Today is the birthday of the woman The New Yorker called "a forgotten American literary treasure." That's Emily Hahn, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1905).
In 1926, she became one of the first women to get an engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
She originally enrolled at the UW as an art major, and on a whim, she attempted to enroll in a geological chemistry course in the engineering college. She wrote later that the department chair blocked her enrollment and told her, “The female mind is incapable of grasping mechanics or higher mathematics or any of the fundamentals of mining taught in this course.” Indignant, Hahn immediately switched her major to mining engineering and survived the department’s appeal to the state legislature to remove her from the program.
Hahn’s engineering classmates and instructors frequently tested her resolve. “I trained myself to keep very quiet and to maintain a poker face whenever I was in the college,” she wrote in Times and Places, a collection of essays that was first published in 1970 and was recently rereleased under the title No Hurry to Get Home. Over time, though, Hahn did manage to make a few engineering friends, who took to calling her “Mickey,” a childhood nickname that sounded masculine enough for an engineer — and Hahn used it for the rest of her life.
Discrimination wasn’t limited to the classroom. During her sophomore year, Hahn watched with dismay as, one by one, her classmates were offered summer internships and fieldwork opportunities that were considered inappropriate for women. It was her roommate, Dorothy Raper (later Miller) ’27, who unrolled a map of the world and pointed to a solution: Lake Kivu in the Belgian Congo seemed as good a place as any for a summer adventure.
But before embarking for the Congo, the roommates decided to take a practice trip to Albuquerque. Miller suggested they drive south, stay with her uncle for a while, and then finish the trip with a quick jaunt over to California to see the Pacific Ocean. Hahn’s biographer, Ken Cuthbertson, describes Miller as “outgoing, energetic, and athletic; she was a competitive swimmer,” and Hahn also called her “enterprising.” The only daughter of a newspaper columnist in Cleveland, Miller didn’t hesitate to petition her parents for $290 to purchase a Model T Ford. Miller then spent the spring teaching Hahn how to drive in the “gentle, glaciated hills of the [Wisconsin] countryside, past grazing cows and farmhouses.”
However, not everyone was supportive. “Why do you talk all the time about getting away?” a date asked Hahn not long before the trip. “Isn’t Madison good enough for you?”
“Madison’s all right, I guess, but no one place is good enough,” she replied. “I want to get around. I want to see things.”
She and her friend dressed as men and drove across the United States in the Model-T Ford.
Hahn was always on the move — one of her catchphrases was "Nobody said not to go." She wrote letters home to her brother-in-law, which were later published in The New Yorker.
Hahn completed her mining engineering degree and landed a job with a petroleum company in Saint Louis, which she appeared to accept with a sense of resignation rather than pride. Though she did successfully become an engineer, she didn’t stay one for long. One night after work, she heard that fellow UW engineering student Charles Lindbergh x’24 was attempting to fly across the Atlantic. She made a bet with herself that if he made it, she’d quit her job and become a writer. When The Spirit of Saint Louis landed in Paris the next day, she did just that.
That began a career with the magazine that would last almost 70 years. She was also a tour guide in New Mexico, she worked for the Red Cross in the Belgian Congo (after sneaking across the border in a wooden crate), she lived with a tribe of Pygmies for two years, and she crossed Africa on foot.
At 30, Hahn moved to Shanghai, where she lived in a red-light district and worked as the China correspondent for The New Yorker during WWII. She had an affair with the poet Sinmay Zau (Shao Xunmei), became his concubine, and took up smoking opium. She once said: "I always wanted to be an opium addict," and eventually she became one. It took two years of regular smoking, but she persisted. And then she kicked the habit through hypnosis.
In 1941, she gave birth to a daughter, the result of her affair with Charles Boxer, who was the head of British army intelligence in Hong Kong. He was jailed by the occupied Japanese and reported to be executed. But, reports were wrong - Hahn and Boxer were married four years later and had another daughter together. The family settled in England, but after five years of domesticity, Hahn was on the move again. She got a place in New York City and made frequent visits to her husband and children back in Dorset.
And through all of this, she wrote: 54 books and more than 200 articles for The New Yorker. Her books all got good reviews, but she was hard to pigeonhole, because her style flowed from genre to genre.
Her very first book, Seductio ad Absurdum (1930), was a comic look at men's wooing techniques. She wrote about her travels throughout Asia, including her wartime romance with Boxer, in China to Me (1944). She wrote many biographies and a few novels. She wrote books about diamonds, and the Philippines, and apes. And just a couple of months before her death, she published her first poem in The New Yorker. It was called "Wind Blowing." During her lifetime Emily Hahn published books on a number of subject – from travel memoirs to a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, to novels, to books of geology (which was, after all, her profession).
You can find a few titles in the Project Gutenberg and in the Internet Archive.
When Emily Hahn died in 1997, at the age of 92, her granddaughter Alfia Vecchio Wallace gave her eulogy. In it, Wallace said: "Chances are, your grandmother didn't smoke cigars and let you hold wild role-playing parties in her apartment. Chances are that she didn't teach you Swahili obscenities. Chances are that when she took you to the zoo, she didn't start whooping passionately at the top her lungs as you passed the gibbon cage. Sadly for you, your grandmother was not Emily Hahn."
“The steward just asked me if I was not afraid to travel alone, and I said, "Why, it is life.”
'I have deliberately chosen the uncertain path whenever I had the chance.“