Friday, June 16, 2017

Beryl Markham: Author of the Best Dog Story Ever?

Some things are obviously quite subjective
, but if I were asked to name the greatest dog story ever told, I would say that it was written by Kenyan aviatrix Beryl Markham about a cross-bred bull terrier by the name of Buller.

Buller was Beryl's childhood dog, and the story takes place when she is about 12 or 13 and decides to go on a Warthog hunting expedition with two local tribesmen.

Suffice it to say that this is a hunting dog story of the first order. In fact, it is such a good story, and so well told, that when Ernest Hemingway read it, he wrote to his editor and friend Maxwell Perkins:

"Did you read Beryl Markham's book, 'West with the Night'? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. . . But this girl ... can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people's stories, are absolutely true. So, you have to take as truth the early stuff about when she was a child which is absolutely superb. She omits some very fantastic stuff which I know about which would destroy much of the character of the heroine; but what is that anyhow in writing?"

It was years after first reading West with the Night -- and after a fair bit of my touting her as a first-rate female writer -- that I discovered Beryl Markham did not write her memoire at all.

The stories are all true, as Hemmingway noted, and Beryl Markham really did lead an extraordinary life (she was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic).

That said, it now appears the book itself was ghostwritten by Raoul Schuhmacher, her third husband, who was also an accomplished journalist.

But so what?

Whoever wrote the book, the stories are terrific and every bit as well told as Hemingway suggests.

If you have not read West with Night, you have missed a very good thing.

If you are going to the book store to pick up a copy (and if you do, you will thank me later), you might as well pick up a copy of Hemingway's The Green Hills of Africa while you are at it.

Both books should be read once every 10 years for your entire life. They really are that good.
This is a repost from 2007, 


Matt Mullenix said...

So right!

...check out the last two entries in the suggested reading section of In Season. :-)

Anonymous said...

It was only Schumacher who claimed he wrote Beryl's book and that was after their divorce.

Beryl Markham was at my inlaw's wedding and everyone who knew her, knew she wrote the book.

PBurns said...

Actually, that's not true. Beryl split from Schumacher in 1949, and it was not revealed that Beryl did not write "West with the Night" until after her death in 1986, some 37 years later.

As the web site at notes:
_ _ _ _ _ _ _

"Markham's friends recall Schumacher and Markham saying they were writing the book together; much of the manuscript, which Markham kept all her life, was in her husband's handwriting. Further proof is the book itself. It contains literary references that only Schumacher could have made and inaccurate descriptions of flying that Markham would not have put in her narrative."
_ _ _ _ _ _ _

In addition to the original manuscript being in Schumacher's handwriting, a computer analysis of the wording and writing style shows the manuscript to be that of Schumacher. Believe it or not, it's possible to "fingerprint" writing based on language, phrasing, paragraph and sentence length, etc.

A final note: Karen Blixen is the the true name of the great female writer Isaac Dinesen who authored "Out of Africa." Karen was a sort-of surrogate mother to Beryl, but they also had the same love interest in the person of Dennis Finch-Haddon. For more on all this see,


Thorvald said...

The previous comment asserts that inaccurate details of flights supports Beryl not writing 'West with the Night.' That hardly stands. The author of 'Straight on till Morning' (a biography on Beryl) conducted over a hundred interviews and spent significant time with Beryl herself. First, Beryl's accounts of flight details in person sometimes contradicted flight logs or other people's recollections. Secondly, Beryl had a flare for twisting details in for the sake of a dramatic telling, this is demonstrated in the many articles she wrote throughout her life (the authorship of which are completely undisputed).

It is also inaccurate that Beryl's authorship came under attack only after her death. She was well aware that some people held that view.

There are many rumors and legends about Beryl that many people take for as truth but can be soundly disproved. People have claimed that she could not have written the book because she was "practically illiterate" despite the many lengthy articles she wrote throughout her life.

"If you see me getting high, knock me down."

PBurns said...

Thorvald, you have not really answered the problem, have you? What you have said is that Beryl SAID she wrote it. Which is fine, but it does not change the fact that there are basic errors in the book -- errors she presumably would not have made about flying and airplanes. Nor does it set to rest very much. As you yourself note, Markham has "a flare for twisting details" for the sake of the story. Well yes. And perhaps the authorship of the stories is one of those details?

You say that Beryl authored many other article that no one doubts she wrote. What are those? From what I can gather, Beryl wrote very little of substance after her divorce from Schumacher, and she certainly never write anything nearly as good again -- and lord knows she TRIED. Markham had an advance from Houghton Mifflin to do a book on Tod Sloan the American jockey (Beryl knew even more about horses than she did about airplanes), but the manuscript she turned in was so poor it was deemed not salvageable even with heavy editing.

As for Mary Lovell, the author of "Straight on 'Til Morning," which you cite, she concluded that Schumacher DID write several of Bery's stories and that he edited Beryl's manuscript for West With the Night. In fact, her basic thesis is that they co-wrote the book together. Which is fine, and about what others have said.

A prety good write up of the controversy (if there really is one at this point) can be found here >> In it Robert Viking O'Brien, writing in The Journal of African Travel-Writing, notes that even as West With the Night was being published, it was widely known that Beryl had not actually written it. He also notes some very basic errors in Lovell's book, including a pretty serious one -- when the two met. Lovell' chronology of events has Markham meeting Schumacher in August of 1941, more than a month after Houghton Mifflin had received the manuscript of West with the Night. The problem here is that the two had met in 1938, as O'Brien notes and others have confirmed. Since they were seen huddled up with a a manuscript all during 1939, it seems Ms. Lovell's research fell down on the job.