Camilla Wright is the editor and publisher of Popbitch, the scurrilous gossip and pop culture web magazine, which she founded in January 2000 and which now has over 350,000 subscribers around the world. She also writes comment and features on media and popular culture for a wide range of magazines and newspapers, including The Observer and the The Sunday Times. Camilla appears regularly on radio and TV in the UK, the US and Australia. Here she discusses Martha Gellhorn's 'Justice At Night'.
Camilla Wright on 'Justice At Night' by Martha Gellhorn
Every week I write an online magazine, Popbitch, in which the average story length is 90 words. So when turning over in my head what book has inspired me more than any other, I guess it's kind of appropriate that it turned out to be something barely six pages long. Inspiration has come from many of Hunter S Thompson's works and almost anything Tom Wolfe wrote in his heyday. Hemingway's To Have And Have Not has stuck in my mind for more than fifteen years as the best written piece of fiction I've ever come across, while T.H. White's The Once and Future King and Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby have affected my emotions and imagination more than any other novel. But the piece of writing that has inspired me most, and the thing I really dream of being able to emulate just once in life, is 'Justice At Night' by Martha Gellhorn.
Originally published in The Spectator in 1936, 'Justice At Night' is perhaps the most perfect piece of eyewitness journalism. History, politics, human interest and gut-wrenching emotion are all mixed in together. It's unashamedly biased - there's no disengaged, disinterested reporter here. It's straight from the heart. But these short paragraphs tell so much more than a personal anecdote. In this micro-story, the macro-narrative of 20th Century American history is imparted: north v south, urban v country, black v white, the civil war and the civil rights movement.
'Justice At Night' relays an episode from when Gellhorn is travelling across America in a clapped-out old car that suddenly breaks down in the middle of nowhere in the state of Mississippi. And with only the second paragraph, Gellhorn manages to deliver the punchline of the story in such a way as to leave the reader immediately stunned and breathless.
I have to tell this because without the car, and without the peculiarly weak insides of that car, we should not have seen a lynching.The article then goes on to detail the events of that night chronologically: how Gellhorn and a companion hitch a lift through Mississippi in a truck, and how they discover their journey to the next town is going to be delayed, so that their rescuers can pop into the local lynching. In doing so, it provides the reader with as close an experience as it's possible to get second-hand of what it's like to see such an event. No Hollywood movie has ever evoked so much so strongly.
It's told in the first person, in Gellhorn's signature quick prose, and you pick up on a sense of menace in the first couple of paragraphs. The story starts off with the narrator sitting in the back of a rickety truck in the pitch dark, with a pair of yokels. Initially friendly and sharing their moonshine with their guests, the rescuers seem to be nothing less than guardian angels, but you, the reader, instantly know that bad things are going to happen. It's the classic opening to a horror story. Just think of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. American teenagers, lost in rural, unfamiliar America, are about to discover that every friendly local they meet is really trying to make sure they don't get out of town alive.
The mood starts to change as conversation within the truck develops. The drivers discover that their passengers are liberals from the North, and therefore not quite the same as they are. Suddenly there's no corn whiskey being offered around any more. And then the lynching detour gets introduced. The backstory of the alleged rape of a middle-aged white woman by a young black share-cropper called Hyacinth is as told by the locals. There's no comment or evidence here given to support Gellhorn's view of the story. It's just offered up straight, and with that, there's no possibility any reader will take away any picture other than that the boy's been set-up, entirely innocent. Their explanation for why they believe the woman's story over the share-cropper's denials is simply, 'Helluva place it'd be if you said white folks lied and niggers told the truth.' As James Cameron, an admirer of Gellhorn's style, once said, she writes with 'a cold eye and a warm heart'.
There's a brief discussion by Gellhorn and companion Joe as to what they could do to try to stop this happening. As reporters often find, the answer is - nothing.
Suddenly we're dropped right into the lynching. The men of the region all gather, as if it's just a normal social event. But there's no barbecue to gather round or football match to watch. We're here to watch an entirely different kind of sport. There's a tree, a rope, a can of gasoline... and a small black man being dragged over to the tree.
'Hurry up before the bastard dies of fright,' shouts one of the men, as your stomach lurches with the visceral shock of what you know is coming. Hyacinth is then doused in petrol, hung and set alight, but not before his last moments are etched on your soul.
His voice rose out of him like something apart, and it hurt one's ears to listen to it; it was higher than a voice can be, not human. 'Boss, I didn't do nuthin, don't burn me boss, boss.'Then back to the social event - as she describes the men cheerfully waving each other off till the next time and her erstwhile companions calling them back to the truck.
Well, there won't be no more fresh niggers in these parts for a while. We'll get you to Columbia now. Sorry we hadta keep you waiting...Every time I read this I feel the same shock as reading it the first time. Like I've been a first-hand witness to a truly inhuman event. I don't think there is better praise a writer could get.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]