Dec. 14, 2022 — Allison Gilbert, author of the first biography of NMH alumna and journalist Elsie Robinson, urged students to feel empowered as writers, whether they are writing for a school assignment or simply for their own pleasure.
“What is powerful is your voice,” Gilbert told students during a recent visit to NMH. “Your life is singular. No one else is seeing what you’re seeing.”
Gilbert is co-author of Listen, World!: How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman, which recounts for the first time how this single mother, without any contacts in the media, through her own grit and moxie, became the highest-paid woman writer in the Hearst media empire. The book has been positively reviewed by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and other publications.
Gilbert met with students in two NMH English classes to discuss the writing process and share about her work as an author and journalist. She also toured the former Northfield campus, where Robinson lived in 1901, joined students and faculty for dinner in Alumni Hall, and held a book reading for an audience on campus.
In an advanced rhetoric class, Gilbert told students that they can be writers simply because they want to be writers.
“No one anointed me a writer — I anointed myself,” she proclaimed, encouragingly. “You are something because you say you are. I became a biographer because Elsie Robinson’s story was so compelling.”
Robinson, who grew up in California, came to the Northeast in 1900 to marry Christie Crowell, a Mount Hermon alum and heir to the Crowell family fortune, made in large measure because his father was publisher of the popular journal, The Household, a precursor to Good Housekeeping. Dismayed that Christie was to marry a common woman, his family required Robinson to spend a year at the Northfield Seminary for Girls to receive a proper introduction to the role of wife and mother that was expected in aristocratic New England society. By 1917, the couple, who had one son, had divorced, and Robinson set out to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a writer. She eventually went on to become a nationally syndicated columnist and household name. Her career spanned more than 40 years, during which she wrote nearly 9,000 columns and stories.
Gilbert discussed with students a few strategies for overcoming writers’ block — the most essential, she emphasized, was doing enough research.
“Not all research can be done online,” she said. “You might need to pick up the phone. You might need to go to the library or an archive.”
Gilbert said it took her 11 years to finish her book about Robinson because “so much of life’s work hadn’t been digitized” and because “there has been a steady erasure of women’s history” in the United States. Gilbert’s research included tapping into the newspapers and publishers who had employed Robinson — “We had to work backwards through the men who employed her” — as well as work with NMH Archivist Peter Weis, who was first contacted by Gilbert in 2011.
While she only spent one year in Northfield, Robinson’s first-known published story appeared in the student publication The Hermonite.
“Allison was meticulous in her attention to detail regarding Elsie's life at Northfield,” Weis said. “I have worked with countless authors over the years, and Allison is one whose book rings true in every way regarding the schools.”
Channin Zhao ’23 said he appreciated Gilbert’s advice on writing — or doing any endeavor — simply because it’s what one wants to do.
“That resonated with me,” he said. “With a lot of things I do, it’s self-driven. I’m not doing it for anyone else. I’m doing it because I want to do it.”
For example, Zhao, who is active in sports, theater, and music at NMH, has created a podcast in his spare time called “The Bigger Picture.” Over the past year, he has produced more than 50 episodes with current NMH students, teachers, and coaches.
“The podcast is a great way for me to learn from other people,” Zhao said. “Each person has stories that could be inspiring and after every episode I am able to say I am a better person from the experience.”