The View from the Ground

Martha Gellhorn


The View from the Ground

Martha Gellhorn


If you want to know about writing,  try the first piece in this collection, Justice at Night. Martha Gellhorn wrote it as a 28-year-old, in 1936, having just returned to the States after four years in Europe.

What follows is a collection of fifty years of peacetime journalism, selected by Gellhorn herself – history caught at the moment of its unfolding, as it looked and felt to those who experienced it. It’s about revolutions in the making, guilty acts of state terrorism, poverty, injustice and recovery.  It vividly captures the range and intensity of Gellhorn’s courageous work and is also a passionate call to arms, not only to remember the wronged and to bear witness to evil, but also to stand your ground in the face of it.

‘She had a duty, she believed, to bear witness to evil, corruption and the poverty & misery of the powerless, subjects she described with carefully controlled passion.’  Caroline Moorehead 
 ‘As a young girl growing up in St Louis, Missouri, Martha Gellhorn had a habit of poring over maps; riding on the city’s tramcars, she would imagine she was bound for distant places with exotic names. Seventy years later, her war dispatches, fiction, travel writing and the peacetime journalism – collected here – bear witness to a lifetime of wanderlust.’  Jeremy Harding, London Review of Books

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The View from the Ground: Peacetime Dispatches, 1936-87
ISBN: 978-1-78060-104-5
Format: 352pp demi pb


Author Biography

Martha Gellhorn (1908-98) published five novels, fourteen novellas and two collections of short stories. She wanted to be remembered primarily as a novelist, yet to most people she is remembered as an outstanding war correspondent and for something which infuriated her, her brief marriage to Ernest Hemingway during the Second World War. She had no intention of being a footnote in someone else's life and nor will she be. There are two biographies of Martha Gellhorn due out in the next twelve months. As a war correspondent she covered almost every major conflict from the Spanish Civil War to the American invasion of Panama in 1989. For a woman it was completely ground-breaking work, and she took it on with an absolute commitment to the truth. "All politicians are bores and liars and fakes. I talk to people", she said, explaining her paramount interest in war's civilian victims, the unseen casualties. She was one of the great war correspondents, one of the great witnesses, of the twentieth century. Her life as a war correspondent is well illustrated by two incidents. After Hemingway stole her accreditation, she stowed away on a hospital ship on 7 June 1944 and went ashore during the Normandy invasion to help collect wounded men; she was also refused a visa to return to Vietnam by the American military, so infuriated were they by her reports for the Guardian. She was a woman of strong opinions and incredible energy. Though she turned down reporting on the Bosnian war in her 80s, saying she wasn't nimble enough, she flew to Brazil at the age of eighty-seven to research and write an article about the murder of street children. Touch-typing, although she could barely see, she was driven by a compassion for the powerless and a curiosity undimmed by age. 


Extract from Chapter One

We got off the day coach at Trenton, New Jersey, and bought a car for $28.50. It was an eight-year-old Dodge open touring- car and the back seat was full of fallen leaves. A boy, who worked for the car dealer, drove us to the City Hall to get an automobile licence and he said: ‘The boss gypped the pants off you, you should of got his machine for $20 flat and it’s not worth that.’ So we started out to tour across America, which is, roughly speaking, a distance of 3,000 miles.

I have to tell this because without the car, and without the peculiarly weak insides of that car, we should not have seen a lynching.

It was September, and as we drove south the days were dusty and hot and the sky was pale. We skidded in dust that was as moving and uncertain as sand, and when we stopped for the night we scraped it off our faces and shook it from our hair like powder. So, finally, we thought we’d drive at night, which would be cooler anyhow, and we wouldn’t see the dust coming at us. The beauty of America is its desolation: once you leave New England and the industrial centres of the east you feel that no one lives in the country at all. In the south you see a few people, stationary in the fields, thinking or just standing, and broken shacks where people more or less live, thin people who are accustomed to semi-starvation and crops that never quite pay enough. The towns or villages give an impression of belonging to the flies; and it is impossible to imagine that on occasion these languid people move with a furious purpose.

We drove through Mississippi at night, trying to get to a town called Columbia, hoping that the hotel would be less slovenly than usual and that there would be some food available. The car broke down. We did everything we could think of doing, which wasn’t much, and once or twice it panted wearily and then there was silence. We sat in it and cursed and wondered what to do. No one passed; there was no reason for anyone to pass. The roads are bad and mosquitoes sing too close the minute you stop moving. And the only reason to go to a small town in Mississippi is to sell something, or try to sell, and that doesn’t happen late at night.

It was thirty miles or more to Columbia and we were tired. If it hadn’t been for the mosquitoes we should simply have slept in the car and hoped that someone would drive past in the morning. As it was we smoked cigarettes and swatted at ourselves and swore and hated machinery and talked about the good old days when people got about in stage-coaches. It didn’t make things better and we had fallen into a helpless silence when we heard a car coming. From some distance we could hear it banging over the ruts in the road. We climbed out and stood so the headlights would find us and presently a truck appeared, swaying crazily. It stopped and a man leaned out. As a matter of fact, he sagged out the side and he had a bottle in one hand, waving it at us.

‘Anything wrong?’ he said.

We explained about the car and asked for a lift. He pulled his head into the truck and consulted with the driver. Then he reappeared and said they’d give us a lift to Columbia later, but first they were going to a lynching and if we didn’t mind the detour ...

We climbed into the truck. ‘Northerners?’ the driver said. ‘Where did you all come from?’ We said that we had driven down from Trenton in New Jersey and he said, ‘In that old piece of tin?’ referring to our car. The other man wiped the neck of the bottle by running his finger around inside it, and offered it to me. ‘Do you good,’ he said, ‘best corn outside Kentucky.’ It was no time to refuse hospitality. I drank some of the stuff which had a taste like gasoline, except that it was like gasoline on fire, and he handed it to my friend Joe, who also drank some and coughed, and they both laughed.

I said timidly, ‘Who’s getting lynched?’ ‘Some goddam nigger, name of Hyacinth as I recollect.’ ‘What did he do?’ ‘He got after a white woman.’ I began to think with doubt and disgust of this explanation. So I asked who the woman was. ‘Some widow woman, owns land down towards Natchez.’ ‘How old is she?’ Joe asked. Joe was in doubt, too. ‘Christ, she’s so old she ought to of died. She’s about forty or fifty.’ ‘And the boy?’

‘You mean that nigger Hyacinth?’

I said yes, and was told that Hyacinth was about nineteen, though you couldn’t always tell with niggers; sometimes they looked older than they were and sometimes younger.

‘What happened?’ Joe said. ‘How do you know she got raped?’

‘She says so,’ the driver said. ‘She’s been screaming off her head about it ever since this afternoon. She run down to the next plantation and screamed and said hang that man; and she said it was Hyacinth. She ought to of knowed him anyhow; he was working for her sometime back.’

‘How do you mean; was he a servant?’

‘No,’ the driver said, ‘he was working on her land on shares. Most of her croppers’ve moved off by now; she don’t give them any keep and they can’t make the crop if they don’t get nothing to eat all winter. She sure is cruel hard on niggers, that woman; she’s got a bad name for being a mean one.’

‘Well,’ Joe said, very gently, ‘it doesn’t look likely to me that a boy of nineteen would go after a woman of forty or fifty. Unless she’s very beautiful, of course.’

‘Beautiful,’ the man with the bottle said, ‘Jees, you ought to see her. They could stick her out in a field and she’d scare the crows to death.’

We bumped in silence over the roads. I coudn’t think of anything to say. These men were evidently going to the lynching, but I didn’t see that they were blind with anger against the Negro, or burning to avenge the honour of the nameless widow. Joe whispered to me: ‘You know we can’t just sit and take this. I don’t believe the boy did anything to that woman. We can’t just sit around and let a man get hung, you know.’ I began to feel hot and nervous and I decided I’d like a drink even if it was corn whiskey. But I couldn’t think of anything to do.

‘How many people will be coming? A big crowd?’ I asked.

‘Yeah. They been getting the word around all evening. Some of the boys gonna go down and spring the jail. That’s easy. Sheriff don’t plan on holding that nigger till trial time anyhow. There’ll be a lot of folks driving in from all over the county. They been telephoning around this afternoon and visiting folks and it gets around if there’s trouble with a nigger. There’ll be plenty of folks there.’

‘But,’ Joe said, this time desperately, ‘you don’t know that he did anything to that woman. You haven’t any proof have you?’

‘She says he did,’ the driver said, ‘that’s enough for us. You gotta take a white woman’s word any time before you take a nigger’s. Helluva place it’d be if you said white folks lied and niggers told the truth.’

‘But you said he worked for her,’ Joe went on. ‘You said she was mean and didn’t give her share-croppers decent rations. He’s so much younger than she is, too, and you said she wasn’t any beauty. He may have been going to see her to ask for money for food and he may have gotten mad and raised his arm or something that made her think he was going to strike her ...’

‘Lissen, sonny,’ the man with the bottle said quietly, finally, ‘this here ain’t none of your goddam business.’

We drove in silence, lurching against each other, and the driver took a drink, steering with one hand, and then the other man drank. They were sore, I could see that. They’d come out to get drunk and have a good time and here we were, asking questions and spoiling their fun. They were getting a grim drunk, not a laughing one, and they were sore about it. They didn’t offer us the bottle any more.

The road widened and ahead we could see tail-lights. The driver stepped on the gas and the truck rattled forward. We passed a touring car with six men in it; I saw some shot-guns. ‘That you, Danny?’ the driver shouted. ‘Hi, Luke, see you later.’

We were evidently going to an appointed meeting place. I asked about this. ‘They’ll bring him up from jail,’ the man with the bottle said. ‘We all are gonna get together at the Big Elm crossroads.’

There were more cars now and the road was better. ‘Almost there,’ the driver said, and for no reason at all the man with the bottle said, ‘Attaboy,’ and laughed and slapped his leg.

There was no moon. I saw an enormous tree and, though there were no doubt others, it stood by itself and had a curious air of usefulness. The roads forked and there were shapeless dark cars sprawled in the dust and men waiting in groups, laughing, drinking, and looking down the road for something to appear; something that would give this party meaning. I couldn’t judge the crowd but there must have been about fifty cars, and these cars travel full.

Presently a line of cars came up the road. They were going as fast as they could over the ruts. They stopped and men poured out of them, not making much noise, apparently knowing what they had to do as if it were a ritual, or something they had practised often before. Some of these men seemed to be the poorest of white farmers: tenants or share- croppers themselves. Tattered clothes, the usual thin unhinged bodies, that soiled look of people who live in little crowded places. There were one or two men who seemed to be there on principle, as one would go to a dinner party because it was an obligation, but a very boring one, and a few men, rather more compact than the others, who directed the show. It was hard to tell in this light, but they seemed men of middle age mostly, householders, heads of families, reliable people. Joe was saying now, ‘I’d like to kill somebody myself.’

I couldn’t think of anything at all. I kept wondering why we were here. I hadn’t seen Hyacinth yet.

But Hyacinth was there, surrounded by men. He had been brought in one of the last cars. I heard a man say: ‘Hurry up before the bastard dies of fright.’ Hyacinth was walked across the road, through an open space, to the great tree. He had his hands tied and there was a rope around his waist. They were dragging him; his legs curled under him and his head seemed loose and heavy on his neck. He looked small and far too quiet. They had torn off his shirt.

The men gathered around; they came without any commands and stood at a distance to give the leaders room to work. There was not any decisive noise, no cheering or shouting, but just a steady threatening murmur of anger or determination. The action moved fast, with precision.

A sedan drove up and stopped under the tree. A man climbed on to the top quickly. Another. They stood black against the sky. From beneath, a group of men, shoving and pushing, got Hyacinth’s limp thin body up to them. Hyacinth half-lay, half-squatted on the roof. From the ground a length of rope sailed up, hung in the air, curved and fell. A man tried again and the rope caught and hung down from a limb. The noosed end was thrown to one of the men standing on the car-roof. He held it and shook Hyacinth. There were no words now, only vague instructions, half-spoken. The crowd stood still; you could hear the mosquitoes whining.

The other man held something in his hand; it looked like a great jug. He held it over Hyacinth, who shivered suddenly, and came to life. His voice rose out of him like something apart, and it hurt one’s ears to listen to it; it was higher than a voice can be, not human. ‘Boss,’ he said. ‘Boss, I didn’t do nuthin, don’t burn me Boss, Boss ...’ The crowd had trembled now, stirred by his voice, and there were orders to hurry, to kill the bastard, what the hell were they waiting for ...

The two men held him up and put the noose around his neck, and now he was making a terrible sound, like a dog whimpering. The minute they let go, he slacked into a kneeling position and his whole body seemed to shrink and dwindle and there was this noise he made. The two men jumped down from the roof: the rope was taut now. The car started and the silly sound of the starter failing to work, then the hesitant acceleration of the motor were so important that nothing else was heard; there were no other sounds anywhere; just these, and a moment’s waiting. The car moved forward, fast. Hyacinth skidded and fought an instant – less than an instant – to keep his footing or some hold, some safety. He snapped from the back of the car, hung suspended, twirling a little on the rope, with his head fallen sideways. I did not know whether he was dead. There was a choked sound beside me and it was Joe, crying, sitting there crying, with fury, with helplessness, and I kept looking at Hyacinth and thinking: it can’t have happened. There had been a noise, a sudden guttural sound as of people breathing out a deep breath, when the rope carried Hyacinth twisting into the air. Now a man came forward with a torch made of newspaper, burning. He reached up and the flames licked at Hyacinth’s feet. He had been soaked in kerosene to make it easy, but the flames didn’t take so well at first. Then they got on to his trousers and went well, shooting up, and there was a hissing sound and I thought a smell. I went away and was sick.

When I came back the cars were going off down the road quietly. And men were calling to each other saying: ‘So long, Jake...’ ‘Hi there, Billy ...’ ‘See you t’morrow, Sam ...’ Just saying goodnight to each other and going home.

The driver and the man with the bottle came back to the truck and got in. They seemed in a good frame of mind. The driver said, ‘Well there won’t be no more fresh niggers in these parts for a while. We’ll get you to Columbia now. Sorry we hadta keep you waiting ...’