saw the Loyalists would be defeated. 

Bitterly disappointed, she joined Hemingway in Cuba in 1939.  He was writing For Whom the Bell Tolls, his novel about the Spanish Civil War, which he dedicated to her. 

They married in 1940—and how much they used their disappointment about Spain against the whole world can be asked.  Increasingly their life was one of little responsibility— hunting, tennis, drinking every afternoon.  The purpose they had was so different from what they went after in Spain; she wrote years later:

You could live in princely comfort on very little money in Cuba . . . . The children waved when I drove by . . . in rags, barefoot, and everyone was unnaturally thin . . . . Who cared?  Nobody, as far as I knew; including me.
She and Ernest Hemingway must have despised each other for this.  By 1943, a friend said, there were "joint cruelties"—and two years later, after she had left him to go to Europe to report on World War II, they divorced.

The rest of her life, while she was rightly very resentful for being seen as important chiefly for having been a wife of Ernest Hemingway, and eventually refused to give interviews if his name was going to be mentioned—I believe she was very troubled by seeing him in a narrowly selfish way; there is a bitter contempt in statements she made about him. 

I was fortunate to hear recently in Aesthetic Realism classes the tape recording of a 1972 lecture in which Mr. Siegel looked at passages from Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, which I wish so much she could have known. Mr. Siegel, showing that there was new, important prose in Hemingway's sentences, centrally understood this great American writer, his life and work, as no other critic has.  "This book," Mr. Siegel said, "has some of the best prose in American literature in it"—and he noted that at times things are said by Hemingway "with such simplicity, people felt at last English was dealt with justly."

Continued, Part 4: Honesty about Regret 

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