Matthew Goodman talks about his latest non-fiction book, Eighty Days, about Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's race around the world.
How did the idea for the book 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 racing 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.
So who was Nellie Bly?
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 the Blackwell's Island 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 burned-out library. (She taught herself French while she churned butter, so that she might read Rousseau's Confessions in the original.) 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 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.
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. By the time Nellie Bly returned in triumph to New York, and received her raucous victory parade up Broadway to the World Building, she was probably the most famous woman in the United States. 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 sudden 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.
Who have you discovered lately?
Well, it's probably not much of a "discovery" to have recently discovered the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of 1947, but for much of my adult life I circled around Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men: always meaning to read it, but never actually doing so. Then one day a few months ago a friend posted the book's opening sentences on Facebook and they were so good I went right out that day and bought it. My own work is history told in a novelistic vein, and Warren's is a novel based on history it's a fictionalized telling of the life and career of the controversial Louisiana governor Huey Long but I immediately responded to the sheer gorgeousness of the prose ("There he was, with the papers about his feet and one arm up, the coat sleeve jammed elbow high, face red as a bruised beet and the sweat sluicing, hair over his forehead, eyes bugged out and shining, drunk as a hoot owl, and behind him the bunting, red-white-and-blue, and over him God's bright, brassy, incandescent sky"); the complex, layered character of Governor Willie Stark; and the vivid portrait Warren paints of a part of the world that I had never encountered so intimately before. Also, I was thrilled to read a novel so knowing in the ways of local politics the handouts and the log-rolling and the petty vengeance, the shifting mix of altruism and self-interest, the endless quest to obtain and maintain power. It was the perfect book to be reading in the midst of campaign season, but I can't help but think it would be great during the off-years as well.