Your Literary Guide to the Solar Eclipse
David Baron's new nonfiction work, American Eclipse: A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World, chronicles how three scientists raced to study the rare solar eclipse of 1878 as it darkened America's wild west. Baron is a journalist, author, and broadcaster who has worked as an environment reporter for NPR. In preparation for the first total solar eclipse to cross the United States from coast to coast in 99 years, Baron wrote this literary guide to the celestial event:
I understand Langley's dilemma.
I have had the good fortune of witnessing five total solar eclipses in various parts of the globe. I can attest that they are unlike anything else in the realm of human experience and are impossible to capture fully in words. While writing American Eclipse, however, I did not have the luxury of simply calling the spectacle "indescribable." My charge was to bring the experience to life on the page, and I became fascinated with how others have attempted this daunting feat.
My favorite modern description of a total eclipse comes from the brilliant Annie Dillard. "The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed," she wrote of the sudden extinguishment of daylight that she observed near Yakima, Washington, in 1979. (Her essay "Total Eclipse" appears in the collection Teaching a Stone to Talk.) "The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world. We were the world's dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet's crust, while the earth rolled down."
Yes, the language is surreal, but that is precisely how one feels—perplexed, disoriented, off-kilter—when the sun disappears.
Almost two centuries earlier, another great writer—the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper (author of The Last of the Mohicans)—witnessed a total eclipse in upstate New York. He was a youth and wrote up his memories much later, in an essay published posthumously (in Putnam's Magazine, September 1869). Although Cooper's prose is of a different era—infused with overt religiosity—he, like Dillard, describes the bewilderment and deep emotion evoked by the sight. "It seemed as if the great Father of the Universe had visibly, and almost palpably, veiled his face in wrath," he recalled. Cooper remembered feeling a profound sense of awe—"a clearer view than I had ever yet had of the majesty of the Almighty, accompanied with a humiliating, and, I trust, a profitable sense of my own utter insignificance."
Science can explain the mechanics of a total eclipse, but it requires the sensibility of a poet to convey how the human mind perceives the experience. Perhaps no one was better suited to the task than Mabel Loomis Todd. Remembered today as Emily Dickinson's editor, who engaged in a scandalous affair with the reclusive poet's brother (see the book Austin and Mabel), Todd was married to an astronomy professor at Amherst College and witnessed a total eclipse on the Japanese coast in 1896. "Grayer and grayer grew the day, narrower and narrower the crescent of shining light. The sea faded to leaden nothingness," Todd wrote in Corona and Coronet. "Well might it have been a prelude to the shriveling and disappearance of the whole world,—weird to horror, and beautiful to heartbreak, heaven and hell in the same sky."
On August 21 millions of Americans will witness this same ineffable sight. They will find themselves with a new understanding of the immensity of the universe—and the inadequacy of language.
David Baron's new book, American Eclipse: A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World, hit bookshelves in June. On August 21 Baron will be in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to witness the eclipse. Add his book to your Want to Read shelf here.
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