Elsie Robinson was the most widely read female columnist of her era. Her column, “Listen, World!,” which ran up to six days a week from 1921 to 1956, was nationally syndicated, reaching over 20 million Americans daily; by 1924, she was the highest-paid woman on William Randolph Hearst’s payroll. Yet her trailblazing career in journalism is perhaps the least interesting thing about her. What made Robinson remarkable was not her bylines but the verve with which she lived, especially within a confining time.
Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert’s Listen, World!: How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman tells the story of this influential journalist, who is largely overlooked today.
Born in 1883 in Benicia, California, Robinson shunned prescribed expectations for women from an early age. As a teenager, she made a plea that proved prescient. “I informed God that I wanted to Know Life, [to] feel all there was to be felt,” she recounted in her 1934 memoir, I Wanted Out! “In short—I wanted God to Give Me The Works.”
Such hopes were shelved when, at 19, she entered a stifling and loveless marriage of convenience to a wealthy Vermont widower. Ill-suited to high society and domestic life, Robinson did what she needed to do to stay sane: frequenting the library, keeping a daily journal, and writing and illustrating stories for her young son, who was often bedridden with illness. In her words, this work allowed her “to understand people, to grasp life, to make some ordered pattern out of all this seeming waste and confusion.”
But Robinson wanted more, so in 1912 she did the unthinkable: she left her husband and took off with her son for California, shacking up with a man in the rough-and-tumble mining village of Hornitos. “She belonged to California,” write Scheeres and Gilbert. When money was tight, she found work as a mucker in a gold mine, the sole woman among a rugged crew. Muddied and sun-sapped from the day’s work, she taught herself to type at night on a Smith Premier and started sending stories to literary journals. Eventually she made her way to San Francisco, where she struggled to put food on the table; at one point, she walked to the edge of the Embarcadero and contemplated hurling herself into the bay.
Her fortunes changed in 1918, when she visited the offices of the Oakland Tribune. The paper had no children’s section—Robinson convinced the editor that she should spearhead one. She was hired to write a column, which, within a few years, ballooned into an eight-page section, Aunt Elsie’s Magazine; young readers deluged the Tribune with letters and formed “Aunt Elsie” clubs across Northern California. In 1924, she was hired by Hearst to write a syndicated daily column, which she continued to publish until her death in 1956.
Robinson’s columns, which she also illustrated, were punchy, provocative, and often profound. Embedded in many were subtle—and not-so-subtle—attempts at feminist consciousness raising and musings that framed the personal as political half a century before such a slogan would enter the vernacular. Listen, World!’s focus on Robinson’s ahead-of-her-time politics, along with her swift and spectacular ascent, come at the expense of a proper appreciation of Robinson’s writing, which is clever, fluid, and elegant.
Much of the biography is drawn from Robinson’s memoirs, which supplies vivid narration but can raise questions of historical accuracy. Nevertheless, Scheeres and Gilbert make a strong case for Robinson as a feminist role model on the basis of both what she achieved and how she lived. (Listen, World! focuses disproportionately on the latter.) There’s no denying that she was an undeterrable woman who flouted norms, tirelessly advocated for herself, and pursued her writing even when she had no sense of where it might possibly lead.
I hesitate to call Robinson’s story inspiring. Doing so, I think, cheapens her struggles, turning them to fodder. Being framed as an inspirational figure, however, might be what she wanted—as a writer, she was bent on extracting lessons, her tone sometimes veering into didacticism. And yet, it works. The way she writes, it feels as if she is reaching across time to speak to you, to tell you what she knows you most need to hear. “Everything you are feeling, somebody else has felt,” she wrote in a 1950 column. “Somebody is feeling right at this moment.” I think of her writing her stories in Hornitos—a candle burning beside her in the black of night, fingernails caked with dried mud, her sick son sleeping in the other room, the path ahead unclear. She kept at it anyway.
Whether her efforts would be rewarded, whether success lay in her future—it didn’t matter. At that moment, she was writing for just one reason: “to save my life.”•