Book 7; Continents: North America, Asia, Europe

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman

  • 480 pages (approximately 384 pages before Acknowledgements and Notes)
  • Choose this book’s engaging travel competition story for your bus or light rail commute

The hopeful spirit of the Victorian age lived in New York City of the 1880s. Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days celebrated travel in the Age of Steam. Meanwhile, the telegraph poured the world’s daily news into the papers on every street corner, fueling intense New York journalism and several newspapers – many more mastheads then than there are today. Then as now, journalism at the close of the 19th century relied upon sensationalism to sell papers.

One difference between Victorian and modern journalism is that women were relegated mainly to what evolved into the life and style section. In a large market like New York City, the aggressive pursuit of the shocking, grim or politically charged news story was the exclusive purview of the male reporter (interestingly, this unwritten rule seemed to be less true in the smaller, more quiet markets like Pittsburgh, where Nellie Bly got her start).

The atmosphere of this industry influenced the careers of two very different women journalists. Genteel Elizabeth Bisland’s journalistic talents earned her a position as editor at Cosmopolitan, a magazine popular with women. She was well-paid and well-respected, writing poetry and other literary contributions to the magazine. Furthermore, her Southern charm and beauty made her popular among the New York literati. Meanwhile, Pittsburgher Nellie Bly was making her career in the relatively new genre of investigative reporting. Women could pull off undercover stories more readily than their male counterparts because their gender put off suspicion – women mainly wrote about recipes and how to starch a petticoat properly, not uncovering scandals. Bly had once herself committed to a women’s asylum to write about the appalling conditions there. Her no-nonsense (abrasive?) style and grit contrasted sharply with Bisland’s image.

Nellie Bly had arrived in New York City without a job waiting for her, and she needed to show some daring to earn one. So, she pitched the idea for sending herself around the world, just like Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg, to see if global circumnavigation inside of eighty days could be achieved. Given the universal popularity of Verne’s novel, the idea proved intriguing to the New York World’s owner, Joseph Pulitzer. But was it appropriate to send a woman? Bly managed to convince an editor that if anything, her gender would hold popular attention better.

A few days later, Bly and her single, handheld bag set off to London and began traveling east. During that time, Bisland’s boss got wind of the story and decided to capture some of the revenue the story was likely to generate by sending his own female journalist: her. Chagrined, Bisland canceled her dinner party plans, packed up her multiple trunks, and took a train west just a few hours after Bly’s own departure in the opposite direction.

Steam powered each woman’s journey, aboard trains and steam ships. Coal fueled the entire race, often extra coal to make extra speed as the owners of the respective women’s media pulled strings to manipulate schedules. Although mail trains and ships adhered to strict schedules, people could book passage aboard them. Passenger vessels were much more flexible with their schedules, however. Wealthy or influential passengers could have a ship held in port to await their arrival. During that era, passenger ships also took pride in early arrival, attempting to break records for speedy passage between ports. Consequently, one’s pleasure cruise could be shortened by a few days because the ship made especially good time.

Despite similarities in mode of travel, the two women had very different outlooks on the experience. Bly’s travels convinced her of the superiority of American lifestyle and culture. By contrast, Bisland showed some curiosity about the places she experienced, albeit in the arm’s-length, “proper” ways arranged for her by her employer or her hosts. Both women encountered British travelers and expatriates wherever they went, as the British Empire was still at its height. Bly found them superior and irritating. Bisland delighted in their urbane manners and sense of propriety.

My favorite aspect of this book is the cultural survey of how the Western world, especially Americans, perceived the world and their place in it. The author touches on a great many themes: sensational journalism of the period; a sense of superiority over Eastern cultures; unrestrained capitalism; the burden of fame in a pre-radio era; and the ambitious, capable outlook of the American population generally.

Photo credit: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, from sketches by C. Bunnell. / Foter.com / Public domain

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3 thoughts on “Book 7; Continents: North America, Asia, Europe

  1. I would love to hear you talk about the Iran hostage book.

    The Bly/Bisland book review has one sentence which seemed to me
    to be oddly constructed:

    “Bly had once herself committed to a women’s asylum to write about the appalling conditions there.”

    Really enjoy your extremely well-written and interestingly phrased pieces!

    —Dad

  2. Pingback: True Crime, Journalism; Continent: North America | History Reading Challenge

  3. Pingback: Art, Landmarks; Continent: North America, Europe | History Reading Challenge

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