Bly, Bisland & Verne

Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) departed on her record-setting, world-circling trip on this day in 1889, besting Jules Verne’s fictional eighty-day journey by more than seven days. Traveling light and alone, Bly’s trip was in keeping with many of her other daring exploits as reporter for the New York World — feigning mental illness to report on conditions in an insane asylum, working in a factory to expose sweatshop conditions, buying a baby to document the white slave trade, going up in an air balloon or underwater in a diving bell or into the ring with John L. Sullivan:

Her articles were by turns lighthearted and scolding and indignant, some meant to edify and some merely to entertain, but all were shot through with Bly’s unmistakable passion for a good story and her uncanny ability to capture the public’s imagination, the sheer force of her personality demanding that attention be paid to the plight of the unfortunate and, not incidentally, to herself.

The above is excerpted from Matthew Goodman’s upcoming Eighty Days (February 2013), which explores Bly’s accomplishment as a race not just against the calendar but against another woman, one now almost as forgotten as Bly is famous. This was Elizabeth Bisland, also sent round the world by her employer, the monthly magazine The Cosmopolitan, departing on the same day as Bly (though in the opposite direction) and arriving back in New York four days behind her.

Though allies against gender expectations, the two women were very different and “emissaries of radically different periodicals” (Karen Roggenkamp, Narrating the News). Joseph Pulitzer’s World was a mass-market daily, and it embraced the original “new journalism” — the term coined a decade earlier by Matthew Arnold, who found the popular press to be “full of ability, novelty, variety, sensation, sympathy, generous instincts,” and “feather-brained.” Though the monthly Cosmopolitan, higher-browed but in need of readers, was willing to try Bly’s “stunt reporting,” it did so in old style. Thus Bly, pacing on a rough crossing, takes us with her to the ship’s railings for “a little unbridling of pent-up emotion” (i.e., to vomit), while Bisland, deckside at sunset, is either quoting her favorite poetry or purpling her prose: “…the burning ball, undimmed by any cloud, falls swiftly and is quenched in the ocean, and after an instant of crepuscular violet the prodigious tide of light vanishes….”

Both publications got a circulation boost, but The Cosmopolitan was soon sold to Pulitzer’s rival in the mass-market readership battle, William Randolph Hearst.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at