Emily Hahn, "Roving Heroine"

January 14: On this day in 1905, Emily ("Mickey") Hahn was born. Hahn had a sixty-eight-year career at the New Yorker and published fifty-two books, many of them, including her two bestsellers in the 1940s, based on her storybook life. If she is "a forgotten American literary treasure," perhaps biographer Ken Cuthbertson (Nobody Said Not To Go, 1998) is correct in offering the range and style of Hahn's talent to the explanation: she spread herself over too many genres, and her "informal, highly personalized prose style" was before its time, "a precursor of the 'new journalism.'"

 

Cuthbertson's title is a line which Hahn liked to use and live by. It is apt, if not entirely accurate. When she enrolled in mining engineering at the University of Wisconsin the discouragement couldn't have been clearer: "The female mind," explained her academic advisor, "is incapable of grasping mechanics or higher mathematics." Typically Hahn, she got the mining degree—the first woman to do so at Wisconsin—and hardly practiced the profession. Similar nay-saying and head-shaking attended her cigar-smoking, her enjoyment of men and alcohol, her trip across the U.S. in a Model T with her girlfriend (both disguised as men), her journey to the Belgian Congo as a Red Cross worker, her solo hike across Central Africa, her time as the concubine of a Chinese poet in Shanghai, her addiction to opium, her affair and illegitimate child with the head of the British Secret Service in Hong Kong, her pioneer work in environmentalism and wildlife preservation, and the captivating style with which she wrote about all this. "Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict," one of her collected New Yorker pieces begins, "I can't claim that as the reason I went to China."

 

There is some rage for fame in all this, but Roger Angell's 1997 obituary article in the New Yorker warns that "this magazine's roving heroine, our Belle Geste," was not "another trenchcoated, thrill-seeking flibbertigibbet, a Carole Lombard. She was, in truth, something rare: a woman deeply, almost domestically, at home in the world. Driven by curiosity and energy, she went there and did that, and then wrote about it without fuss."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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