Martha Gellhorn’s Excellent 1947 American Adventure

Martha Gellhorn was much more than just another ex-wife of Ernest Hemingway.

She was a superb war correspondent, an accomplished novelist, and a perceptive analyst of post-World War II America. (See Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center for further details.)

Exhibit A: This perambulatory piece for The New Republic in 1947, two years after WWII had ended.

(Tip o’ the pixel to Longform)

Martha Gellhorn’s Revelatory Road Trip Across America

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For several weeks now we have been driving through the American Way of Life. For a time, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, the American Way of Life looked like the tender memories of GI’s, homesick songs, politicians’ promises and the unattainable dream of all the homeless and hungry of Europe. Between the dogwood and the lilacs and the redbud and the flowering chestnuts, the fields lay combed and sleek, and the clean farmhouses stood inside their screens of old trees. The little towns were lovelier than one remembers American towns can be, faded brick and white wood, the tall, cool trees, and life sleeping there. Perhaps this is the Old World now. These people seemed to believe in peace and to feel safe inside their houses and their habits. It is amazing how permanent a place can look, how rooted and unchanging the populace, when there are no burned tanks beside the road, no buildings split in half, no fields scooped by shell fire.

For Gellhorn, after WWII there were two Americas: Those who went to war and those who didn’t.

Regarding the former:

All those who truly earned their foreign travel (as opposed to racketeers, slobs and the ones who never had it so good) have this knowledge of suffering and want. You find them everywhere, the traveled Americans, who saw the world from two-and-a-half- ton trucks, in convoy, going from one ruined place to another. It is a tragedy that they are apparently so voiceless.

Regarding the latter:

We drove through places called Old Hundred, Hamlet, Pee Dee. The main streets seem to have been ordered from a firm that mass-produces main streets for small Southern towns and there is nothing charming about the invariable drugstore, movie house, Woolworth’s, and the stucco gas stations on the crossroads . . .

There is a lot of religion, one way and another, in dignified, pillared Baptist churches and in epileptic gospel meetings, and one must assume that the conditions in heaven and hell are more absorbing to people who plan to spend time in one or the other, than are conditions beyond the confines of Old Hundred, Hamlet and Pee Dee.

Epileptic gospel meetings.

Excellent.

As is Gellhorn’s entire essay.

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