Emily Hahn, "Roving Heroine"

January 14: Onthis day in 1905, Emily (“Mickey”) Hahn was born. Hahn had asixty-eight-year career at the New Yorkerand published fifty-two books, many of them, including her two bestsellersin the 1940s, based on her storybook life. If she is “a forgotten Americanliterary treasure,” perhaps biographer Ken Cuthbertson (Nobody Said Not To Go, 1998) is correctin offering the range and style of Hahn’s talent to the explanation: she spreadherself over too many genres, and her “informal, highly personalized prosestyle” was before its time, “a precursor of the ‘newjournalism.’”

Cuthbertson’s title is a line which Hahn liked to use andlive by. It is apt, if not entirely accurate. When she enrolled in miningengineering at the University of Wisconsin the discouragement couldn’t havebeen clearer: “The female mind,” explained her academic advisor,”is incapable of grasping mechanics or higher mathematics.” TypicallyHahn, she got the mining degree—the first woman to do so at Wisconsin—andhardly practiced the profession. Similar nay-saying and head-shaking attendedher 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 theBelgian Congo as a Red Cross worker, her solo hike across Central Africa, hertime 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 Servicein Hong Kong, her pioneer work in environmentalism and wildlife preservation,and the captivating style with which she wrote about all this. “Though Ihad always wanted to be an opium addict,” one of her collected New Yorker pieces begins, “I can’tclaim that as the reason I went to China.”

There is some rage for fame in all this, but Roger Angell’s1997 obituary article in the New Yorkerwarns that “this magazine’s roving heroine, our Belle Geste,” was not “another trenchcoated,thrill-seeking flibbertigibbet, a Carole Lombard. She was, in truth, somethingrare: a woman deeply, almost domestically, at home in the world. Driven bycuriosity and energy, she went there and did that, and then wrote about itwithout 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.