Review: Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman

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On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s ‘World’ newspaper, left New York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that day —and heading in the opposite direction by train — was a young journalist from ‘The Cosmopolitan’ magazine, Elizabeth Bisland.

Each woman was determined to outdo Jules Verne’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days. The dramatic race that ensued would span twenty-eight thousand miles, captivate the nation, and change both competitors’ lives forever.

The two women were a study in contrasts. Nellie Bly was a scrappy, hard-driving, ambitious reporter from Pennsylvania coal country who sought out the most sensational news stories, often going undercover to expose social injustice. Genteel and elegant, Elizabeth Bisland had been born into an aristocratic Southern family, preferred novels and poetry to newspapers, and was widely referred to as the most beautiful woman in metropolitan journalism. Both women, though, were talented writers who had carved out successful careers in the hypercompetitive, male-dominated world of big-city newspapers.

‘Eighty Days’ brings these trailblazing women to life as they race against time and each other, unaided and alone, ever aware that the slightest delay could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Read to accompany These Shallow Graves that focuses on female newspaper reporters and makes mention of Nellie Bly, Eighty Days focuses on the whirlwind trip around the world that made Bly famous. Forgotten by history is Elizabeth Bisland, a young female reporter drafted into turning the trip around the world not only a race against time, but a race against each other. History tends to only favor winners, so Bisland’s part in the saga has been ignored for the most part. And two more different women could not have been asked to complete the task of beating a fictional character. Bly, described as “plucky” and “determined” was Northern, from a poor immigrant background and attacked every career obstacle with a bull headed quality and hint of sensationalism. Bisland was Southern, from a formerly wealthy family, and was actually a literature reviewer. Both women’s backgrounds heavily influenced their view of the people they encountered on their voyages and both women were a product of the times in their view on other ethnicity for the most part.

Perhaps the most interesting part was watching the change that took place in the person of Nellie Bly. Originally made famous as an undercover reporter, the race around the world (and her newspaper’s capitalization to up circulation) turned her into a household name and celebrity. Fame has a way of being fickle and Bly perhaps suffered the most afterwards both unfairly by newspaper editors’ cruelly criticizing her and possibly somewhat fairly in Bly’s rather petty behavior with The World after her trip (another situation possibly brought on by her inadvertently entangling them in litigation over another story she had been involved with). Bisland, though the loser of the race, may have benefited by not having the nation’s critical eye on her afterwards. Both women were determined and remarkable at a time when female reporters were normally relegated to the society pages and were not considered capable of doing the same job as a man. Both women endured plenty of stress and strain attempting to outdo time and both experienced cultures and countries few others had.

4 out of 5

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