I am writing again about writing pilots or flying writers. Sometimes it is difficult to decide which are adjectives and nouns when it comes to describing writers who are capable of flying, or pilots who can actually write.
On my long transit down Interstate 95, I am listening to the audio book production of Beryl Markham’s West With the Night. What a wonderful story she penned about her life and flying in Africa. I wrote about the first time I read her book back in the late 1980s. Out of curiosity, I began looking into the story of how she came to write her wonderful story about growing up in British East Africa, now known as Kenya.
I also wanted to know the story behind the inspirational comment made by Ernest Hemingway in the excerpt from a letter on the back cover of the book. The story of Hemingway’s comments and the latest publication of the book intrigued me. As it turned out, the story of Hemingway’s letter, how it was discovered, and the publication of the book in the 1980s is a story worthy of telling itself.
It began in 1957 when a former merchant seaman, George Gutekunst, took his life’s savings to start a restaurant on the San Francisco waterfront. He was loud and boisterous and his son, Eduardo, said his father often would grab a bottle of wine or something from the dessert menu and sit down with guests who he thought “were interesting.” One such person was Jack Hemingway, son of the famous writer. Soon, the two became good friends.
Hemingway would take Gutekunst fishing in Idaho and it was on one of these trips Hemingway allowed Gutekunst to read his father’s letters. This was when Gutekunst discovered a paragraph Hemingway had written about Beryl Markham that supplied the impetus for the reprinting of her memoir. In 1942, Hemingway penned a letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins. In it, he wrote, “Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West With the Night? …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 nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”
(On the back cover of the book, Hemingway’s praise is evident, but the publisher judiciously left out the insult.)
Gutekunst, a degreed historian and voracious reader, became curious about Markham’s book and found a copy in a public library. He read Markham’s work cover to cover in one sitting. He was enthralled with the story and the writing – so moved by the book he contacted a writer-friend for help in getting Markham’s book published again. The two went to William Turnbull, publisher of North Point Press, a small publishing house in the bay area. They were successful in convincing Turnbull to reprint Markham’s memoir.
Turnbull took a risk with West With the Night. The first reprinting in 1983 was small, with a print run of only 5000. By 1988, the book sold more than 500,000 copies and enjoyed 79 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list.
©2013 J. Clark
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