The Fight in Every
Woman Between Selfishness & Generosity by
resented at an Aesthetic
Seminar, New York City, December 2001
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
three brothers in St. Louis. Her father was a doctor who
free medical services for the poor; her mother and grandmother were
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
There is a certain relation of arrogant dismissal with a yearning for
big in the following—a friend recalls Martha saying:
Louis has taught me
all I know and
I'm leaving." Later she said the same thing about Bryn Mawr . . . .
-- 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
living in poverty there was generosity and feeling for people, not just
a desire for adventure.
To convince her parents of her
refused any financial support from them; it wasn't easy and sometimes
even had to pawn her typewriter. In her 1988 collection of
The View from the Ground she writes about this time:
of my own poverty... I absorbed
a sense of what true poverty means.... Maybe that was the most
part of my education.
It was the early 1930s and the Great
Martha Gellhorn got a job with the Federal Emergency Relief
visiting suffering families all over the U.S. The Roosevelt
providing of food, shelter and jobs saved thousands of unemployed from
homelessness and starvation. In 1936 she wrote The Trouble
Seen, stories based on people she met—a mother who has to move
place to place; two factory workers fired for organizing a strike; an
year old girl forced into prostitution. There is this moving
of a wife thinking about the feelings of her husband, who had been
for a job every day for four months:
he even stopped
people on the
street and said: "Could I clean your front steps? Could I wash
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
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
writing mainly of her blonde hair and "long legs."
Meanwhile, it is likely during her
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
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
which she called once her "escape from the world." Then she
stand herself for turning her back on people, and again and again
something so generous and courageous—at 59 going to Vietnam, at 75
El Salvador and Nicaragua to report honestly —reports no American
would print—at 80 writing passionately against nuclear weapons.
3. What Does It Mean to
"Selfishness is incompleteness,"
Mr. Siegel explained;
and Aesthetic Realism shows that we want to care for another person
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
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,
longer and faster and go where no other woman can get and few would
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
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
for Collier's from Madrid while it was under bombardment. She
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
But in November 1938, with
thousands fleeing the
country and arms and supplies nonexistent because of the American
she saw the Loyalists would be defeated.
Bitterly disappointed, she joined
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
Increasingly their life was one of little responsibility— hunting,
drinking every afternoon. The purpose they had was so different
what they went after in Spain; she wrote years later:
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
Nobody, as far as I knew; including me.
She and Ernest Hemingway must have
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
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
Realism classes the tape recording of a 1972 lecture in which Mr.
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
"This book," Mr. Siegel said, "has some of the best prose in American
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."
Part 4: Honesty about Regret