Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s
History-Making Race Around the World
by Matthew Goodman
- Date Finished: Dec. 29, 2014
- Genre: Narrative Nonfiction, History
- Year: 2013
- Project: n/a
- Reading List: Winter 2014-15
- Grade: B
Eighty Days was a book I decided to pick up after first hearing about it on one of the book blogs I follow, Sophisticated Dorkiness. Over there, Kim is a prolific reader of non-fiction, and as a journalist who’s only a year older than me, I take her recommendations pretty seriously. And there was reason why in this case: Eighty Days tells the story of two female journalists – Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland – who set off one November morning in an attempt to beat the (fictional) record of around-the-world travel set by Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg (from Around the World in Eighty Days, of course). They’re also racing each other to accomplish a feat that was unheard of – you see, this is 1889, and Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland are, of course, women. At this time, it’s very rare for women to be employed as journalists, and it’s unheard of for two single, young women to travel alone.
But that’s just what they do, and Matthew Goodman tells a fascinating story that I’ve never heard before, which is really quite a shame. This is is a great story of female empowerment, and a great chapter in the history of journalism, and I’m surprised it’s been buried for this long. The trip made Nellie Bly somewhat of a household name for a short time, but Matthew Goodman had to literally unearth the story of Elizabeth Bisland, whose accomplishment was just as impressive even if she’s been largely forgotten by history. The research required of Goodman was highly impressive, as was the way he structures the book; interwoven among the narratives of what actually happened to Bly and Bisland are passages full of historical tidbits from the times and places the book visits. And so while we get to learn all about our two female heros and their race around the world, we also learn about how steerage passengers traveled on 19th century steamships, how the Statue of Liberty was actually the color of a penny when it was first erected, the fallout of the Civil War in reconstruction-era South, and so much more. It was a really interesting story, and I’m glad I got to read it.
However, the book had its flaws, and they started to really annoy me at the end. Part of it, however, is not Goodman’s fault: by the end, I did not care for Nellie Bly at all. While both women are attempting to do something amazing, it was Nellie Bly who received all the attention and fame. You see, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were two very different women – Bly was the “plucky”, intrepid undercover reporter working for the Pulitzer-owned New York newspaper, The World, while Bisland was a genteel, beautiful writer who edited the literary section of a monthly New York magazine. Goodman claimed both women disliked being at the center of attention at the beginning of their journey, but in the end, it was Bly who changed (and who suffered because of it). Since she works for the more visible publication, Bly’s trip was celebrated the loudest, and in the end, it starts to go to her head. She even accuses Bisland – whom she never meets – of trying to sabotage and stall Bly’s trip, which is ridiculous.
Because in reality, Bisland never wanted to take the trip (she’s literally given the assignment the day she leaves, and initially, she refuses). But instead of obsessing over her schedule and trying to “win” (which is all Bly thinks about), Bisland uses the trip as an opportunity to see the world, and her experiences have a lasting impression on her. Though she is more the “gentlewoman” than Bly, she is no less the feminist (in her own way), and yet her manners and behavior reflect a kinder, more impressionable soul. She bears Nellie Bly no ill will, and refuses to comment publicly on any of the rumors and controversy that Bly stirs up. And in the end, it was Bisland’s trip around the world that is the more fruitful – Bisland learns she loves to travel, and uses her experiences as material for a long, happy, and successful writing career.
Meanwhile, Bly’s trip is all about the race. That’s good if you want to win said race, but I still found Bly disappointing because of it. You see, Bly is supposed to be this civic-minded undercover reporter, always sniffing out stories about the disenfranchised. Yet, during her trip, she pays absolutely no attention to the hundreds of stories she stumbles upon. In fact, she pays very little attention to where she is at all – she’s constantly belittling the countries she visits, the people she meets, and the sights she sees. She only cares about one thing – how fast her boat is moving. To be honest, she reminds me of many journalists in 2014 – always seeking the bigger, more outrageous stunts that will gain their publications more readers and clicks, all the while missing the real stories around them.
In the end, though, Bly certainly suffers, and it was interesting to see how the story of the two women played out. Despite their flaws (and my personal annoyance), both women are unique in their independence, their intelligence, and their ability to support themselves as career women. Goodman’s writing did detract a little from this experience, though: in his sections following Bly and Bisland, Goodman emulates their writing styles to set their respective sections apart – Bly is sharp, and to the point, while Bisland is more flowery and descriptive. I thought this was distracting, and made the book feel uneven. I think Goodman’s writing is strongest when he’s not talking about Bly or Bisland, which really is unfortunate.