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Beryl Markham authorship


Beryl Markham was an aviator in Africa in the 1930s. She became famous for being the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west, but these days she's best known (when she's known at all) as the author of an excellent autobiography/memoir, West with the Night.

Here's what Ernest Hemingway said about the book, in a letter to 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. 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 [she] 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. . . . 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.

Unfortunately, it turns out that there's some question as to the authorship of the book; it may in fact be a biography (posing as an autobiography) written in whole or in part by Markham's third husband, writer Raoul Schumacher. Robert Viking O'Brien has an interesting article, "Author and Hero in West with the Night," which discusses why it may be irrelevant who wrote it; he looks at the colonialist tension of Markham growing up in a British family in East Africa, and suggests (I'm paraphrasing/interpreting heavily here) that whoever is telling a "true" story, some things will be omitted and others changed, so that the teller shapes the tale; and thus, O'Brien suggests, the question of who's doing the telling is less interesting than looking at what's told. I'm not sure I agree that it doesn't matter who's doing the telling, but there's some good stuff in the article—and it may make y'all interested in reading the book, which you really ought to do regardless of who wrote it.

Yes, I'm finishing up my Zeppelin story. And no, Beryl Markham isn't in it. But I needed some info from the book for it.


I'm one of those who thinks it really doesn't matter. The book is really good, probably one of the best books of nonfiction I've ever read :-)

Yet by the end of the decade, a question of authorship had damaged both the critical reputation and sales of the book.

This suggests to me that the book was being both bought and lauded for the wrong reasons.

The question of authorship matters quite a bit if you want to read another book by the 'author' (or if you are giving someone a job based on writing you think they may not have done).

More importantly, you've given my a book to put on my list!

Redintegro Iraq,

V.: In this particular case, I gather that Markham published a few short stories that also may've been written or co-written by Schumacher, and Schumacher wrote a few other minor works, but nothing else by either of them has been particularly recommended.

D.: I think that when people buy autobiographies, they want to believe that they're getting something special, something directly from the mouth of the person whose life is being described. (I think a lot of people would be appalled to learn how many "auto"biographies are ghost-written.) And in this particular case, I admit that part of the allure of the book for me was this woman who was not only remarkable in all sorts of other ways but was a hella good writer (and a bit of smugness on my part about Hemingway admitting to being bested in writing ability by a woman!). (I'm having mildly sheepish flashbacks to the whole James Tiptree thing.) So I'm a little disappointed to learn that she may not have actually written any of it. But that definitely doesn't make it any less well-written; I agree that authorship reappraisals shouldn't tarnish the book's reputation.

Another possibly related thought: during college, I was the stage manager and tech director for a performance of Talking With..., a set of dramatic monologues for women by Jane Martin. The director and all of the cast were women, and the play (which is excellent, btw) is one of those things about which people always say things like "This is all about the female experience" and "Only a woman could have written this." At one point during rehearsals, the director told the cast that she'd heard a rumor that perhaps "Jane Martin" was actually a man, and she asked if they had a problem with that. After some discussion, they unanimously concluded that it just didn't matter; the work still spoke to them regardless of who wrote it.

I'm glad we in the SF field have Bob Silverberg's example to steer us away from saying things like that. Props to Bob for taking that one for the team.

I read this book shortly before going to Kenya for the School for Field Studies program. It was kind of interesting to see how Nairobi had changed. Anyway, my professor David G. Campbell actually met Markham several times when he was younger and studying there. Apparently by that time she was very old and spent her days getting totally soused at the local horsetrack. He said she was mean spirited and bitter by that point, but he didn't doubt that she had written the book herself based on their conversations.

An aging writer takes to drink and becomes mean and bitter? Of all the rumours, surely this is the most shocking!

Back in the early 1980's I discovered an original printing of "West With the Night" in an antique store in Ventura, Ca. I bought it simply because I have always had an interest in aviation, and especially the women of aviation history, but was enthralled by the story it tells and how beautifully it is told.

Sadly I later lost it along with many other treasures when moving out of an ex's apartment. This is especially frustrating because it could easily solve the question of authorship once and for all, as it contained several letters from Beryl Markham to from what apparently must have been an acquaintance from the time's that she writes about. The gist of which was "My gosh, this is fantastic, I didn't know you could write like this, you're quite the poet, but I shouldn't be surprised considering everything you have done", "Gee it's fun to travel down memory lane, remember when so-and-so did such-and-such, good thing you didn't include it", and, "Hey, I knew you fairly well, we partied together, why didn't you mention me so I could be famous too".

I have been reluctant to say anything about it, because all the controversy surrounding the subject pretty much ensures someone will take issue with my summation, and thus demand specific proofs that I am unable to provide. Therefore I'm not going to get involved in any back and forth on this. You can believe what I say or not, but I don't have any reason to alter reality or be illogical

Remembering the American valuation of being first above all else, and of course, first was Charles Lindberg, who also wrote a book, a best seller, at that point it was just considered (if at all) as nothing more than an old book about a long forgotten flight. Thus, when I had them, although I treasured them as a link with her, and a look inside her mind, I never read them seeking to ascertain authorship, and therefore cannot give any specific examples. However, when the I became aware of the question of authorship, those letters immediately came to mind, because among other things, they were written in the exact same style as the book, and they were written several years after Schumacher left her life, thus leaving no doubt in my mind that Beryl was the true prime author. In the letter I mention that touches on authorship, she revealed that she had over the years, written (and often lost) specific stories, and bits and pieces, and that Schumacher's only contribution was to help her organize and edit everything into a chronological and cohesive format ready for publication.

I'm not the only one to say that I'm positive she was the author, it's also the opinion of virtually everybody that knew her, except for her third husband, who claims he wrote it, and yet stylistically it matches nothing else he has done.

Go figure....

Thanks for the comment, and sorry I didn't rescue it from the moderation filter a week ago when you posted it.

Very interesting info; thanks for posting it. I'm a little confused as to why letters both to and from Markham would have been enclosed in a copy of the book in a store in California in the eighties; I can imagine circumstances that would have led to that happening, but it surprises me.

I also suspect that the various scholars over the past few decades who've tried to prove authorship one way or another have probably looked at Markham's correspondence looking for stylistic clues. But I don't know for sure.

Also, you say that "virtually everybody that knew her" says she wrote it, but the article I linked to says that "many of Markham's acquaintances in California, England, and Kenya" said she didn't write it.

Anyway, I have no need to pick a side on this issue; I think the question is a fascinating one, but I gather that both sides have amassed and displayed a great deal of strong evidence, so I think even with your new info, I'm going to continue to consider it an open question in my own mind.

But thanks nonetheless for the post; an interesting piece to add to the puzzle. I hope someday someone finds the copy you lost and makes the letters public.

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