November 2006

Mark Doten


The Fun of It: Random Records of My Own Flying and of Women in Aviation by Amelia Earhart

An informal poll of women writers reveals: before they wanted to be writers, they all wanted to be Amelia Earhart. My sample size -- two friends -- wasn’t exactly scientific, but there’s something about Earhart that continues to grab the American public’s imagination, and the writer’s imagination in particular.

Both she and Charles Lindbergh were already American legends of the highest order, well acquainted with the flashbulbs and magazine pieces of the twenties, before the tragedies that cemented their places in our pantheon (in Lindbergh’s case, the kidnapping and murder of his son, and in Earhart’s, her airplane’s disappearance during what was to have been the longest flight around the world). Since Earhart’s disapearance, millions of dollars and countless media hours have been spent on learning what really happened to her in those final hours over the Pacific, without any real resolution. Well, all the better for the legend. Today, Earhart regularly appears in novels and movies; not only did a Star Trek: Voyager episode resolve the Earhart mystery (alien kidnapping, natch), but Lost fans speculate that two skeletons found on that show belong to Earhart and her navigator.

Earhart’s haunting of the American memory has much to do with the romance of the early days of flight, the new independence of women in that era, to say nothing of her many well-heeled supporters (not the least of whom was George P. Putnam, the publisher who eventually became her husband). A cheerful, pretty Icarus, with a media machine behind her; and a part of that was -- this is something more or less lost to us later generations -- Earhart’s own writing. She was the “aviation editor” for Cosmo (what a wonderful title!) from 1928 to 1930 and the author of two books, 20 hrs. 40 min. (1928) and The Fun of It (1932), the latter of which Academy Chicago Publishers has now reprinted. (There’s also Last Flight, allegedly culled from the journals kept before her final flight, but historians suspect Putnam embellished these.)

It’s difficult to put a finger on why I like The Fun of It so much. And here I need to tread carefully, because I think my enjoyment could easily be taken as ironic, which it isn’t, or not for the most part. This is surely a difficult book to categorize --part memoir, part history of women in flying, part chatty advice manual. But whatever the topic, there’s an energy in Earhart’s writing that’s odd and thrilling, owing much to the peppy, authoritative magazine style of her time, her own limitless energy and the sheer number of subjects she took on. And, holding it all together, a prim sensibility -- a whiff of Emily Post. I find this book so odd and delightful that I’ll abdicate my reviewing responsibilities and simply offer some quotes. You’ll smile and perhaps thrill to them a bit. Or not. Don’t worry about the larger picture -- there is none to speak of. It’s not the sort of book one feels compelled to digest from cover to cover, in a single sitting, with a pencil in one hand and a dictionary in the other. In a sense, this is quite a bad read: no through-plot, odd juxtapositions, jarring shifts in tone, whole pages quite dull. Yet America’s Sweetheart still charms. So, quotes.

An aviation-historical quote:

"The development of flying is somehow synonymous with automobiling of a decade ago. If you don’t remember, your parents will, the Sunday rides of yesterday. Roadsides were always lined with cars in trouble -- some with flat tires, and some with puzzled begoggled drivers peering anxiously under raised hoods at engines they didn’t understand."

A glimpse of childhood:

"When I pulled the string the stick flew out and the lid slammed shut and stayed shut against considerable pressure because of the heavy rubber bands laboriously attached. What was my game? Nothing more nor less than a chicken called by my sister and me in our private terminology a 'domineecrips.'"

A philosophical quote:

"To look at the street from a height of twenty stories gives some an impulse to jump. In the air the passenger hasn’t that feeling of absolute height, and he can look with perfect equanimity at the earth below. An explanation is that with the high building there is an actual contact between the body of the observer and the ground."

On meteorologists:

"The man upon whom every house-party hostess depends, the man whose advice is sought by promoters of prize fights and Salvation Army picnics and upon whose words farmers wait eagerly, their thoughts on corn and wheat, is the weather man."

On souvenirs:

"The malady of collecting souvenirs seems to be universal in its scope -- but one grandchild’s loss is another’s gain."

On spinach and silver ribbons:

"One day, a Fifth Avenue florist, wishing to demonstrate the perfection of air transportation, sent a magnificent box of violets to a client in Washington. The messenger unfortunately stored the precious package on the heater and its content on arrival looked like spinach decorated with silver ribbons."

Plans, Earhart’s lack of:

"I still had no plan for myself. Should I return to social work, or find something to do in aviation? I don’t know -- nor care. For the moment all I wished to do in the world was to be a vagabond -- in the air!"

A vagabond in the air! It’s weird, this writing. You might chain a thousand McSweeney’s hopefuls to a thousand typewriters and not find a paragraph as pure and awkward. This isn’t to dis McSweeney’s, but to ask about the roots of a type of writing we now find funny, often embodied by a certain strain of McSweeney’s writing. Anyhow, I’m tripping myself up, so I better ask another question about Earhart’s writing: how funny did people find it then?

A last quote, colored with a hope that history didn’t vindicate:

"The most routine blunder, at least in the beginning, was to sell the same seat to two persons. When eleven passengers appear at the last moment for a ten place plane there is an element of embarrassment."

Well, perhaps there’s an element of embarrassment in this book, too. But forget that. Go ahead and pick it up -- I swear to God, this isn’t irony! -- just for the fun of it.

The Fun of It: Random Records of My Own Flying and of Women in Aviation by Amelia Earhart
Academy Chicago Publishers
ISBN: 091586455X
219 pages