‘West with the Night,’ by Beryl Markham

“No one has written more lusciously about that pilgrimage [our temporal voyages into the unknown], nor undertaken it with more elemental daring, than Beryl Markham (October 16, 1902–August 3, 1986). Known to the world as the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from East to West with the sweep of night, against headwinds and storms particularly ferocious in that direction, she is Amelia Earhart without the pomp, Thoreau with muscle and humor, a luckier Shackleton of the sky.” – “A Different Solitude: Pioneering Aviator Beryl Markham on What She Learned About Life in the Bottomless Night” in The Marginalian

The 1942 book was well-received but went out of print until it was “re-discovered” and re-issued in 1983 when Markham was long forgotten and living in poverty. Even now, most people have never heard of her: the publisher’s description for the 2010 edition says “though most now dispute this claim.” That is not only incorrect but unconscionable. Since that ticks me off, I’m not showing the current cover of the book displayed on Amazon. She lacked the kind of PR team other pilots had. Or, maybe it’s because she was a fierce and promiscuous woman.

When the book first came out, Ernest Hemingway wrote to his editor, “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 [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

One of my favorite Markham quotes, which was cited in The Marginalian, is “I saw how a man can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned to watch… I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know — that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it. These I learned at once. But most things came harder.”

I read the book many years ago and felt the same way Hemingway did. And  I continue to think what a shame it is that her name and accomplishments remain scarcely known.

–Malcolm