I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to Emily Hahn's No Hurry to Get Home, which I have just started reading in earnest. I know why I picked it up right now, however. I think I've mentioned that I'm in the mood for travel literature (or if I've not mentioned it, it has certainly been on my mind), brought on by my diary reading. Are you surprised? I had a whole array of books set out in front of me but I decided on Emily Hahn for two reasons. One was the subtitle, "The Memoir of the New Yorker Writer Whose Unconventional Life and Adventures Spanned the Twentieth Century". I'm all for unconventional women travelers. The other was a comparison of Hahn to another recent favorite, M.F.K. Fisher, by essayist Adam Gopnik who is himself a writer for The New Yorker. By the way, and something of an aside, I have had some of the best luck with reading past New Yorker writers. There is something about their prose style that attracts me.
Emily Hahn, nicknamed Mickey by her family growing up, was born in St. Louis in 1905. From the sound of it, she led an unorthodox lifestyle living abroad much of the time and traveling according to whim to faraway and exotic places. She is quoted as saying "Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict, I can't claim that as the reason I went to China." Apparently she did have an addiction to opium while living there as well as had an affair with Britain's chief spy in Hong Kong, who she later married. I don't think I can imagine myself doing some of the things she did, though the world was a different place then, but her adventures do make for interesting reading.
As a child she was a "rapacious" reader and would later spend forty-seven years as a staff writer for The New Yorker. She wrote many varied books, her tastes being quite eclectic. She had a fascination with words and could pull from memory quotations or passages from literature she read many years previously. I like what was said about her in the foreword.
"Her work stands up to time and has a strong, steady undercurrent of truth and reality like a secret subterranean stream. She maintained that she was not a feminist, but I believe that was because she disliked being labeled or pigeonholed. She steadfastly refused throughout her life to conform to anyone else's idea of how women, not just this particular woman, should be, or do, or become. There was an inborn and unyielding Independence in her that must often have been difficult to maintain. She lived her life as she chose to and found certain conventions mere unreasonable nuisances and nothing to do with her. Yet there was no sign of flamboyance in her looks, nor in her demeanor, nor in her character. What she did, she did for herself, never for the impression it might make on the rest of the world. She made the unconventional seem ordinary by her very attitude toward it, and therefore made it more acceptable to those of less brave or less honest."
Doesn't she sound interesting? No Hurry to Get Home was originally published in 1970 under the title Times and Places. She was meant to be writing her autobiography, but wasn't enthusiastic about the project. As she had written autobiographical pieces for The New Yorker, she compiled some of them (written between 1937-1970) in this loosely connected collection of writings. It sounds very much like the essays I just read by M.F.K. Fisher, a style I very much enjoyed.
I've been reading the first essay, which is about when she ran away from home at the age of 15. I came across this wonderful passage where she explains why, which I think will be appreciated, so I thought today was a good day to share a teaser.
"Very likely it happened not so much because we moved to Chicago as because I had a hangover from books. I was a deep reader, plunging into a story and remaining immersed even after I'd finished it. Some of it was apt to cling for a long time, like water to a bathing suit. The 'Jungle Books' clung, for example. Mowgli was a natural wanderer. I was surprised when he went back to this home cave once, after he'd grown up, to confer with Mother and Father Wolf. I assumed that he had forgotten them. I had. I was also a natural wanderer, or wanted to be. Mowgli was the real thing--the best example-but there were others. David Copperfield for instance; he ran away, and a lot of Dickens' other children were admirably mobile, too. I was certain that Little Nell, though she thought she was sorry to slop away from home with her grandfather, must have felt some hidden enthusiasm for the road. Nor did I have to depend on Dickens for vicarious running away. I drifted downriver with Huck Finn, and got lost with Tom Sawyer, and sailed here and there, all over the world, with any number of other people scorning the stale air of indoors."
Although I didn't need anymore convincing, I like the idea that she has been called "one of America's lost literary treasures".