Amelia Earhart’s back in the news this week. Or rather, her disappearance is – an event that has sparked 80 years of speculation, books, films, and expeditions.
On the outer fringes of the Earhart story is a song written by Joni Mitchell, which came to mind this week as I squinted at a blurry picture, supposedly that of the American aviator on a wharf on an island in the South Pacific.
Is the shadowy image of a woman on the dock Earhart, last seen alive on July 2, 1937, some days before the picture was taken? Possibly, and possibly not. And so the mystery deepens.
In the absence of fact the fate of Earhart, if not the woman herself, has become a common property, open to scrutiny, interpretation, and debate.
As W.H. Auden would write, three years later, on the death of W.B. Yeats:
He became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections
Among the interpreters, some 40 years after Earhart’s disappearance, was Mitchell. The Amelia of her composition is not only the missing pilot (a “ghost of aviation”), but also the songwriter herself. Earhart’s attempt to be fly around the world becomes Mitchell’s own bid for meaning, in life and in love:
People will tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know…
Maybe I’ve never really loved
I guess that is the truth
I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes
Each verse of the song ends with refrain, “Amelia, it was just a false alarm” – a phrase whose ambiguity mirrors both the pursuit for the truth about Earhart’s disappearance, and Mitchell’s own disappointment, in the face of her life coming up short.
Fittingly, given the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s fate, this ambiguity extends into the final lines of Mitchell’s song:
I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust
I dreamed of 747s
Over geometric farms
Dreams Amelia – dreams and false alarms
Forty years later, the Earhart story still turns on those words: dreams, and false alarms.