Today, a daring flight and an unlikely book. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Beryl Markham writes about her fears as she sets out on the first east-to-west flight across the Atlantic from England in 1936:
We fly but we have not 'conquered' the air. Nature presides in all her dignity, permitting us [to use her forces]. It is when we presume to intimacy, having been granted only tolerance, that the harsh stick falls across our impudent knuckles ...
Her flight came late in the string of early transatlantic crossings that tested and probed Nature -- each dangerous as the last, each still dependent on specially built airplanes. Markham's east-west crossing was one of the last ad hoc challenges to Nature before commercial transatlantic traffic could begin three years later.
Nature rapped Markham's knuckles right smartly. her fuel supply system failed over open sea before she got to Cape Breton. Her Percival Vega Gull aeroplane sputtered its last just as land came into view. She upended in a peat bog a few miles short of her intended landfall, and stumbled out with a badly cut head.
But Markham's more remarkable feat wasn't in the air. It was in literature. Her one book, West With the Night, is a tour de force that arrives out of some unexpected ether. How did it come about? We need to know a little about Markham herself.
She grew up on a Keyna farm, learned to hunt with African boys, and was once mauled by a lion. Her schooling was minimal. She took up horse training in her late teens and flying in her late 20s. By then the beautiful Markham had married twice, mothered a son (whose father may've been the Duke of Gloucester), and was woven into the decadent, upper-class, expatriate English life of pre-war Africa. She was a friend of Isak Dinesen (played by Meryl Streep in the movie Out of Africa.) But the friendship suffered when Markham took up with the real-life Robert Redford character.
Until she went to England for the transatlantic flight, she flew air mail in Africa, rescued wounded miners and hunters in the bush, and spotted bull elephants for rich hunters. She was a serious adventure-junkie.
After the Atlantic flight (and a few years in Hollywood) she wrote her book about life in Africa and life in the air. The book is astonishing -- extraordinary writing by any measure. Hemingway said it made him ashamed of everything he'd ever written.
No doubt she had some help from her third husband, writer Raoul Schumacher. But how heavily was he involved? Rough drafts show editorial markings in both their hands. The problem is, Schumacher never wrote anything else to approach it, and this was Markham's only book.
So where did this masterpiece come from? I suspect Beryl Markham was simply a creative coiled spring, wound tight by a life lived on the edge -- a spring that uncoiled only once, leaving us all the richer for that one great whirl of expression.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Markham, B., West with the Night. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983 (1st ed., 1942).
Lovell, M. S., Straight on Till Morning. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.
Boyles, D., African Lives: White Lies, Tropical Truth, Darkest Gossip, and Rumblings of Rumor -- from Chinese Gordon to Beryl Markham, and Beyond. New York: Ballantine Books, 1989, Chapter 3.
Isak Dinesen was the pen name of the Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke. Her husband was the prototype of the "Great White Hunter" -- someone Beryl Markham affectionately called Blix and often worked with. The mutual friend, played by Robert Redford in the movie, was another flier named Denys Finch Hatton. Beryl's maiden name was Clutterbuck. She was born in England in 1902, and her father took her to Africa when she was four. The name Markham was that of her second husband.
For more on Beryl Markham, see the following website: http://www.karenblixen.com/beryl.html.