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Brooklyn Bookbeat: Brooklyn author’s “Eighty Days” revives historic race around world

Brooklyn-based author Matthew Goodman will appear at Park Slope’s Community Bookstore on Thursday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m. to discuss his new book “Eighty Days.” Photo by Geraldine de Haugobart

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Brooklyn author Matthew Goodman has just released his latest novel, “Eighty Days: Nelly Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World,” in which he recreates the true story of two adventurous young female reporters who set out to travel the world in 1889. The author will appear at Park Slope’s Community Bookstore today, Thursday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m., to read from and discuss the book with author Christopher Stewart.

“Eighty Days” is a fascinating text; Goodman draws on years of extensive research to illuminate the little-known journey that Bly and Bisland embarked on in their quest to circumnavigate the globe in less than eighty days.  More than just a journey, the event was a race between two ambitious female pioneers. In 1889, Nellie Bly was an eager and courageous reporter from Pennsylvania who was determined to uncover the juiciest of new stories, sometimes even going undercover in her efforts to reveal controversial news.

Elizabeth Bisland, who came from an aristocratic Southern family, was quite different in demeanor: she favored poetry over newspapers and was known for her beauty.  Despite their dissimilar dispositions, both women were talented journalists who managed to succeed in what was then a male-dominated profession.

“Eighty Days” revives this captivating slice of history as Goodman enriches his tale with historical photographs and details surrounding the competitors and their encounters.

Goodman has a knack for recreating history. In 2008, he published The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York, chronicling what became known as the "Moon Hoax:" In the summer of 1835, Richard Adams Locke, an editor of a New York publication The Sun, fooled a vast audience into believing that astronomers had discovered life on the moon.

Matthew Goodman is also the author of Jewish Food: The World at Table, and has published nonfiction pieces in The Forward, Harvard Review, and The American Scholar. His fiction stories have appeared in Georgia Review, the New England Review, and Witness. Goodman has received two MacDowell fellowships and one Yaddo fellowship and has taught creative writing at several universities. He lives in Brooklyn with his family. 

The event will begin at 7 p.m. Community Bookstore is located at 143 7th Avenue in Park Slope.

Read on for a Q&A with Matthew Goodman (originally published by Ballantine Books/Random House.)

* * * 

How did the idea for EIGHTY DAYS originate?

Like many people, I recognized the name Nellie Bly, in part because of the old “Nellie Bly Amusement Park” near my home in Brooklyn, but I didn’t know much about her or why she was important. One day I stumbled across a brief reference to her record-setting race around the world in 1889, and that brought me up short because I didn’t know anything about it. I thought it was remarkable that a young woman (she was only twenty-five), unaccompanied and carrying only a single bag, would be daring enough to race around the world, through Europe and the Middle East and Far East, in the year 1889 – and do it faster than anyone ever had before her. Then, when I researched the story further, I discovered that in fact she was competing against another young female journalist, Elizabeth Bisland – a detail that is almost never included in the historical record. I was captivated by the notion of these two young women racing each other around the world – one traveling east, the other west.

Nellie Bly sounds like a fascinating character. Can you tell us more about her?

Nellie Bly was a genuinely remarkable person– really a historian’s dream subject. Born into a poor family in Pennsylvania coal country, she was a scrappy, hard-driving, ambitious young reporter who sought out the most sensational news stories, often going undercover to expose social injustice. In her first series for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper the New York World, she feigned madness and got herself committed to a women’s insane asylum, so that she could expose the terrible conditions endured by the patients there.

For other stories she worked for pennies alongside other young women in a paper-box factory, applied for employment as a servant, and sought treatment in a medical dispensary for the poor (where she narrowly escaped having her tonsils removed). She trained with the boxing champion John L. Sullivan; she visited with a deaf, dumb, and blind nine-year-old girl in Boston by the name of Helen Keller. Once, to expose the workings of New York’s white slavery trade, she even bought a baby.

She quickly became one of the most well-known and most beloved reporters in New York – but none of it could compare with the fame she achieved from her race around the world.

 

And who was Elizabeth Bisland, Nellie Bly’s competitor in the race around the world?

One of my favorite things about writing this book was the opportunity it presented to re-introduce people to Elizabeth Bisland, who since the around-the-world race has been mostly forgotten by history. In her own way, she was just as remarkable and just as compelling a person as was Nellie Bly. 

She had been born into a Louisiana family ruined by the Civil War (their plantation was actually the site of a major battle in the war), and she was a great believer in the joys of literature, which she had first experienced as a girl reading ancient, tattered volumes of Shakespeare and Cervantes that she found in her grandfather’s mostly burned-out library.

Bisland was a talented poet and essayist, and the hostess of a weekly arts salon in her little apartment on Fourth Avenue; she was genteel, soft-spoken, and was commonly referred to as “the most beautiful woman in New York journalism.” She also had no interest in being famous, and when her boss, the publisher, John Brisben Walker of The Cosmopolitan magazine, requested that she race Nellie Bly around the world, she initially resisted. Yet in the end she was deeply affected by her experiences during the trip, which instilled in her a love of travel that remained with her for the rest of her life.

 

What were the working conditions faced by women reporters like Bly and Bisland in the late nineteenth century?

At that time more than 12,000 journalists were working in the United States; fewer than three hundred of them were women. And of those three hundred, nearly all were employed on the “women’s pages” of newspapers, writing articles devoted to the topics about which women were thought to be most interested: fashion, shopping, recipes, homemaking, child rearing, and the doings of high society.

Nellie Bly was one of the very few female reporters whose articles actually appeared in the news sections of their papers. Most male editors did not consider women intellectually capable of doing hard-news reporting, nor did they consider the newsroom an appropriate place for a woman (too much drinking and swearing and tobacco chewing). Male editors also felt very uncomfortable asking a woman to perform the tasks routinely undertaken by male reporters: to travel alone by herself at night, to pursue stories into tenements and dance halls and gambling dens, to consort with criminals and policemen, to uncover the lies spoken by politicians and corporate executives.

For a woman to engage in such behavior was thought to be not only risky, but also improper, undignified, and unseemly – in a word, unladylike. This is what made the Bly-Bisland race all the more remarkable. Most newspapers didn’t even want their women reporters traveling by themselves across the city, much less all the way around the world.

 

What did you mean when you wrote that Bly and Bisland “were not just racing around the world; they were racing through the very heart of the Victorian age”?

Not surprisingly, I first became interested in this topic because of the race itself – two young women traveling around the world in opposite directions, each of them alone, and speaking only English. As a writer, as well, I was thrilled by the prospect of bringing to life all of these exotic, fascinating places in the years 1889 and 1890: Hong Kong, Ceylon, Yemen, Canton, the Suez Canal, and so forth.

And my interest in the story only grew when it became clear to me how different from each other Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were. (Bisland hosted tea parties in her apartment for New York’s literary set; Bly was a habitué of O’Rourke’s saloon on the Bowery.) As time went on, though, I began to see that the around-the-world race also provided a window into larger issues of history and culture and technology.

Bly and Bisland, after all, were rushing around the globe on the most powerful and modern forms of transportation yet created, the oceangoing steamship and the steam railroad. They were sending back messages to waiting editors by means of telegraph lines that had, in the expression of the period, “annihilated space and time” – much like the Internet today. They sailed across the breadth of the British Empire, from England in the west to Hong Kong in the east, their ships carrying the tea and cotton and opium and other valuable goods that helped sustain the imperial economy.

And, of course, the story of these two enterprising young women says a great deal about the changing role of women in America at the time.

How did the race around the world help usher in the contemporary fascination with celebrity?

The public’s fascination with the around-the-world race extended across the country, and indeed across much of the world. In its quest to sell ever more newspapers, The World had promoted Nellie Bly’s trip in its pages day after day. By the time the trip was over Bly was perhaps the most famous woman in the United States – and this was the time when American companies were just beginning to understand that the image of a famous person could be used to sell products.

So in 1890 American women wore Nellie Bly caps and Nellie Bly dresses and Nellie Bly gloves, modeled on the ones she had made famous during her trip. Children used the Nellie Bly tablet notebook and carried it to school in a Nellie Bly school bag. At home, you could write on Nellie Bly stationery with the Nellie Bly fountain pen in the light of the Nellie Bly lamp. A series of advertising trade cards with drawings of Nellie Bly on the front sold everything from coffee to tobacco to spices. The George L. Ingerson Company of Syracuse, New York, even sold “Nellie Bly Horse Feed.”

It all seemed very promising, but as things turned out, Bly’s celebrity was the start of a long downward spiral in her journalistic career (she couldn’t go back to being an undercover reporter, because she was now too famous) and in her personal life as well. In short, the race around the world was a success from which Nellie Bly was never able to recover.

What sort of research did you do to bring the world of the nineteenth century alive for us today?

EIGHTY DAYS is a work of non-fiction. I didn’t make up any of the events presented in it, and I didn’t ascribe any thoughts to a character that he or she himself didn’t claim. I took all of the dialogue in the book from a written source such as a memoir, letter, or newspaper article. I went through years’ worth of newspapers and magazines (including just about all of the articles that Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland ever wrote), read guidebooks, travelers’ accounts, letters, histories, and biographies. 

In writing the travel sections I drew most heavily on the writing of Bly and Bisland themselves, especially the books that they each wrote about the race. Sometimes I used direct quotes from their books, which I’ve cited in the endnotes; other times I paraphrased their descriptions as a way of maintaining their distinctive voices and points of view. (Bly had a sharp, peppery style and Bisland was erudite and lyrical, and their own books about the race around the world are each wonderful and well worth reading!)

I took no liberties with the facts – if a particular day was rainy or sunny, or if a particular ship was early or delayed, that’s how I wrote it in the book. I worked very hard to make this story as true to life as possible. But at the same time, I was conscious that I was writing narrative history – that is to say, history that reads almost like a novel. And so I spent endless hours in libraries and archives gathering all the material I possibly could, letting that world come alive in my mind so that I could put it down on the page.

I wanted to tell the story as vivid and compellingly as I possibly could, so that the reader would not just know what happened on the trip, but also experience what it was like: the roll of the steamship on a storm-tossed Atlantic in winter; a slow, moonlit trip through the Suez Canal; a luxurious hotel amid the tea plantations of Ceylon; the fetid back alleys and blood-soaked execution grounds of Canton; a snowshoe expedition across Sierra Nevada mountains blocked by snowdrifts twenty feet deep.

February 28, 2013 - 11:00am


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