Saturday, February 9, 2013

Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman - Book Review

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly andElizabeth Bisland's History Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman (Ballantine Books, 2013, 480 Pages, $28.00) uses the lives and careers of two nineteenth century women and a trumped up “race around the world” to develop a picture of the late nineteenth century in America and around the world as they hurry by ship and train to surpass the time established by Jules Verne in his novel about Philias Fogg, Around the World in Eighty Days. The natures of the two women, their differing backgrounds, and the choices they make about how to travel each shed light on them as interesting personalities and upon the the world they lived in. The race and the social context Goodman provides to create a portrait of the world in 1889 – 1890 provide fascinating reading and an enjoyable adventure.

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Jane Cochran), born in western Pennsylvania in 1864, had to strike out on her own after her reasonably prosperous father died when she was young and the family's circumstances changed radically. Moving to Pittsburgh, she responded to an article in a newspaper, writing a spririted rebuttal which turned into her being hired as a reporter. Soon, seeking greater challenges and opportunities, she moved to New York and was hired by the World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer. She established a reputation as an investigative reporter. Having had remarkable success, she was motivated to propose a trip around the world seeking to beat the eighty days supposed by Verne. After some time spent convincing the paper it was a good story for a woman to write, the paper accepted her proposal and she quickly arranged to leave headed East and vowing to take only transportation available to all. The World soon realized the publicity value of the adventure, and in an environment of falling circulation, began to ballyhoo the “race.”

Elizabeth Bisland

Elizabeth Bisland (born on a plantation in Louisiana in 1861) had to endure the privations of the reconstruction period in the deep south post Civil War period. A deep and perceptive reader from childhood, she moved to New Orleans to accept a position with The New Orleans Times Democrat when some of her essays were accepted for publication. Because of her beauty and literary writing, she soon became a part of the literary world of the polyglot city. Seeking greater opportunities, she moved to New York and was soon hired by monthly magazine The Cosmopolitan to write about women's matters. John Briben Walker, editor and publisher of The Cosmopolitan, quickly recognized the publicity value of Bly's journey and recuited Bisland to turn Bly's trip into a race. Bisland, at first reluctant to undertake the trip, was convinced to leave, assembled a wardrope, and left by train headed West only nine hours after Bly's ship left the harbor headed East. And so the race around the world, that was to capture the imagination of the country in this period a rapid change in economics and women's roles, began.

In 1889 jobs for women in journalism were few and highly circumscribed to “women's” topics like the society page, fashion, and the kitchen. Bly's work specialized in putting herself into difficult circumstances (an asylum, a prison) and writing investigative reports from them. The narrative of the “race” around the world provides Goodman with a framework for examining the rapidly changing technology in the heyday of the age of steam and improved communications via international telegraph. Perhaps more centrally, because of the sharp contrasts in interest and background between the two women, he can look at developing attitudes towards gender. Bly and Bisland, coming from markedly different backgrounds and sharing little in terms of education, experience, or style were, nevertheless, young female journalists who had made a mark at an early age and would carry off the rigors of their round the world tours with courage and elan. Their progress around the world attracted great excitement as people followed their paths and entered contests to guess the exact time of Bly's arrival leading to a remarkable increase in the World's circulation.

Matthew Goodman

A generous amount of time is devoted to each of the women's lives after their return. As with their differing characters and personalities, their lives covered very different arcs of success and productivity afterwards. Although there are times when the book drags a little, the two women and the world in which they lived create interestingly useful personal and cultural portraits. Goodman creates sufficient tension in the contest between the two women and the vagaries of world travel to retain the readers attention. Goodman is the author of three books of non-fiction. His essays, articles, and short stories have appeared in The American Scholar, Harvard Review, the Village Voice, the Forward, Bon Appetit, and many other publications, and have been cited for Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Story anthologies. He has taught writing at various colleges. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and two children.

EightyDays: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History Making Race Aroundthe World by Matthew Goodman is published by Random House/Ballantine Books (2013, 480 pages, $28.00) and is accompanied by copious notes and references as well as a number of photographs. It is available at all the usual outlets. The book was supplied to me as an electronic galley by Net Galley.