Author and Hero
In West with the Night

By Robert Viking O'Brien

The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 1, September 1996 (pp. 14-23)

1996 The Journal of African Travel-Writing

West with the Night has had a rough flight. When it was first published in 1942, it received considerable critical acclaim and, initially, enjoyed high sales. The book's popularity quickly diminished, however, for it offered neither the pure escapism nor the news that wartime English and American readers wanted. West with the Night went out of print until 1983, when a new edition reached heights of critical and popular success far above the successes of the first edition. Yet by the end of the decade, a question of authorship had damaged both the critical reputation and sales of the book. A 1987 biography of Markham answered the question in a way that seemed to repair this damage, but, six years later, another biography provided a different answer. The damage remains, as I discovered when I taught the book recently.

This essay will not answer the authorship question. Instead, using the ideas in Mikhail Bakhtin's "Author and Hero in Aesthetic Experience," it will show why the authorship question should not affect our reading. Finally, it will show that however we answer the authorship question, the source of West with the Night's aesthetic power remains the same. Let me begin by telling the story of the book's recent fortunes.

In her biography of Markham, Mary S. Lovell describes how the rediscovery of West with the Night began in the summer of 1981, after a Sausalito restaurateur named George Gutekunst went trout fishing with John "Bumby" Hemingway. Hemingway asked if Gutekunst had read Ernest Hemingway's letters. Gutekunst said no, and Hemingway, whom Gutekunst had never heard mention his famous father before, said, "They're very revealing." The remark piqued Gutekunst's curiosity. When he got back to Sausalito, Gutekunst read the Selected Letters, including this one written to Maxwell Perkins from Hemingway's Cuban estate in 1942:

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. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and some times making an okay pig pen. But this girl who is, to my knowledge, very unpleasant,... 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? I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody, wonderful book.

Hemingway's praise struck Gutekunst as unusual because, in his view, Hemingway's letters "cruelly savaged most of his peers and a few of his betters." Gutekunst's assessment of the letters was lopsided--Hemingway frequently praises the virtues of other writers--but he was right that Hemingway's tribute to Markham is unusual. When Hemingway says a writer "beat him," he is usually speaking of dead giants like Shakespeare or Tolstoy. When he compares himself to living writers, Hemingway leaves little doubt that, despite the virtues of his competition, Papa is still the champ. Of his famous contemporaries, Hemingway most admired Joyce, but he never describes Joyce as a greater writer: he says instead that "no one can write better, technically," leaving open the possibility that Hemingway can write as well, "technically," and may have virtues that Joyce lacks.

Yet Hemingway says that Markham can "write rings around" him; she made him feel like a "carpenter" of "okay pig pen[s]" and "completely ashamed of [himself] as writer." Hemingway is often effusive in his letters when praising a recently read book, but this is the only instance where his praise is also an unflattering comparison between him and a living writer. West with the Night is an extraordinary book, but why should it--and not, say, Ulysses--inspire such a comparison?

I suspect that West with the Night especially impressed Hemingway because several of its distinguishing features are identical to distinguishing features of Hemingway's own fiction. For instance, both Markham and Hemingway provide vivid descriptions of physical action. The horse race in West with the Night is as unforgettable as those in "My Old Man," and Markham's lonely, desperate struggle with a storm above the North Atlantic as unforgettable as Santiago's lonely, desperate struggle with a marlin in the Gulf Stream. Markham's description of hunting in British East Africa, an episode in the portion of the book Hemingway described as "absolutely superb," surpasses Hemingway's descriptions of the same subject. What I think is the best of these, in the posthumously published Garden of Eden, so resembles the hunt in West with the Night that at least one scholar, Kenneth Lynn, has suggested that Hemingway borrowed from Markham's book.

Both Markham and Hemingway admire those who follow what Markham calls "a realistic code that [has] no room for temporizing or easy sentiment." Markham respects animals because they are not sentimental, and she uses the same standard to judge people. Of the English, she admires "Spartans" like her father and the pilot she finds half-dead in the middle of the Serengeti Plain:

[He] was sitting upright on the ground, his face skinny beneath a dirty beard, his lips cinder-dry and split, his eyes red-rimmed and sunk in his cheeks. He was a sick man and he was grinning. 'I resent being treated like a corpse,' he said. 'It's insulting. Is there anything to eat?'

Of the Africans, Markham most admires the Murani with whom she hunts as a girl. When she expresses amazement at the speed with which one man throws his spear, he tells her that

a Murani must always throw in time. Otherwise, some day a dangerous animal might charge swifter than the spear. Then, instead of mourning his death, our girls would laugh and say he should have stayed at home with the old men!

Considering Markham's admiration of stoic courage and her powerful descriptions of action, Hemingway's unusual comments are hardly surprising; nor is it surprising that these comments moved Gutekunst to read West with the Night, and that his reading led him to conclude the autobiography was a forgotten masterpiece. When Gutekunst showed the book to Evan Connell, the author of Mr Bridge and Mrs Bridge confirmed this opinion and encouraged editors at Berkeley's North Point Press to republish it. North Point's paperback edition appeared in 1983, with Hemingway's letter--minus the remark on Markham's "unpleasant" personality--as a blurb on the back cover. (Hemingway's remark is worse in the original letter. As Lovell points out, Hemingway goes on to add "and we might even say a high-grade bitch." Carlos Baker feared legal action and omitted the comment when he edited the Selected Letters.)

Both of Markham's biographers have described this edition's enormous critical and commercial success. Most reviewers compared Markham to Isak Dineson; a couple compared her to Dickens and the Brontes. The Observer and Vanity Fair printed lengthy profiles of the author; and after a documentary directed by the versatile Gutekunst ran on PBS, West with the Night landed on the New York Times paperback best-seller list and stayed there for months, reaching the top of the list by the end of 1986.

Markham died the same year. Since the republication of West with the Night, she had achieved a celebrity that in some ways approached the celebrity of her youth, when thousands lined the streets of Halifax and New York to applaud the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. Those interested in the history of aviation had never forgotten Beryl Markham. Many of them argued that her feat was more impressive than Lindbergh's, since Markham flew against prevailing winds, through storms and, for most of the flight, in the dark. This accomplishment only contributed to one part of Markham's new celebrity, however. Errol Trzebinski describes it as a particularly interesting moment in the life of a remarkable woman--"a product of the pioneering era in British East Africa, ... a racehorse trainer of note ... [and] one of the first women ... to hold a commercial pilot's license." Above all, Markham was an outstanding writer.

Or was she?

According to Trzebinski, in 1936, just after Markham's transatlantic flight, a man from Universal Studios proposed making a film of the event, with Markham starring as herself. Markham went to Hollywood and met Scott O'Dell, a novelist and scriptwriter who was later to achieve fame as a children's book author. After Markham's unsuccessful screen test, O'Dell threw a party to cheer her up. There Markham met Raoul Schumacher, a scriptwriter who worked with O'Dell at Paramount Studios. By 1939, Schumacher and Markham were a fixture at parties of the rich and famous--the handsome aviatrix and her young lover, the writer who was editing her memoirs. In 1941, Schumacher asked O'Dell about a possible publisher for West with the Night. O'Dell suggested his own publisher, and in 1942 Houghton Mifflin issued the book. At the time, O'Dell doubted--as did many of Markham's acquaintances in California, England, and Kenya--that Markham had written West with the Night by herself. He suspected that Markham and Schumacher had worked together, as he had seen them working together on a short story that appeared under Markham's name. In 1943, Schumacher, who had married Markham the previous year, told O'Dell that "Beryl did not write West with the Night or any of the short stories. Not one damned word of anything!"

Rumors of Schumacher's authorship resurfaced after North Point reprinted West with the Night. The rumors became public in March 1987 when O'Dell wrote a letter to Vanity Fair. Now that Markham was dead and "presumably beyond embarrassment," O'Dell thought it right that Schumacher be given credit as the author of West with the Night. O'Dell's letter surprised and disappointed many of Markham's admirers, but in the same year Lovell's Straight On Till Morning: The Biography of Beryl Markham refuted O'Dell's contention.

When Lovell uses style to deny Schumacher's authorship, her argument is weak. She admits, for example, that Markham's stories resemble Schumacher's and early in the book says she has "no doubts that Raoul wrote three--or perhaps four--of the fictional stories published in Beryl's name." Later, she points to stylistic features of West with the Night to show that Markham "had some involvement and that [the stories] were not merely written by Raoul in her name." This proves nothing if we allow for the possibility that Schumacher wrote West with the Night, which Lovell does not. Her chronology has Markham meeting Schumacher in August 1941, more than a month after Houghton Mifflin received West with the Night's manuscript. As the jacket of Lovell's biography states, this chronology "utterly refutes" the idea of Schumacher's authorship.

Reviewers agreed, and the question seemed settled until 1993, when Trzebinski's Lives of Beryl Markham established the chronology I presented several paragraphs ago. Schumacher had plenty of time to write the book. Onto this strong foundation, Trzebinski piles a tremendous amount of evidence, some of it stylistic but most based on interviews with people who knew Schumacher and Markham at the time of the book's composition. People can be mistaken, of course, and much of Trzebinski's stylistic evidence can be explained by Schumacher's editing or by the editing of someone at Houghton Mifflin. Trzebinski does not prove that Schumacher wrote West with the Night. She does prove that he could have written it and that many people believed he did.

We are unlikely to solve West with the Night's authorship problem. The only two people who could provide a solution, if they chose to do so, are dead; and except for a few pages, the manuscript that would bring us closer to the truth is missing. We are left with a more interesting question: how does the authorship problem affect our reading of the text?

This question arose unexpectedly when I taught West with the Night in a graduate seminar on travel literature. I had read Lovell's biography, but not Trzebinski's, and thus believed the authorship problem had been solved. A student who was giving a presentation had read Trzebinski's book and been persuaded by her argument. When he flatly declared that Raoul Schumacher was the author of West with the Night, the class suddenly plunged into what has been--since Roland Barthes prematurely announced the death of the author--one of the thorniest thickets in literary criticism: the relation between author and text. I had tried to lead these students into that thicket before, with little success. The questions in Foucault's "What is an Author?" had struck them as too abstract, but the unexpected discovery of West with the Night's authorship problem sparked a ferocious discussion of those so-called abstract questions.

The discovery also affected the primary reason I had assigned the book, as an illustration of what Eric Leed calls "the mind of a traveler." West with the Night especially appeared to illustrate the feature that Freud describes in his open letter to Roma in Rolland, "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis":

It seemed to me beyond the realms of possibility that I should travel so far that I should "go such a long way." This was linked up with the limitations and poverty of our conditions of life. My longing to travel was no doubt also the expression of a wish to escape from that pressure, like the force which drives so many adolescent children to run away from home. I had long seen clearly that a great part of the pleasure of travel lies in the fulfillment of these early wishes, that it is rooted, that is, in dissatisfaction with home and family.

In West with the Night, the heroine's family consists of her father and a surrogate mother--Lady Delamare, the wife of Baron Delamare, the first British settler in the White Highlands. The author leaves the impression that this small family was ideal for the adventurous young Beryl. Markham's actual childhood environment was more complex. While in the book the Delamares are Beryl's "nearest neighbors," and the nearest white children live in a Boer colony two hundred miles away, in fact, as Lovell describes, Markham grew up with her brother Richard and regularly visited cousins who lived a short ride from her father's farm. The woman who was closest to Markham physically was not Lady Delamare, but a governess whom Markham disliked so intensely that even after many decades she spoke of her as "that bloody woman!"

The inclusion of an interfering governess would spoil West with the Night's representation of the heroine's independent girlhood, and the author excludes everything that might damage that representation. Creating characters from life requires such exclusions--Hemingway alludes to this when he says that Markham omitted "fantastic stuff.... which would destroy ... the character of the heroine; but what is that anyhow in writing?" We know, from A Moveable Feast, that omission was central to Hemingway's writing theory: "you could omit anything if you knew what you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood." Because of Hemingway's conscious and, perhaps, unconscious omissions, biographical criticism has provided numerous insights into his fiction. If we were certain that Beryl Markham wrote West with the Night, such criticism might provide similar insights into that book. The authorship problem prevents such an approach, however. For example, we cannot find significance in what has been omitted from the description of Markham's family: if we could, we might say that the reduction of the family to two admired figures suggests that childhood dissatisfaction provided psychological fuel for Markham's life of adventure.

Freud's remarks are still apropos, however, for West with the Night reveals the heroine's deep dissatisfaction with "home" in the larger sense. Although several students in my travel-literature class saw Markham's larger home as England--and thus believed I had assigned the book primarily so that we could discuss another European encounter with non-Europeans, as we had done with Hakluyt's Voyages and Melville's Typee--Markham's home is plainly British East Africa: "All the country I know is this country." We sense the problem of the heroine's relation to that country in descriptions that ignore the native inhabitants. British East Africa is a "new country,... an almost unknown country" being built out of "wilderness" or "out of nothing." When the author does describe the natives, she or he focuses on the problematic relation between colonizers and colonized. The heroine's dissatisfaction with these relations is, I believe, at the center of the book, connecting the description of Markham's life as an aviator to her African childhood.

Like Kipling's Kim, West with the Night portrays the intimacy and inequality of a colonial child's relation to the native population. For example, young Beryl shares the excitement and dangers of hunting with Nandi and Murani men at the same time she violates taboos of their culture. Before the hunt, the men drink milk and bull's blood, saying, "Praise God for the blood of the bull which brings strength to our loins, and for the milk of the cow which gives warmth to the blood of our lovers." Beryl joins in the ritual, drinking blood and milk, chiming in on the chorus--"Praise God for the blood of the bull." The prayer shows that, for the Nandi and Murani, hunting is a male domain. Beryl's subsequent conversation with a Nandi girl--who wears "ankle-length skins" as opposed to Beryl's "khaki shorts and ... naked legs"--confirms this. Later, we learn that for the Murani hunting spears like the one Beryl carries are "a symbol of ... manhood," given to male members of the tribe in a special ritual after circumcision.

Beryl can violate Nandi taboos because she is not Nandi, and because her father owns the land on which the Nandi live. The author never comments on the awkwardness of this situation. The only shadow that falls across the idyllic description of Markham's childhood is the shadow that always falls across such descriptions--the reader's knowledge that the idyll must end. In West with the Night, colonialism complicates this knowledge, however, for when Beryl becomes an adult, she loses more than childhood: she also loses the intimacy in her relations with native Africans.

The transformation of Markham's childhood companion, Kibii, into her servant, Arab Ruta, epitomizes the loss. As children, Beryl and Kibii play games that are meant to prepare Nandi boys for becoming Nandi men: "One of the games was jumping, because the Nandi said that a ... man must be able to jump as high as himself to be any good at all, and Kibii and I were determined to be good." Only Kibii can become a Nandi man, however. Beryl must become a memsahib, and this transformation pains her:

Kibii into Arab Ruta--Beru into Memsahib!--this stilted word that ends my youth and reminds me always of its ending-- What a child does not know and does not want to know of race and colour and class, he learns soon enough as he grows to see each man flipped inexorably into some predestined groove like a penny or a sovereign in a banker's rack. Kibii, the Nandi boy, was my good friend. Arab Ruta, who sits before me, is my good friend, but the handclasp will be shorter, the smile will not be so eager on his lips, and though the path is for a while the same, he will walk behind me now, when once, in the simplicity of our nonage, we walked together.

The pain expressed in this passage shows that, for the adult heroine, British East Africa is an uncomfortable home, primarily because of the role she must play. Flight offers an escape from the "predestined groove" of memsahib. On the ground, Beryl is " inexorably" one of the colonizers; in the sky, she finds herself "out of touch with the earth,... [in a] small moving world of my own, living in space with the stars." Freedom from the earth means freedom from uncomfortable social realities, if only temp orarily. Moreover, this freedom allows Beryl to create a different self, a self unconstrained by social roles.

The possibility of creating such a self leads the heroine to her career as a pilot. When she first hears about airplanes--from Tom Black, the man who will teach her to fly--they are as remote as "Scheherazade's Baghdad" and "too much outside of the things one knew--to like or even to believe." The remoteness is ultimately attractive, as is the possibility of creating a different relation to her home. In a speech that is the turning point of the book, Tom tells Beryl that

When you fly, you get a feeling of possession that you couldn't have if you owned all of Africa. You feel that everything you see belongs to you--all the pieces are put together, and the whole is yours; not that you want it, but because, when you're alone in a plane, there's no one to share it. It's there and it's yours.

This feeling opposes the feeling that the country owns you, that it places you "inexorably into some predestined groove." Like Nietzsche's Zarathustra, Tom announces the possibility of transcending the social self. Flying, he says, "makes you feel bigger than you are--closer to being something you've sensed you might be capable of, but never had the courage to seriously imagine."

Beryl imagines Kibii's father responding to this speech. He "would have found a legend" to describe Tom's sentiments, a legend that would begin with something like "Once there was the child of a leopard who found the ways of his kind too small to live by." The point of the story would presumably be the leopard's hubris in thinking he need not behave like a leopard, but the story also suggests the possibility of transformation that attracts Beryl to flying. She is a colonizer's child who finds the ways of her kind too small and would like to become something "bigger." Tom's speech is thus "a key to a door I never knew was there, and had still to find."

Beryl believes that in the solitude of flight she finds an existence fundamentally different from her existence on the ground. The "small moving world" of her cockpit appears to be a pure version of Heidegger's Umwelt, "one's own closest (domestic) environment." This environment contains not people, but things, which gain meaning through their utility: "the more we seize hold of [a thing] and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is--as equipment." In the sky, Beryl lives in a world of pure instrumentality, using everything that surrounds her. Her environment is the equipment that keeps her from plunging to earth--a more primordial relation to one's Umwelt is difficult to imagine. It is thus unsurprising that Beryl speaks of her relationship with her plane as a relationship between two sentient beings:

To me she is alive and to me she speaks. I feel through the soles of my feet on the rudder-bar the willing strain and flex of her muscles. The resonant, guttural voice of her exhausts has a timbre more articulate than wood and steel, more vibrant than wires and sparks and pounding pistons. She speaks to me....

But only in the air. On the ground, where it has no utility, the plane is "metal and wood once more, inert and heavy." The pilot must re-enter the messier world of human beings, Heidegger's Mitwelt, the world one shares with others. The author describes this world as an escape from the self-knowledge possible in the solitude of flight:

You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness. If you read a book,... you are avoiding yourself. The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all. If it were otherwise, men would never have bothered to make an alphabet, nor to have fashioned words out of what were only animal sounds.

The author rejects language and reading as sources of self-knowledge. More important, she or he appears to ignore the possibility that we know ourselves through others. Yet the next paragraph hints that true solitude does not exist, that existence is always existence in the Mitwelt, and that knowledge gained in what appears to be solitude is in fact knowledge gained through others. The solitude of the cockpit provokes an encounter with "the beliefs, the faces, and the hopes rooted in your mind." Though rooted in an individual mind, the seeds for all of these come from the social world. Separation from the physical presence of others thus simply intensifies our encounter with others, and this encounter in turn produces an awareness of self, "as startling as the first awareness of a stranger walking by your side at night. You are the stranger."

If the psychology in West with the Night sounds existentialist, it also sounds like that of Mikhail Bakhtin. Tzvetan Todorov describes Bakhtin's psychology as following from "the fundamental principle [that] it is impossible to conceive of any being outside of the relations that link it to the other." Because of this impossibility we can never see ourselves as a whole; the other is necessary to accomplish ... a perception of the self." The idea of the other's role in self-perception brings us back to the authorship question, for this idea leads Bakhtin to conclude that "There is no clearcut, essentially necessary dividing line between autobiography and biography." In writing autobiography, the author "must become another in relation to himself, must look at himself through the eyes of another." Similarly, "the author of biography is that possible other by whom we are most likely to be possessed in lived life; the possible other who is with us when we look at ourselves in the mirror, when we dream of glory, when we make plans for our life." Both biography and autobiography are thus organized by an "artistic value" that closely resembles self-consciousness. Bakhtin calls this value "biographical," but it organizes autobiography as well:

Of all artistic values, biographical value is the one [most similar] to self-consciousness. Hence, in a biography the author is closest to the hero; they can change places, as it were. This is also the reason it is possible for author and hero to coincide in person outside the bounds of an artistic whole. Biographical value is capable of organizing not only the story of another person's life, but also the experiencing of life itself and the story of one's own life; it can be the form in which one gains consciousness of one's own life, the form in which one sees and gives utterance to one's own life.

For many readers, West with the Night's aesthetic power comes from their sense that the book represents not only Markham's life as a child in British East Africa and as a pilot, but her struggle to understand and give utterance to that life. These readers see the book as Markham's own attempt to answer its opening, Proustian question: "How is possible to bring order out of memory?" If Trzebinski is right that it was Raoul Schumacher who brought order out of Beryl Markham's memories, then, as a colleague said to me, "the bloom is definitely off West with the Night." Yet Bakhtin shows us that even if the book is Schumacher's biography of Markham, its aesthetic power comes from the same source that gives power to autobiography: a relation between author and hero that closely resembles the reader's own most private moments. In other words, the aesthetic power that compelled Hemingway's praise, the book's republication, and its subsequent popularity, remains whether we regard West with the Night as autobiography, biography, or--as I suspect it is--a combination of the two. We are finally left with Beckett's question from Texts for Nothing, the same "murmur of indifference" that ends Foucault's essay on the author: "What matter who's speaking?"

Works Discussed

BAKHTIN, M. M. "Author and Hero In Aesthetic Activity." Trans. Vadim Liapunov. Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. 4-256.

BECKETT, SAMUEL. Texts for Nothing. London: Calder & Boyars, 1974.

FOUCAULT, MICHEL. "What Is an Author?" Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977. 113-138.

FREUD, SIGMUND. "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis." Trans. James Strachey. Character and Culture. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1963. 311-20.

HEIDEGGER, MARTIN. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1962.

HEMINGWAY, ERNEST. A Moveable Feast. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964.

--Selected Letters, 1917-1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981.

KETCHAM, DIANA. "Bad Girl." The Nation November 21, 1987: 600-2.

LOVELL, MARY S. Straight On Till Morning: The Biography of Beryl Markham. New York: St Martin's Press, 1987.

LYNN, KENNETH S. Hemingway. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1987.

SKOW, JOHN. "Books: Straight On Till Morning." Time October 5, 1987: 83-4.

TODOROV, TZVETAN. Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle. Vol. 13 of Theory and History of Literature. Trans. Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

TRZEBINSKI, ERROL. The Lives of Beryl Markham. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.

Robert Viking O'Brien, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, is an assistant professor of English at California State University, Chico. He has published several scholarly articles on travel-writing and is at work on his own travel book--a memoir of two and a half years in the Solomon Islands.

JATW's Homepage