Totality is rare these days. A constantly on-the-go society has little time for completion. Even our thoughts and interactions are limited to 140 characters, not quite enough for a thought to fully develop. Hashtags. Text lingo. Sentence fragments. The closest thing approaching totality I’ve done recently is binge-watch an entire season of Silicon Valley in one sitting, but even then I missed two episodes in the middle due to an unforeseen nap.
But today some lucky Americans experienced totality in a way few get the chance to: a total solar eclipse. This is one of the more special celestial events in which the moon blocks the sunlight’s path to Earth, like a rude passerby photobombing a couple’s cute #honeymoon pic, and we live in the moon’s shadow for a few minutes. The last visible solar eclipse was February 26, 1979, and according to NASA the next eclipse will occur in 2024.
If you aren’t already psyched, having put on your special solar eclipse glasses and stared at the sun without burning your retinas, these five American writers who chronicled their experiences witnessing a total solar eclipse should do the trick. This isn’t a complete list, but we’ll leave totality to the heavenly bodies.
James Fenimore Cooper
On June 16, 1806, a sixteen-year-old James Fenimore Cooper witnessed a total solar eclipse in Cooperstown, New York. He recounted his experience years later in the 1830s, and the short article was published posthumously in the September 1869 issue of “Putnam’s Magazine.” Cooper watched the eclipse with his family and looks back with reverence on an event that seemed to have a profound, even spiritual, impact on him.
In reflecting on the moments of totality, when “darkness like that of early night…fell upon the village,” Cooper is romantic and reverent in his language. He writes, “It looked grand, dark, majestic, and mighty, as it thus proved its power to rob us entirely of the sun’s rays. We are all but larger children.” Witnessing this cosmic event, Cooper gained “a clearer view than [he] had ever yet had of the majesty of the Almighty,” along with a sense of his “own utter insignificance.”
Many eclipse witnesses tell of a strange, almost fearful feeling they get during totality, and an accompanying sense of relief when sunlight strikes once again. This moment, after the moon had taken away – and then returned – Earth’s lifesource, “seemed to speak directly to our spirits, with full assurance of protection, of gracious mercy, and of that Divine love which has produced all the glorious combinations of matter for our enjoyment…Every living creature was soon rejoicing again in the blessed restoration of light after that frightful moment of a night at noon-day.”
Future eclipse accounts would get less religious and more scientific, but no less poetic.
Maria Mitchell was a pioneering force for women in science as America’s first female astronomer. Not only did she prove women belong in science, but she wrote with a flair usually reserved to poets. Mitchell witnessed multiple eclipses in her lifetime, often leading groups of female astronomers on expeditions to record these eclipses.
While Cooper included many religious references in his account, Mitchell, as a woman of science, wrote with less spiritual reverence, but no less awe. She writes,
“…Venus shone brightly on one side of the sun, Mercury on the other; Arcturus was gleaming overhead, Saturn was rising in the east…and when the last ray of light was extinguished, a wave of sound came up from the villages below, the mingling of the subdued voices of the multitude. Instantly the corona burst forth, a glory indeed! It encircled the sun with a soft light, and it sent off streamers for millions of miles into space!”
In addition to publishing anonymously, Mitchell uses male-gendered pronouns in this essay, as well as the gender-neutral “we,” to refer to her team of female astronomers. Due to the lack of respect the science community showed toward women, most would assume the “we” referred to men. But Mitchell had other ideas. She finishes her essay with a powerful statement.
“[The English astronomer Charles] Piazzi Smyth says: ‘The effect of a total eclipse on the minds of men is so overpowering, that if they have never seen it before they forget their appointed tasks…’ My assistants, a party of young students, would not have turned from the narrow line of observation assigned to them if the earth had quaked beneath them. They would have said
— ‘by the storms of circumstance unshaken
And subject neither to eclipse nor wane,
Was it because they were women?”
Mitchell uses lines from a William Wordsworth poem to effectively show that not only can women stand next to men in science, but may be more unwavering in their commitment to the task at hand. It is a bold statement to make at a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote. But Mitchell was a bold woman, much like other women who witnessed and wrote about eclipses.
Mabel Loomis Todd
The controversial editor of Emily Dickinson’s posthumously published poems and wife of astronomer David Peck Todd, Mabel Loomis Todd had a foot in both poetry and science. She traveled all over the world with her husband to witness eclipses, a lifetime of experiences that eventually culminated in her 1894 book Total Eclipses of the Sun. Todd explains scientific concepts in a way that makes eclipses more approachable for the casual observer.
Like seemingly all people who witness those special moments of totality, Todd is awestruck by the event even though she has seen many total solar eclipses. She writes,
“Then, with frightful velocity, the actual shadow of the Moon is often seen approaching, a tangible darkness advancing almost like a wall, swift as imagination, silent as doom. The immensity of nature never comes quite so near as then, and strong must be the nerves not to quiver as this blue-black shadow rushes upon the spectator with incredible speed…Then out upon the darkness…flashes the glory of the incomparable corona, a silvery, soft, unearthly light, with radiant streamers, stretching at times millions of uncomprehended miles into space…It becomes curiously cold, dew frequently forms, and the chill is perhaps mental as well as physical. Suddenly, instantaneous as a lightning flash, an arrow of actual sunlight strikes the landscape, and Earth comes to life again…”
From Todd’s writing it seems as though witnessing a total solar eclipse never gets old. It is such a strange occurrence, almost unnatural in feeling, though it is in fact very natural. And even after many eclipses seen around the world Todd was still filled with wonder about “Nature’s most imposing phenomenon [and] perhaps the most mysterious.”
“What you see in a total eclipse is entirely different from what you know.” Annie Dillard watched a total solar eclipse in February of 1979 and was left with that sentiment. Whatever you think you know about total solar eclipses doesn’t matter. What matters is the experience of it.
Dillard takes a slightly different approach in trying to describe what she saw. Rather than detailing the change in colors and the approach of the moon as a vague darkness, she compares these to familiar objects, giving the eclipse a more physical presence. “The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded” while the moon was a “flat disc” that all of a sudden “slid over the sun like a lid.”
This moment of totality impacted Dillard on a profound level, leading her to think about deeper meanings of human nature. She writes,
“Seeing this black body was like seeing a mushroom cloud. The meaning of the sight overwhelmed its fascination. It obliterated meaning itself…For what is significance? It is significance for people. No people; no significance. This is all I have to tell you. In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether that buoys the rest, that gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.”
Dillard conveys a common sentiment many eclipse witnesses mention, a profound feeling that makes them ponder life’s meaning and their places in the world, in the cosmos.
Astronomer Bob Berman, in his book Zapped: From Infrared to X-rays, the Curious History of Invisible Light, gives scientific reasoning for this strange feeling eclipses bring on. While it is clear the sun’s visible light is blocked, so too is its invisible light. Berman writes, “Solar ultra-violet energy drops to zero. So does infrared radiation, whose absence starts to be felt long before totality arrives. With the drop in infrared energy, clouds, rocks, and the air just above the ground are suddenly cooled. This chill creates a pressure difference that manifests itself as a haunting eclipse wind.”
So that out-of-this-world feeling of seeing the “un-sunlike sun,” as Maria Mitchell called it, is a result of the absence of light we aren’t normally aware of. As the most contemporary writer in this list, Berman benefits from modern scientific instruments and theories the previous writers didn’t have. This of course enhances his understanding of eclipses, which in turn allows him to describe what is happening in more detail.
Berman describes the difference between a partial and total eclipse, offering no consolation for those who won’t see totality. “Actually, seeing an almost total eclipse is no better than almost falling in love or almost visiting the Grand Canyon. Only full totality produces the astonishing and absolutely singular phenomenon that resembles nothing else in our lives, on our planet, or in the known universe.”
Bummer. Here in Chicago at the American Writers Museum we didn’t see totality, but still put on our glasses and stared at the sun. We thought about these past writers and their experiences, all the while soaking up our own personal experience and trying to find the words to describe it. We’d love to hear what your total solar eclipse experience was like too, so let us know! Comment with your thoughts and feelings, or better yet write a full story about it and share with us. After all, witnessing totality is rare and deserves more than 140 characters.