Navy Veteran Jerri Bell Presents WWI Navy Yeoman (F) First Class Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Writing Advice, Writing Life
Jerri Bell introduces the undiscovered richness of Douglas' long life (she died at 108!) as a prolific writer, Naval servicewoman in WWI, and political activist
Her short stories weren't bad, Marjory Stoneman Douglas said in her autobiography, Voice of the River, "but they weren't the newfangled concise dramatic short stories of the Hemingway school. Though many of the men who'd served in the First World War had been prepared for that kind of Hemingway writing, I was not a part of it. I didn't subscribe to the Hemingway thinking. I was more or less tied into the mainstream from which Hemingway was estranged. I couldn't write in that bare, stark way in which a story begins like a slap in the face."
This may be one of the reasons that Douglas is not counted among the "war writers" of World War I despite a distinguished literary record and her use of characters, settings, and anecdotes from her experiences during the war in her fiction.
Douglas was already living an unconventional life at the beginning of the war. A 1912 graduate of Wellesley, she married a con artist thirty years her senior and divorced him a year later when her father uncovered details of his financial fraud and forgery. In 1915 she moved to the then-small backwater town of Miami, Florida and became the society editor for her father's newspaper, the News Record (later the Miami Herald). Sent to cover the story of the first woman in Miami to become a Yeoman (Female) when the Navy first opened enlistment to women, Douglas ended up taking her place. "I arrived at the ship and the next thing I knew I was sticking up my hand, swearing to protect and defend the United States of America from all enemies whatsoever. I guess they talked me into it." The recruiters, she said, "came on very strong."
The Navy and Douglas suited each other poorly. Douglas quickly grew bored of stenography, typing, and filing, and rebelled by showing up late for work. She infuriated her commanding officers in the Miami reserve headquarters when she rewrote their correspondence to improve grammar and style. She was proud to have served, especially given seagoing ancestors from Cornwall and Maine, but at the end of a year she requested and received a discharge.
Naval service inspired Douglas to volunteer overseas with the Civilian Relief department of the Red Cross. Assigned in Paris at the end of the war, she wrote publicity releases and worked with war refugees. Her experiences with refugees and, after the Armistice, in the war-ravaged Balkans found their way into her fiction after the war.
Douglas' literary legacy includes includes four novels and several book-length works of nonfiction; more than a hundred short stories and articles (forty of which were published in the Saturday Evening Post); two short stories which won O. Henry Awards; poetry; one-act plays; an autobiography, published in her ninety-seventh year; and her masterpiece The Everglades: River of Grass, an environmental and social work of nonfiction that has been compared to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in its influence on public policy and environmental protection.
Douglas sprinkles nuggets of writing wisdom throughout her autobiography. To place her work in the Saturday Evening Post, she "sat down and deliberately studied the kind of story I thought [the editor] liked….a success story with a noble main character, tangled up with a little sex and a few cuss words thrown in."If she got stuck on a story, she followed the advice of a neighbor to "Forget about the story. Go out. Get drunk, fall in love, do anything, but forget it for a while. Then come back and write it cold, all over again." Although she asserted that "You can't teach people to write if they can't write, and if they can write, they don't need teachers," her life belies the claim. Her journalist father taught her to check the facts in the news stories she reported. She found a New York agent who helped her place freelance work. She read voraciously and widely, and filled her home in Coconut Grove with books of all kinds.
Douglas wrote through her nineties. At seventy-nine she became an environmental activist, created the nonprofit organization Friends of the Everglades, and began lecturing and lobbying state and local legislatures. In 1993, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, citing her for "her crusade to preserve and restore the Everglades [which] has enhanced our Nation's respect for our precious environment, reminding all of us of nature's delicate balance." Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Navy veteran of World War One, died in 1998 at the age of 108.
Jerri Bell is the Managing Editor for O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project. She retired from the Navy in 2008; her assignments included antisubmarine warfare in the Azores Islands, sea duty on USS Mount Whitney and HMS Sheffield, and attaché duty at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in a variety of journals, newspapers, and blogs. She and former Marine Tracy Crow are the co-authors of It's My Country Too: Women's Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan, forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books in 2017.