Sunday, July 12, 2015

Eighty Days

I listened to the audio version of Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, by Matthew Goodman. It is the true story of two women journalists’ attempts to beat the fictional Phileas Fogg’s record of traveling around the world in 80 days. I won’t spoil the outcome for you.

Nellie Bly was a reporter who made a name for herself with daring, sometimes dangerous, undercover reporting, including getting herself admitted to an insane asylum. Elizabeth Bisland was a genteel southern belle who was a columnist for The Cosmopolitan magazine (I think the magazine was a little different than it is now). While these women were very different, they were both trying to be successful in the male-dominated world of journalism.

Bly had asked her bosses at the World newspaper a year earlier to let her make a solo trip around the world. Of course, if it was going to happen, a man should do it. In the face of dropping circulation, the World needed some good publicity, and what better publicity than a woman traveling around the world, by herself and creating a new world record while she was at it. So Bly set off on November 14, 1889 by ship to Europe. The editor at The Cosmopolitan thought this would be great publicity as well, and about 8 hours after Bly, he sent off his reporter in the opposite direction by train.

What follows is an exciting account of two women’s journeys around the world interspersed with information on their backgrounds, what it was like to be a woman in journalism, and several asides that put their journeys into context. We learn about both publications, about Jules Verne, who consented to meet with Bly when she got to France, and Joseph Pulitzer, among others.

The race was interesting, but what I liked about the book was the contrast in personalities of the two ladies. Bisland hadn’t wanted to go, but once she was on the journey, she made the most of it. While Bly was all about getting the job done. After the race we read about both the immediate aftermath of the race and how fame changed the lives of these women, especially the winner. The epilogue tells what happens to both women for the rest of their lives and makes the reader wonder if the winner of the race really did win after all, at least as pertained to life outcomes.

Later in life, Nellie Bly helped many people. She was often criticized by those who thought she might be helping unworthy people. I liked what she said in response, “Relieve immediately. Investigate afterwards.”

Both women are buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY which has so many famous people buried there, that the graves of these ladies are not included on the website. Maybe I’ll have to go visit.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in journalism, history, travel or women’s issues. It’s well worth the read.

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