Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Life

Do you sometimes think you've wasted your life?

It's the birthday of the author of 52 books and nearly 200 articles and short stories, Emily Hahn, born in St Louis, Missouri (1905).

She went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and she was the first woman in the university's history to graduate with a degree in Mining Engineering. Many of her peers and instructors disapproved and insisted that she would not be able to get a job. After college, she and another adventurous young woman disguised themselves as men and set out on a cross-country road trip, driving more than 2,400 miles.

She wrote: "Then followed several years of drifting, or as near drifting as a middle-class well-brought-up woman can achieve. … I needed money, and began to write in order to earn some." She taught geology at Hunter College in New York, and then she took off for Europe.

While she was in England, her first book was published in the United States: Seductio ad Absurdum: The Principles and Practices of Seduction — A Beginner's Handbook (1930). She traveled around Europe, then joined a Red Cross mission to the Belgian Congo. She spent nine months there with the mission, and then stayed in Africa another year, living with a pygmy tribe and traveling around central Africa on foot. Her experiences in Africa formed the basis for several of her books, fiction and nonfiction, including a travel memoir, Congo Solo: Misadventures Two Degrees North (1933), a novel, With Naked Foot (1934), and Africa to Me (1964), a collection of articles she wrote for The New Yorker on the subject of emerging African nationalism.

She worked for a while in England at the British Museum Reading Room, and then moved to China, where she wrote for The New Yorker. She moved into an apartment in the red-light district of Shanghai, and she had a pet gibbon, which she brought to dinner parties. In Shanghai, she became romantically involved with prominent men in the city, including the poet and publisher Sinmay Zau. He taught her to smoke opium, and she became an addict.

She moved to Hong Kong, and became lovers with a British spy, Major Boxer. They had a daughter together a few weeks before Hong Kong was invaded by the Japanese. She recounted these experiences in her memoir China to Me (1944), which was a great literary success.

She and Boxer got married and moved to his estate in England, where they had another child. Hahn lived a domestic life in rural England for several years, but then escaped to New York, where she bought an apartment and wrote memoirs, articles, fiction, and nonfiction. She continued to go into her office at The New Yorker until a few months before she died at the age of 92.

Emily Hahn said, "Nobody said not to go."

This biography is from today's page in The Writer's Almanac.

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