Writings by Nellie Bly

Elizabeth Jane Cochrane “Nellie Bly”, photo by H. J. Myers

Why have I not heard about this women before? Why did I have to turn almost 30 before I learned that the first person to travel around the world was a woman?

Nellie Bly (a psudonyme, her given name was Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) was a journalist in New York World, whom was owned at the time by Joseph Pulitzer (yes, that Joseph Pulitzer). She was first known for her work with Ten Days in a Mad-House. An expose where she went undercover to the publicly run Women’s nellie_bly-mad-house-07Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She went undercover by acting insane. While she was acting, it was still unnerving to know how easily she did it and how many sane women where sent there. That in face we all could be deemed insane if people so wished it. This piece was fascinating in how she described both the process of her being deemed insane and how these women were treated at the Asylum. She continued to fight for the rights of insane people even after the expose was published.

It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world. Ten Days in a Mad-House Chapter – III

Later, in 1889, when there was a discussion regarding sending someone around the world to test of Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days actually could happen, she volunteered. Her boss wanted to send a man, but she threatened to quit if he didn’t let her do it. So popular was she due to her earlier writing, and mainly Ten days in a Mad-House, that he gave in and let her travel around the world.

A publicity photograph taken by the New York World newspaper to promote Bly’s around-the-world voyage

The book Around the World in 72 Days is mostly a travel documentary depicting what she experienced on her journey. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a travelogue, though. While she does depict a lot of different places, most of her time is spent on the road (or boat to be more precise). She talks about the ships and the people on the ship, but of coarse not so much the lands and cultures. What she does talk about, especially in Asia, becomes a mix bag to me. She is describing things and she is describing things that most writers at the time didn’t, like funerals and prisons. On the other hand the does have an air of white imperialist in her writing. She was from the US so this probably couldn’t be helped, but to me the book read more about her describing her meeting with the things and people she interacted with, rather than a description of something outside of herself.

But if you manage to read it almost like her personal journal you will find a surprisingly witty and clever writer. Someone who deals with difficulties head on and a broad smile.

Criticise the style of my hat or my gown, I can change them, but spare my nose, it was born on me. Around the World in 72 days – Chapter XIII

A woodcut image of Nellie Bly’s homecoming reception in Jersey City printed in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News on February 8, 1890.

There is a second thought with viewing it this way. Nellie Bly worked for Joseph Pulitzer who invented the yellow journalism. Yellow journalism is a way of promoting journalism that focus more on the sensational headlines and sting, rather than concrete journalism. I have all respect for Nellie Bly as a journalist and her work for both feminism and the mentally ill. I also think she was a good reporter, which was especially proven by her work Ten days in a Mad-House. Around the World in 72 days have more of the flash and glitter of yellow journalism. While this takes away from her journalistic aspect, it probably helps in making her book easier to read. I don’t think she is selling us something that isn’t true, it’s just about the wrapping.

One never knows the capacity of an ordinary hand-satchel until dire necessity compels the exercise of all one’s ingenuity to reduce every thing to the smallest possible compass. In mine I was able to pack two traveling caps, three veils, a pair of slippers, a complete outfit of toilet articles, ink-stand, pens, pencils, and copy-paper, pins, needles and thread, a dressing gown, a tennis blazer, a small flask and a drinking cup, several complete changes of underwear, a liberal supply of handkerchiefs and fresh ruchings and most bulky and uncompromising of all, a jar of cold cream to keep my face from chapping in the varied climates I should encounter.
That jar of cold cream was the bane of my existence. It seemed to take up more room than everything else in the bad and was always getting into just the place that would keep me from closing the satchel. Over my arm I carried a silk waterproof, the only provision I made against rainy weather. After-experience showed me that I had taken too much rather than too little baggage. At every port where I stopped at I could have bought anything from a ready-made dress down, except possibly at Aden, and as I did not visit the shops there I cannot speak from knowledge.  Around the world in 72 days – chapter I

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