What Happened to Martha Gellhorn’s Lost Debut Novel?


Of all the conflicts that took place throughout the 20th century, none has been as romanticized as the Spanish Civil War, which pitted the supporters of the democratically elected Spanish Republic against the General Francisco Franco-led nationalists, who were backed by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. The war fought for freedom with “trenches full of poets,” as The Clash sang in “Spanish Bombs,” was one that saw over 500,000 causalities, but amid a century filled with the crudeness and brutality of the First World War, the senseless atrocities inflicted on millions of innocent people during the Second World War, and America’s misguided war in Vietnam, the Spanish Civil War, the people who fought in it, and their reasons are often an afterthought.

In the new book Hotel Florida, Amanda Vaill revisits what most Americans associate with the war: the writers and photographers who documented it. John Dos Pasos, the photographer Robert Capa, and of course Ernest Hemingway. But it’s Martha Gellhorn who once again comes off as the most interesting person in the story. A journalist and writer of the highest stature, Gellhorn’s legacy is one that hardly gets the sort of hero-worship treatment that Hemingway (to whom she was married from 1940 to 1945) receives. A shame, really, considering that Gellhorn was nothing short of a badass and pioneer, a journalist who reported on nearly every war that took place during her career, and whose life and work has long deserved a greater appreciation than the tepid 2012 HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn.

Her life story could be worthy of its own biopic, with her ex-husband as a small player in such a big life, while her work and letters should receive the type of treatment other writers of her stature (and even lesser stature) have been treated to. But I’d be most curious to see somebody take up the challenge of putting out a proper new edition of her debut novel, What Mad Pursuit.

I can’t actually tell you if the book is any good or not, since I’ve never had a copy in my hands. But the novel, which is described in Hotel Florida as “a quasi-autobiographical chick-lit bildungsroman about three college girls looking for sex and the meaning of life but instead finding disillusion and the clap,” sounds like something I’d actually like to read, despite the 1934 review that stated it was “a rather futile book but it might have a rental library sale.”

Unhappy with the unenthusiastic response, Gellhorn moved on from her first book, and the book was never reprinted. It was pretty much lost to time until 2012, when the British Library announced that they’d acquired a “rather costly” copy of the book, which one of the library’s Writers in Residence called “a real pleasure” to read. Writing at the British Library blog [click “Text only” to read]:

One reviewer called What Mad Pursuit ‘palpable juvenilia’ – and that’s precisely why it’s interesting: it helps tell the story of Gellhorn before she became the feted war reporter, and before she became the second half of a very famous literary marriage.

It seems like a no-brainer: people know who Gellhorn is, and people are interested to know more about her. And while she’d probably look down on using it as a selling point, the Hemingway connection can’t hurt. Somebody should really figure out a way to give readers a chance to read What Mad Pursuit.