Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The literary life of a pilot: Books that influenced Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) was famous for being one of the first licensed female pilots, and the first one to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. She was also a good student who loved books.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Feb. 8, 2013.

As a small girl, Earhart was home-schooled. She enjoyed reading — as her sister also did — especially in her grandparents’ library. She was especially interested in adventure stories and other things considered ‘tomboyish.’ Later, she went to a private prep school. She preferred science, but also appreciated poetry, according to Marilyn Rosenthal and Daniel Freeman’s book about her.

As a child, she loved horseback riding, and one of her favorite stories was Black Beauty (1877) by the English author Anna Sewell, which was about a mistreated horse. She also liked the British writers Sir Walter Scott, who wrote narrative poems and pioneered historical novels, and Charles Dickens, who wrote stories about people living in poverty, such as the novel David Copperfield.

According to Amelia Earhart: Young Aviator by Beatrice Gormley, when Earhart was young, her father surprised the family with a leather-bound set of Rudyard Kipling’s books which would have included Kim, The Jungle Book, and Captains Courageous. Kipling was a famous British writer, born in India while it was under British colonial rule. Many of his stories were set in India and have the ring of fable. Because his stories were viewed as supporting colonialism, and because the general public’s support for such political ideology was waning, his writing waned in popularity after WWI, according to John I. M. Stewart’s article for Britannica.

Richard E. Gillespie wrote for The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery's "Earhart Project" that Earhart was "well versed in the liberal arts" and that she possessed "an unusually fine knowledge of the classics".

Earhart attended Columbia University’s extension program to pursue pre-medical studies for the Fall 1919 and Spring 1920 semesters. She performed well academically, but she dropped out for family reasons. Later, she said she did not want to be a doctor.

She enrolled again at Columbia briefly in 1925 but did not pass a required algebra course. Determined to succeed, she immediately took an even more difficult trigonometry course at Harvard University, where she performed well. She wanted to pursue an aeronautical degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which accepted women into its program, but they did not grant her a financial scholarship, so she could not attend.

According to, she worked as a teacher and as a social worker, and eventually she became the ‘aviation editor’ at Cosmopolitan Magazine.

In June 1928, she famously became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, traveling from Newfoundland to Wales. She and Louis Gordon were co-pilots; she would later say that pilot Wilmer Stultz did all of the actual maneuvering. Still, her successful journey as a passenger earned her a celebratory ticker-tape parade in New York City. She wrote a book about her flight titled 20 Hrs. 40 Min., which was published later that year. Her promoter, George Putnam, put her on publicity tours. The two of them married in 1931.

In 1932, she completed a solo flight across the Atlantic, and she published a second book, The Fun of It, about female pilots.

Earhart disappeared in 1937 somewhere over the Pacific Ocean while trying to fly around the globe. Her husband published a collection of her assorted writings after her death which he called Last Flight. She was never found and was declared legally dead two years later. Her legacy lives on through the many women she inspired to succeed in the sciences.

Image of Amelia Earhart © San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive. No known copyright restrictions. Creative Commons on Flickr.

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