I was struck by Susan Hertog’s statement in her dual biography, Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson: New Women in Search of Love and Power, that both West and Thompson had “failed as women.” They were successes as people, that is certain. West is the author of one of the world’s greatest books of travel writing, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and Thompson was a journalist who influenced foreign policy and interviewed Adolf Hitler. But did they fail as women?
Read the last Bookslut on Joan Aiken.
Both had a series of failed relationships and marriages, it’s true. Both had sons who they weren’t quite sure what to do with, and both sons grew up resenting their mothers. Both attempted to attach themselves to literary geniuses as partners, only to find themselves in abusive relationships. But when someone performs better at their job than their home—men or women—can we really say they have failed their gender?
Hertog’s biography is fascinating to be sure. West and Thompson traveled the world, socialized with some of the greatest minds of their time and were terrifically prolific. I asked Hertog to expand on the conclusions she reaches about their private lives.
Did you know from the beginning that you were going to write a biography that included both Thompson and West? Both are such fascinating figures, and their lives intertwine and mirror each other, so it seems an interesting choice, but also like it may have worked out by accident.
My original idea was to write a book about women who had reached the pinnacle of their careers in 1939, just as the war in Europe had begun. Thank goodness my agent disabused me of this delusion! It would've taken forever and been thousands of pages! These women included Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson.
Choosing to write a dual portrait of them was a natural. They were friends for 40 years and their lives had so many parallels. Born one year apart on opposite sides of the Atlantic, both of British heritage, they had humble immigrant roots, but an overarching sense of historical mission. Managing to rise above their poverty, defy social and gender expectations, they struggled to the top of their professions through sheer grit and will.
The working title of my book was Gemini, because these women were, as you say, mirror images of one another, yet as the myth goes, one looked to the sky, to the universal implications of history, Rebecca West, and the other, was grounded in the earth, the here and now, Dorothy Thompson. West grappled with the big issues, approaching them from every angle in order to discern their enduring meaning, while Thompson was the quintessential public policy wonk, who had even considered running for president.
I am curious about your statement about the different career path that Rebecca West took "despite scientific data that illuminate the functioning of the female brain." How do you think the ambitious lives of Thompson and West illustrate the different types of ambition that men and women possess? Do you think that is hard-wired?
This is a complex question that deserves a thoughtful answer. First of all, you can't argue with science. MRI scans of male and female brains light up differently when engaged in activities or responding to questions. Studies reveal that female brains light up when they are nurturing; male brains light up when they are competing. I can almost hear your women readers groaning in unison in cyberspace! But this, I believe, doesn't tell the full story; one must factor in personality and changing social expectations. Social expectations are determined by the historical moment in which women live.
West and Thompson came of age after World War I, on the cusp of violent social and political upheaval when the world was in crisis. They were too smart and ambitious to live conventional lives, but having thrown out the old rules, they were making new ones up on the fly—rules that put their own needs at the center of their ethical universe.
And yet, since they were born in the early 1890s, they were torn by the standards of the Victorian era. Wanting it all, longing for homes and families, and unions with men worthy of their total dedication. But trouble came when they chose men as brilliant, ambitious and incapable of intimacy as themselves—West chose H.G. Wells, and Thompson, Sinclair Lewis. Both men had self-destructive flaws, despite their literary genius. Wells was an inveterate womanizer, and Lewis was an abusive drunk.
But it is also true, despite their protestations to the contrary, that West and Thompson had little interest in domesticity or rearing [their] sons. They were too devoted to bringing their ambitions to fruition. As a result, their relationships with men shattered, and their sons grew angry and vengeful, even as they soared to professional fame. One might say, they were in love with the idea of love, but didn't have the emotional tools to sustain it.
The parallel between Thompson and West included having sons who really resented them. Both were pretty neglectful of their sons, but at the same time both were neglected by their own parents, one through abandonment, one through death. Did you get the sense these two women were exasperated by their sons' inability to flourish nonetheless, like they themselves had?
West was exasperated by her son's lack of direction and tenacity, because she, like [his father] Wells, saw Anthony as an extension of herself. She would not risk admitting that his emotional damage, which was at the root of his inability to flourish, was the result of his illegitimacy for fear of shattering her own psyche. In fact, the one time she did, she was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown.
But she saw everything. She, who was a master observer of human behavior, with a deep and instinctive knowledge of the dynamic of the mind, could never turn her searchlight inward, perhaps because she could not, despite psychoanalysis, fathom the source of her own emotional distortions. When Anthony went to America, leaving his wife and their two children behind, it was the beginning of the end of their relationship, culminating in his derisive portrait of her in his roman à clef, Heritage. Yes, she had a tough childhood, but she was his mother; her honesty might have saved their relationship, not to mention his wasted talents in pursuit of revenge.
Thompson, on the other hand, neglected her son, Michael, without understanding why. Despite her best intentions, she could not stay at home, and despite loving him deeply, her own lack of mothering had left her without the insight or tools to nurture him. To complicate the issue, Michael had what we now call learning disabilities, which went undetected until adulthood. As a child, Michael tried so hard to please her, but since she had a “pull up yourself by your bootstraps” mindset toward mothering, Michael was doomed to fail. The final peg in the coffin of his sad life was that his father, Sinclair Lewis, had neither had the emotional capacity nor the inclination to care about him.
Since their legacy is really their work, and not their private lives, can you say what of their work you think still holds up for a modern reader?
Thompson, like so many of her male colleagues, wrote about issues relevant to their times. Their insights can certainly be extrapolated forward, but it would take research and time that many contemporary journalists are either too busy or not inclined to do.
West's writing, though of enduring consequence, is as cerebral and wide-ranging as it is beautiful. A reader would have to have not only the leisure, but also the interest in history, biography, literature, and culture—commodities that aren't easy to come by in this fast-moving world of instantaneous news today. I think that if someone wants a taste of West’s genius, I would suggest their reading the Epilogue to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. In little more than 100 pages, a reader can experience the range and magnificence of her writing.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.