Until Nellie Bly became “the most famous journalist of her day“ (Kroeger 14), as her biographer Brooke Kroeger depicts her, she lived a rather common and frustrating life. Born in May 1864, Elizabeth Jane Cochrane – that is how she was named by birth – aimed to get a good job as a teacher in fast-industrializing Pittsburgh, but was forced to drop out of school at the age of 15 because her family could not pay the tuition funds (Mahoney 33). Nevertheless, with the growing sensitivity to injustice, she once submitted an audacious letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch in response to a sexist column about a woman’s role in society.
Surprisingly, the editor was so impressed by the 19-year-old girl that he offered her to write proper articles for the newspaper (Mahoney 35). Cochrane then adopted the pen name Nellie Bly and started a unique journalistic career. In the following years, she soon made a name for herself as she reported undercover from inside a New York mental asylum in 1887. Like that she pioneered investigative journalism and pathed the way for other female journalists (Kroeger 7).
In 1888 she had the idea to travel the world in less than eighty days. Bly was inspired by the famous Phileas Fogg from the book “Around the world in 80 days“ by the French author Jules Verne. Her aim was to beat Fogg’s record and travel the world in seventy-five days or less (Bly 2).
Her travel report was first published in four parts in the New York World (for which she worked during her world tour) and later as a book (Hurst). When she returned to the US, all the train stations where she stopped were filled with big crowds admiring her for her achievement (Bly 84 ff.).
She did not publish the book together with the New York World as she left the newspaper due to some unresolved dispute with her superiors. Nevertheless, the first edition of 10.000 copies sold out fast, and „Bly busily prepared for the second printing“ (Kroeger, 186). Critics nowadays reproach her for racial expressions and sympathy for British imperialism (Hurst).
In her travel report, Nellie Bly portrays herself as a woman of extraordinary willpower and a good sense of self-esteem, although she lived in a society that did not offer much space for female emancipation, which aligns with the concept of the “New Woman“.
Though Nellie Bly achieved fame through various reports, she is best known for her travel report “Around the world in Seventy-two Days“ from 1890. Apart from the cultural insight from the different places from all over the world, she also offers insights into her ambitions as a modern woman – a woman who is also referred to as the “New Woman“ in literary and scientific circles. Women of this period are said to have had a strong sense of justice and equality and a need for economic independence and self-realization. They campaigned for these rights with a lot of willpower (Patterson 6,9).
“Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.“Bly 2
Such tendencies are also evident in Nellie Bly’s travel writing. When she presented her idea of traveling around the world in less than eighty days to her editor, she was rejected by him arguing that he rather wanted to send off a man (2). However, Nellie did not let this slow her down – she wanted to make this trip so eagerly that she responded to this rejection with a blunt answer: “Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him“ (2). Her will to make this journey became even clearer when she looked up several ship and train connections and realized that it would indeed be possible to complete this journey in less than eighty days. She described this feeling as if she had discovered the “elixir of life“ (2).
This reaction suggests that for Nellie, the trip is not just a vacation as she claims at the beginning (2), but possibly an inner need as well. One of her principles, which she mentions in her book, is that nothing is impossible as long as you apply “a certain amount of energy in the right direction“ (3). In the biography by Brooke Kroeger, Nellie is furthermore described as a character who strongly believes in her ability to know how to act right and accordingly lives by her own rules (145). One of these rules for Nellie is that life is what you make out of it. Last but not least, this attitude allowed her to go on this journey. When her editor informed Nellie only two days before departure that she could start the journey after all and asked her whether she would be ready then, she replied instantly: “I can start this minute“ (3) – without having had time to think about her luggage or the course of her journey. Kroeger correspondingly describes her as fearless and the force of her will as her greatest asset (14).
The 25-year-old Nelli Bly then started on November 14, 1889, and made it to Singapore in mid-December already. Together with her comrades, she wanted to visit a Hindoo temple there but was not permitted to enter, because she was a woman (Bly 55). She promptly asked “Why?“ (55). In her own words, she was “curious to know why [her] sex in heathen lands should exclude [her] from a temple“ (55).
However, one should be aware of the cultural differences she faced in this Asian country which do not necessarily correspond to American social standards. At this point, her belief that everything is possible is pushed to its limits. But instead of arguing with the priest, she got over it and joined the laughter of her companions (55). In this scene, she presented herself as a joyful and positive character who accepted unchangeable things as they were.
“If you want to do it, you can do it. The question is, do you want to do it?“Bly 3
The same attitude comes across a few days and pages later when Nellie Bly writes about the night in which the ship sailed into a heavy storm: on her way to Hong Kong, the monsoon was so harsh that her ship was flooded and she expected it to “doubtless[ly] sink“ (59). Contrary to several terrified men on board, Bly’s only concern was that nobody would know if she had made the world tour or not. It seems, that not even death could change her mind – she remains fully committed to her plan. At that point, she articulates this second key principle of hers: “All the worry in the world can not change it one way or the other“ (59). Despite the raging storm, she just went to sleep and “slumbered soundly until the breakfast hour“ (59). Staying calm and sober in this life-threatening situation proves trust in life, fate, and unshakable optimism.
Nellie Bly’s mission of traveling the world in less than eighty days is proof of her strength, willpower, and determination. The close look at some extracts of Nellie Bly’s travel report gives an insight into the way the author sees herself and allows us to confirm our hypothesis.
Bly, Nellie. Around the World in 72 Days, The Pictorial Weeklies Company. 1890. archive.org, https://archive.org/details/nellieblydaredev00kroe/page/n9/mode/1up.
Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. New York: Times Books. 1994. archive.org, haps://archive.org/details/nellieblydaredev00kroe.
Mahoney, Ellen. „Nellie Bly: Pioneer Journalist Exptraordinaire.“ Western Pennsylvania History 1918-2018, vol. 102, no. 2, Summer 2017, pp. 32-45, https://journals.psu.edu/wph/index.
Hurst, Fabienne. “Lästermaul Auf Großer Fahrt.” DER SPIEGEL, DER SPIEGEL, 25 Apr. 2013. https://www.spiegel.de/geschichte/star-reporterin-nelly-bly-und-ihre-reise-in-72- tagen-um-die-welt-a-951100.html. (last access on 26.06.22)
Petterson, H. Martha. The American new woman revisited: a reader, 1894–1930. Rutgers UP. 2008. (Access via stud.ip)
Portrait Nellie Bly: https://scriiipt.com/2019/02/nellie-bly-journaliste-dinvestigation-1ere-partie/
Travel Route: https://www.behance.net/gallery/54416509/No-Cam-Nellie-Bly
Augusta Victoria: https://dianerehm.org/shows/2013-03-18/matthew-goodman-eighty-days