Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Gellhorn in Gastonia


Recently I’ve been reading two books at the same time. There are so many books I want to read, and I just keep getting more recommendations every day, that I need to do this kind of juggling. I may soon be one of those people who have several books going at once. I could honestly say that about my reading list now, but I’m not going to count reading for school, for some reason it doesn’t seem right.

The first book is Caroline Moorehead’s 2003 biography of Martha Gellhorn. I’m not very far in, but I can see already that this is the story of a person who obsessively tried to put herself where the action was at all times. After only a hundred pages Gellhorn has: become the mistress of Bertrand de Jouvenel, an influential and married French journalist, broken off her affair, become estranged from her parents, seen most of Western Europe and the United States, signed on with Harry Hopkins’ rural relief effort, been accused of being a communist and sacked, published a novel (What Mad Pursuit) and become a trusted confidant of Eleanor Roosevelt. Hemingway Shmemingway I say. Being Earnest Hemingway’s third wife for four years might rank down there with winning her third-grade spelling-bee. Still, I can’t wait to get to the part about their marriage.

One part that I found interesting is that in 1934 Harry Hopkins, FDR’s domestic-advisor for lack of a better title, recruited writers to travel to the country’s most impoverished areas and write succinct accounts of what they found there. Gellhorn was recruited and assigned the textile regions of New England and the Carolinas. She traveled to Gaston County which is southeast of where I live, probably about an hours drive. In areas like Gastonia, and all over the rural United States, she and her fellow writers found what Moorehead calls, “a haunting picture of despair.”

In her report titled “Dear Mister Hopkins” Gellhorn claims, “I suppose Gaston County is a concentration of all evils,” and strongly criticized the initial relief efforts by FDR’s administration. She complains of a lack of motivation in the residents, claiming that the social workers sent to the area are only looked upon as suppliers of handouts. In a point about labor she states:

A sense of insecurity grows; these workers fear hunger and cold; fear the loss
of jobs or the shutting down of the mill. The labor troubles add to this state
of fear; it is really an extraordinary mess. When I go into workers houses to
talk to them, it takes some time before they will trust me; dare to say that
they are union men; dare to discuss their problems. They live in terror of being
penalized for joining unions; and the employers live in a state of mingled rage
and fear against this imported monstrosity; organized labor. A kind of
underground warfare which will flare up from time to time, stupidly, doing no
one any good. I think this labor business must be considered in our field, if
one tries to gauge the mental state of these people. I find all the union
presidents eager to maintain order, eager to avoid rioting, bloodshed, which
they realize will only react to the detriment of the worker. But the leaders,
curiously enough, are more moderate than the led. And the workers, themselves,
living in overcrowded houses, nervously overwrought, undernourished, frightened,
are apt to strike even though they realize they can only lose.

But it was the health of the population that seemed to have the largest impact on Gellhorn. She found repeated cases of syphilis, even in children, and called it an epidemic on the scale of smallpox. She provides the gravity of Gaston County’s health problems with these words:

The medical set-up in this area is non-existent; and I think my last report
adequately stressed the terrific health conditions. Syphilis uncured and
unchecked; spread by ignorant people who have no conception of the disease, and
no special interest in getting cured. One doctor in Gastonia, who handles our
relief cases, said "syphilis has reached the point of being an epidemic here."
The doctors all talk of malnutrition and fear the present and future effects.
Birth control is needed here almost more than in any other area I have ever
seen; there is one mill village where half the population is pathologic, and
reproducing half wits and with alarming vigor. None of this is surprising;
Gaston County has one health office and that's all in the way of public
medicine. He himself is a total loss. The private doctors do what they can which
isn't much. And all are appalled by what the future holds for these people, who
are absolutely unequipped for life.

Finally, she sums up her impression of Gaston County in terms that suit her penchant for novelizing:

Gaston County is my idea of a place to go to acquire melancholia. The only ray
of hope is the grand work which our own office is doing; it's a kind of
desperate job like getting the wounded off the battlefield so that they can die
quietly at a base hospital.

It is probable that she had read Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms by this time, (whose hero is in fact someone who transports the wounded to field hospitals); she had quoted it in other writings, and her allusion to the nobility of battlefield relief seems strangely coincidental and prophetic.

I agree with Gellhorn that Gaston County is a place to go to acquire melancholia, although she saw it in a much worse state than I ever have. It is flat and non-distinct, with scrub-pines being the most prominent natural feature, and it is filled with people who view NASCAR as a religion and religion as an excuse to despise anyone with an open-mind. The fact that Gellhorn lived there and reported on its condition before moving on to The Spanish Civil War and her highly regarded reporting of the Second World War is a strange one to me, because the closer her reporting comes to my world, albeit seventy-odd years later, the more easily I can believe in the world in which these lions roamed.

Gellhorn was sacked from Hopkins' team. Her suggestion to workers in Idaho to break windows of the relief office was not met kindly by the FBI. She was labeled a communist, although I suspect mainly by her own hand, and recalled. The Roosevelts made a concession to her by offering her a place to stay. Talk about landing on your feat.

So far I like Gellhorn and Moorehead, who was a friend, although at times I feel both writers a bit superior. At this early stage in the book, Gellhorn comes off as slightly tortured, but I like the way she pursues her calling and throws off the ties of conventional gender-roles (ughh, hate that term, although not its meaning) of the time. She keeps moving, and perhaps, in her day, that was one way of becoming an individual in a world where men seemed to only want to make women partners.

3 comments:

linser said...

My impression from reading that book was that she could be an absolutely infuriating and self-absorbed person, but she was fiercely true to her convictions and fought tooth and nail against everything she thought was unjust or wrong. Wait until you get to the Nuremberg trials. You can't help admiring her even if she was pretty hopeless at personal relationships.

imichie said...

We need more like her today, but I would hate to be in a relationship with her.

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