As a child in Kosciusko, Mississippi, Carolyn Bennett read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. She was especially captivated by his commitment: “I travel for travel’s sake . . . to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.” As an adult, Carolyn Bennett Patterson lived out Stevenson’s call for adventure by writing articles for National Geographic. Patterson was hired by that publication in 1949 and remained there for her entire professional life. In 1962 she became its first woman senior editor.
Bennett was born in Laurel, Mississippi, on 12 April 1921. While in high school, she recalled, “I was editor of the high school paper—but in name only. My every idea was rejected by the sponsor who informed me that I would never be a journalist so had better abandon the idea before I made a fool of myself. I ignored her.” After attending Blue Mountain College and Mississippi State College, she earned an undergraduate degree from Louisiana State University and a graduate degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She then went to work for the New Orleans States newspaper.
Bennett’s interest in travel conflicted with the wishes of her mother, whose “dearest desire was that I would marry a rich Mississippi man—maybe in Jackson.” Instead, Bennett married Frederick G. Patterson—not a Mississippi man—and raised two children from their home base in Washington, D.C. In 1949 she secured a job as a library assistant at National Geographic. She moved from librarian to writer after suggesting to the managing editor that the publication send an author to retrace the steps of Jesus.
Patterson traveled widely, writing stories from such far-flung places as Tasmania, New Zealand, and Haiti and covering Winston Churchill’s 1965 funeral in London. In 1978, she retraced Stevenson’s route through the mountains of France. That story, “Travels with a Donkey,” was particularly important to Patterson, and she told it with a mixture of respect for Stevenson, awe at the landscape, interest in what had changed and not changed about the people she met, and alternating admiration for and frustration with her donkey. Patterson’s National Geographic contributions also included articles on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, the Neshoba County Fair, the comparisons between Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
After retiring from National Geographic in 1986, Patterson published a memoir, Of Lands, Legends, and Laughter: The Search for Adventure with National Geographic (1998). The chapters on Mississippi set the stage for her later life, detailing how she loved a band trip to Texas and concluded a high school newspaper article with the realization, “I am a traveler.” Each chapter emphasized adventure.
Patterson donated her papers to the Mitchell Memorial Library at Mississippi State University. Patterson died on 7 July 2003.
- Carolyn Bennett Patterson, National Geographic (October 1978)
- Carolyn Bennett Patterson, Of Lands, Legends, and Laughter: The Search for Adventure with “National Geographic” (1998)
- Carolyn Bennett Patterson File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Carolyn Bennett Patterson Papers, Special Collections, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University