Rated of 5
by William Y. (Lynchburg, VA)
Matthew Goodman, Eighty Days: a review
In 1873, the French Writer Jules Verne penned Around the World in Eighty Days. One of his most popular novels, it did well in the United States and imposed, in many people's minds, a physical time limit on world travel. Thus the title for Matthew Goodman's engrossing new history about that colorful period.
New York City serves as the opening setting of a contest that would quickly capture the imagination of millions everywhere. Home to numerous newspapers, New York editors and publishers vied endlessly to attract more readers with lurid headlines, scandalous stories, and a variety of features. The New York World had the good fortune to have the spirited Nellie Bly as one of its reporters, a rarity in a male-dominated profession. Anxious to make her name, Bly proposed to the World a daring plan: a solo trip around the world in under 80 days, heading east from New York and returning there from the west in, she hoped, 75 days, thereby eclipsing Verne's fictional record.
Many scoffed, but the World knew a good publicity stunt, and at last Bly embarked on her journey in the fall of 1889. Word of her plans had made the rounds, and The Cosmopolitan, a woman's magazine, decided, the same day of Bly's departure, to sponsor one of its writers in a similar venture, but west-to-east. After considerable urging by her editors, Elizabeth Bisland, who until then had quietly written literary pieces for The Cosmopolitan, reluctantly packed her bags and took a west-bound train that evening, just hours behind Bly.
The remainder of Eighty Days chronicles the adventures of the two women, usually in alternating chapters. Goodman writes in a consistently engaging style, not unlike his contemporaries David McCullough and Paul Theroux. He brings in all manner of fascinating details about the cultures and environments the two intrepid travelers experience, but never in a dry or academic way, making it a page-turner from beginning to end. He also pursues a thread throughout his narrative that describes changing American attitudes toward women, especially in the character of Nellie Bly. In the course of the book, a portrait of the All-American Girl—as popularized in the late 19th century—emerges, a plucky, attractive, independent spirit, ready to take on new challenges, but always careful to retain a strong aura of femininity.
Today, Bly and Bisland are mainly forgotten, footnotes in American popular history. But in late 1889 and on into 1890, they were true celebrities. I won't drop in a spoiler here and say who won the race, but millions waited anxiously to read their latest telegraph dispatches from around the world.
A great choice for book clubs that enjoy non-fiction, or for those individual readers that just like a good book, I cannot recommend Eighty Days highly enough.