Eliza Scidmore on Stage at National Geographic

Eliza Scidmore got top billing on stage Thursday night, March 29, in Washington. National Geographic Live! featured a staged presentation of her writings during the city’s cherry blossom season.

I was there, and National Geographic VP Greg McGruder kindly introduced me to the audience as Scidmore’s biographer. I had served as an informal adviser to Dan Stashower, a local author who wrote the script.

The 90-minute program opened with a dramatic retelling of Scidmore’s ascent of Mount Fuji in Japan in the late 19th century.

Hand-colored image of Mount Fuji in late 19th century, from Frank Brinkley’s “Japan” (Source: Hood Art Museum at Dartmouth College; from MIT’s Vanishing Cultures website)

Classic of Travel Literature

Scidmore described the climb of Mount Fuji in her best-known book, Jinrikisha Days in Japan. Published in 1891, the book is now a classic of travel literature.

Jinrikisha Days drew on her travels in the country in the 1880s, covering a period of nearly three years. Japan had opened its doors to outsiders only a generation earlier, so Americans and other Westerners were clamoring for information on the “exotic” island empire.

Woman in kimono with Mt. Fuji backdrop

Image from 2016 film “Ascent” on Mount Fuji (Source: Fiona Tan and Antithesis Films; photo from Collection of Izu Photo Museum)

Scidmore and her Mount Fuji party followed in the footsteps of pilgrims who have made the ascent for centuries. “Ascent,” as it turns out, is the title of a recent film on the history of Mount Fuji and its cultural significance in Japan. The 2016 film by writer and director Fiona Tan used 4,000 still images of the mountain as seen over many decades. The story line unfolds from a letter the narrator addresses to her dead partner, Hiroshi.

Scidmore’s description of her Mount Fuji climb showed her humor as well as the clarity and vividness of her writing. Listening from the audience, I was struck by how modern her words sounded a century later. I had felt the same when I first discovered Scidmore through a reprint of her 1897 book Java, the Garden of the East. I had been working and traveling in Indonesia at the time, and her writings brought alive places I myself had visited.

‘From the Archives’

Dan Stashower, scriptwriter of the National Geographic program, is a prize-winning narrative historian and novelist. He wrote a biography of the Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. Another of his books tells the fast-paced story of a secret plot to  assassinate President Lincoln before the Civil War. Stashower has won both Agatha and Edgar Awards for his work. He’s also written stage scripts for events at the Smithsonian Institution.

Local actress Anne Stone read from Scidmore’s work. Stone has appeared widely on the stage in Washington, in plays including Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” She has also been in several movies and in popular TV shows such as “All My Children.”

The National Geographic event included images shown by the staff photo archivist, Sara Manco, to illustrate Eliza Scidmore’s life and travels. Scidmore took some of the photos herself.

The program launched a new National Geographic live-event series called “From the Archives.” The programs will spotlight stories from the Society’s history, based on in-house records.

Scidmore was a natural to lead off the series. The National Geographic recently started promoting Scidmore’s breakthrough achievements as a writer and photographer for the Society. I wrote about her role as its first female explorer in a blog post for National Geographic.

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