‘Writing is payment for the chance to look and learn’, says Martha Gellhorn in this collection of journalism from five decades. She is best known for her work as war correspondent in the thirties, but these peace-time articles show the same determination to be at history’s front-line, in whatever country it is set. They are grouped according to decade, and subjects covered include the McCarthy and Eichmann trials, American resistance to the Vietnam War, Israel embattled, torture in El Salvador, and the miners’ strike. Gellhorn also summarises each decade, and her own movements in it, explaining the context and genesis of each article, but, despite the fact that these summaries are autobiographical, all references to love affairs, marriage or children are omitted, though we can infer at least some connection with Hemingway who is necessarily mentioned when she revisits Cuba.
Both countries and love affairs, says Gellhorn, ‘leave tender memories, no disillusion or regrets and no reason to end except the beckoning next love affair’ – a comparison that could be considered revealing. But in fact it is a bit of characteristic throwaway in which she does herself an injustice, at least in regard to her relations with countries. Her journalism is distinguished by its passion, of a deeper, more enduring sort than her casual-love simile suggests. She deliberately pursued issues that enraged or moved her, and her feelings did not end with her assignments. She aims to inspire anger and pity in the public, and thus indirectly promote change; which in fact she did, her reports on the American poor, for instance, claiming the attention and concern of the Roosevelts.
The president was only one of the odd acquaintances fortuitously made through her adventures; others included Diego di Rivera, Eisenstein, Polish writers and actors, prostitutes. But, again, they were not merely subjects for articles and ephemeral sympathy, though she often laments the inevitable incompleteness of her knowledge about their stories.