Martha Ackmann

Commentator

Martha Ackmann is a journalist and author who writes about women who have changed America.  Her essays and columns have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

Ackmann’s books include “The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight,” “Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League,” and “These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson.”

A Guggenheim fellow and former scholar in non-fiction at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Ackmann lives in western Massachusetts, and is at work on a new book about Dolly Parton.

Ways to Connect

A Dolly Parton mural in Asheville, North Carolina. Parton gave $1 million toward vaccine research this past year.
daveynin / Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/daveynin

You might have seen the video of Dolly Parton receiving a COVID vaccine, developed with the help of her $1 million donation to research.

Before getting the shot, she sang new lyrics to her country hit "Jolene."

Henry Aaron speaking at the LBJ Library in 2015.
LBJ Library / Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/lbjlibrarynow

Baseball legend Henry Aaron died last week at age 86. He broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974, and became the target of white supremacists, threatened by his accomplishment. But long before the Milwaukee Brewers and the Atlanta Braves, Aaron played in the Negro League.

A warmly-lit Frosty the Snowman decoration.
Martha Ackmann / NEPM

I’m not much for holiday decorating, but I do have a soft spot for a three-foot tall Frosty the Snowman.

The turkey hat Martha Ackmann wore to the Nantucket Cold Turkey Plunge both she and Vice President Joe Biden participated in on Thanksgiving a decade ago.
Martha Ackmann

For some reason, I enjoy diving into frigid water in winter.

Emily Dickinson's conservatory in Amherst, Massachusetts.
James Gehrt / Courtesy Martha Ackmann

 

Sometimes it’s the smallest details that reveal the most. Emily Dickinson knew that. More than many other poets, she distilled, zeroed in and elevated the minute. 

For most people, 9/11 brings indelible memories. Commentator Martha Ackmann remembers moving into a new house, her mother's birthday, and a train she wanted desperately to hear.
Martha Ackmann / Courtesy of Martha Ackmann

September 11 was my late mother's birthday. When I called her that morning, I worried about whether to wish her a happy birthday or tell her about the towers. 

Pilot Jerrie Cobb tested to become the first woman in space. She died in March. Here she flies the Gimbal Rig in the Altitude Wind Tunnel in April 1960.
NASA

I first met Jerrie Cobb two decades ago at a space shuttle launch. Tall, lanky, unassuming, a person of few words — Jerrie was all but invisible to people intent on watching the countdown clock.

Solitary standing cornstalks in a field in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Martha Ackmann noticed many fields had a handful of stalks that hadn't been cut down, and wondered why.
Martha Ackmann / Courtesy Martha Ackmann

 


You’ve seen them, no doubt.  Those solitary corn stalks standing alone in a field. 

Mattes / Creative Commons

When I was a girl, for some inexplicable reason, my brothers and I always had to sit in birth order in the back seat of the Pontiac. That meant that on hot days, I was uncomfortably sandwiched between my two brothers.  

Tools for repair.
falconp4 / Creative Commons

I recently retired, and have done what many new old fogeys do: I finished a long-term project, renewed my gym membership and — yes — cleaned closets. I also did something I never expected. I reached out to an estranged friend.

Samuel Bowles was a dynamo, known for his wit, intelligence, and dashing good looks.
unknown / Bowles-Hoar Family Papers, Archives and Special Collections,Amherst College

Samuel Bowles was the editor of The Springfield Republican. As a young man in the 1850s, he transformed the Republican into one of New England’s most admired newspapers.

Over his long life, Richard Wilbur was a writer of immense achievement.

Corn meal mush.
David Orban / CREATIVE COMMONS

A number of years ago, a friend invited me to judge a cooking contest in Hawley, Mass. My friend is nothing if not enterprising, and had organized the Pudding Hollow Pudding Festival, an event commemorating a 1780 contest to determine who could cook Hawley’s largest pudding. 

Mount Greylock from Herman Melville's study.
Courtesy of Martha Ackmann

Friends tell commentator Martha Ackmann that she has odd pastimes. One of them is participating in literary marathons. That's when great literary works are read out-loud communally all the way through --from first line to last -- and sometimes around-the-clock.

The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst hosts a marathon reading of her 1,789 poems. I especially like taking the night shift. There’s something deliciously eerie about being in the poet’s house after-hours, sitting with a clutch of other enthusiasts, and reciting poems written over 150 years ago. 

A Sunoco road map of Boston, Mass.
photolibrarian / Creative Commons

For many drivers, GPS is the greatest thing since unleaded gas, anti-lock brakes and cup holders. But for commentator Martha Ackmann, not so much.

Toni Stone meeting her idol, boxer Joe Louis, c.1949.
MINNESOTA HISTORICAL SOCIETY  / CREATIVE COMMONS

The Red Sox open the season Monday against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Fans will head to Fenway for the 2:05 p.m. first pitch. Commentator Martha Ackmann says one of baseball's greatest fans was a player you've probably never heard of. 

Visiting the space center as invited guests of STS-63 Pilot Eileen Collins in 1995 are seven members of the Mercury 13 (from left): Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Ratley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman.
NASA / Creative Commons

The toy company LEGO recently announced it would release a new line of plastic figures immortalizing the women of NASA. The new NASA set will feature astronauts Sally Ride and Mae Jemison, as well as computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, astronomer Nancy Grace Roman — and mathematician Katherine Johnson of Hidden Figures fame. Commentator and author Martha Ackmann says, as laudable as the Lego’s move is, she’s got some advice.

Keep going.

A note found near Emily Dickinson's tombstone.
Martha Ackmann

Emily Dickinson, the great American poet, was born December 10, 1830. Commentator and author Martha Ackmann lives a few miles up the road from Dickinson’s Amherst home, and often takes walks around town, planning her route to include a stop at Dickinson’s grave in West Cemetery -- behind the Mobil station. What draws her attention is the tombstone, and also what's been left on and around it.