On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper, left New York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that day—and heading in the opposite direction by train—was a young journalist from The Cosmopolitan magazine, Elizabeth Bisland. Each woman was determined to outdo Jules Verne’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days. The dramatic race that ensued would span twenty-eight thousand miles, captivate the nation, and change both competitors’ lives forever.
The two women were a study in contrasts. Nellie Bly was a scrappy, hard-driving, ambitious reporter from Pennsylvania coal country who sought out the most sensational news stories, often going undercover to expose social injustice. Genteel and elegant, Elizabeth Bisland had been born into an aristocratic Southern family, preferred novels and poetry to newspapers, and was widely referred to as the most beautiful woman in metropolitan journalism. Both women, though, were talented writers who had carved out successful careers in the hypercompetitive, male-dominated world of big-city newspapers. Eighty Days brings these trailblazing women to life as they race against time and each other, unaided and alone, ever aware that the slightest delay could mean the difference between victory and defeat.
A vivid real-life re-creation of the race and its aftermath, from its frenzied start to the nail-biting dash at its finish, Eighty Days is history with the heart of a great adventure novel. Here’s the journey that takes us behind the walls of Jules Verne’s Amiens estate, into the back alleys of Hong Kong, onto the grounds of a Ceylon tea plantation, through storm-tossed ocean crossings and mountains blocked by snowdrifts twenty feet deep, and to many more unexpected and exotic locales from London to Yokohama. Along the way, we are treated to fascinating glimpses of everyday life in the late nineteenth century—an era of unprecedented technological advances, newly remade in the image of the steamship, the railroad, and the telegraph. For Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland—two women ahead of their time in every sense of the word—were not only racing around the world. They were also racing through the very heart of the Victorian age.
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“What a story! What an extraordinary historical adventure!”—Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire
“A fun, fast, page-turning action-adventure . . . the exhilarating journey of two pioneering women, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, as they race around the globe.”—Karen Abbott, author of American Rose
“[A] marvelous tale of adventure . . . The story of these two pioneering women unfolds amid the excitement, setbacks, crises, missed opportunities and a global trek unlike any other in its time. . . . Why would you want to miss out on the incredible journey that takes you to the finish line page after nail-biting page?”—Chicago Sun-Times (Best Books of the Year)
“In a stunning feat of narrative nonfiction, Matthew Goodman brings the nineteenth century to life, tracing the history of two intrepid journalists as they tackled two male-dominated fields—world travel and journalism—in an era of incredible momentum.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
A Free American Girl
Nellie bly was born elizabeth jane cochran in western pennsyl-vania on May 5, 1864, though confusion about her exact age would persist throughout her life—a good deal of that confusion engineered by Bly herself, for she was never quite as young as she claimed to be. When she began her race around the world, in November of 1889, Bly was twenty-five years old, but estimates of her age among the nation’s newspapers ranged from twenty to twenty-four; according to her own newspaper, The World, she was “about twenty-three.”
The town in which she grew up, Apollo, Pennsylvania, was a small, nondescript sort of place, not much different from countless other mill towns carved out of hemlock and spruce, unassuming enough that even the author of a history of Apollo felt obliged to explain in the book’s foreword, “It is not necessary to be a city of the first class to fill the niche in the hearts of the people or the history of the state. Besides it is our town.” On its main street stood a general store (where one could buy everything from penny candy to plowshares), a drugstore, a slaughterhouse, a blacksmith shop, and several taverns; the town would not have a bank until 1871. In the winters there was sledding and skating, and when the warmer weather came the children of the town liked to roll barrel hoops down the hill to the canal bridge and to fish the Kiskiminetas River, which had not yet been contaminated by runoff from the coal mines and iron mills being built nearby.
Elizabeth was born to Michael and Mary Jane Cochran, the third of five children and the elder of two daughters. She was known to everyone in town as “Pink”; it was a nickname she came by early on, arising from her mother’s predilection to dress her in pink clothing, in sharp contrast to the drab browns and grays worn by the other local children. Pink seems to have been a high-spirited, rather headstrong girl, though much of what is known of her early years comes from her own recollections in publicity stories written after she became famous, at least some of which seem designed mainly to burnish the already developing legend of the intrepid young journalist. One story published in The World, for instance (the headline of which claimed to provide her “authentic biography”), told how she was an insatiable reader as a girl, and how she herself wrote scores of stories, scribbling them in the flyleaves of books and on whatever scraps of paper she could find. Nights she lay awake in bed, her mind aflame with imagined stories of heroes and heroines, fairy tales and romances: “So active was the child’s brain and so strongly her faculties eluded sleep that her condition became alarming and she had to be placed under the care of physicians.” The World ’s professions of Bly’s childhood love for reading and writing, though, are not to be found in other accounts, and in the family history, Chronicles of the Cochrans: Being a Series of Historical Events and Narratives in Which the Members of This Family Have Played a Prominent Part, one of her relatives commented somewhat tartly that among the teachers in Apollo’s sole schoolhouse, Pink Cochran “acquired more conspicuous notice for riotous conduct than profound scholarship.”
Pink’s father, Michael Cochran, had become wealthy as a grist mill proprietor and real estate speculator, and he was prominent enough to have been elected an associate justice of the county, after which he was always known by the honorific “Judge.” (The nearby hamlet of Coch- ran’s Mills, where Pink lived for her first five years, was named after him.) When Pink was six years old, though, Judge Cochran suddenly fell ill and died, without having left behind a will; according to Pennsylvania law, a wife was not entitled to an inheritance without being specifically named in a husband’s will, and by the time his fortune had been parceled out among his heirs (including nine grown children from a previous marriage), Pink’s mother, Mary Jane, ended up with little more than the household furniture, a horse and carriage, and a small weekly stipend. Now raising five children on her own, she embarked on an ill-conceived marriage to a man who turned out to be a drunkard and an abuser. After five miserable years Mary Jane took the highly unusual step of filing for divorce; Pink herself testified on her mother’s behalf, recounting for the court an awful litany of her stepfather’s offenses against her mother. At only fourteen years of age, she had learned all she needed to know about what could befall a woman who was not financially independent.
Pink was determined that one day she would support her mother and herself, and the next year she was sent to a nearby boarding school that specialized in training young women to be teachers. For the fifteen-year-old, the school must have been a welcome opportunity to create a new identity for herself—it was there that Pink Cochran added the silent e to the end of her surname—but unfortunately her mother was forced to withdraw her after only a single semester; the family simply did not have enough money for Pink to continue her schooling. This fact seems to have been embarrassing to Nellie Bly, and she omitted it from her own stories about herself. That “authentic” biographical story in The World, presumably based on information provided by Bly, asserted instead that she had left “on account of threatening heart disease”: even one more year of studies, her physician was said to have advised her, could come at the cost of her life. “She was anxious to continue her studies,” The World solemnly explained, “but she didn’t want to die.”
In 1880, when Pink was sixteen, Mary Jane Cochran moved with her children to Pittsburgh, some thirty-five miles away. She was hoping to leave behind the death and divorce with which she had come to be associated in Apollo, but Pittsburgh must at times have seemed a hard bargain. Anthony Trollope once called Pittsburgh “without exception, the blackest place which I ever saw.” It was a city given over almost entirely to manufacture, where within a few dozen square miles nearly five hundred factories turned out the steel, iron, brass, copper, cotton, oil, and glass hungrily consumed by an industrializing nation. On the horizon, in every direction, smoke poured from unseen furnaces. At night the sky burned yellow and red. The city’s wind carried flecks of graphite; the air smelled of sulfur, and a long walk brought a taste of metal on the tongue. There were unexpected showers of soot. In a neighborhood with a skyline of steeples and onion domes, where railroad tracks wound through backyards, Mary Jane bought a small row house for her family; eventually, like many of the city’s homeowners, she earned a bit of extra income by renting out a room to boarders. For the next four years Pink helped support the family by taking whatever positions she could find, including as a kitchen girl; she may also have found work as a nanny, a housekeeper, and a private tutor. (Her older brothers, having even less education than she, found jobs as a corresponding clerk and the manager of a rubber company.)
Though Pittsburgh’s population at the time was only about 150,000, the city was able to support ten daily newspapers, more than any other American city of its size. Pink Cochrane was a regular reader of one of them, the Pittsburg Dispatch, where the most popular columnist was Erasmus Wilson, who wrote under the name “The Quiet Observer,” or simply “Q. O.” Wilson was a courtly older gentleman, and in his “Quiet Observations” he liked to espouse what he saw as traditional Victorian values. In one column he took to task modern women “who think they are out of their spheres and go around giving everybody fits for not helping them to find them.” A “woman’s sphere,” he bluntly concluded, “is defined and located by a single word—home.”
The column, with its high-flown disregard for the realities of women’s lives, outraged Pink Cochrane, and she sat down and composed a long letter to the editor of the Dispatch. As was then the custom among those who wrote letters to newspapers, she signed it with a pseudonym: “Lonely Orphan Girl.” (It was perhaps an odd choice of name—her mother, after all, was still alive—but it was a poignant reminder of the impact of her father’s death, a blow from which the family had never recovered.) The letter caught the attention of the paper’s new managing editor, George A. Madden, who placed a notice in the next issue of the Dispatch asking “Orphan Girl” to send him her name and address.
The very next afternoon the writer herself unexpectedly arrived at the Dispatch office. She was twenty years old but looked even younger; Erasmus Wilson would recall her from that morning as “a shy little girl.” She was slimly built, of medium height, with large, somewhat mournful-looking gray eyes and a broad mouth above a square-set chin. She wore a long black cloak and a simple fur hat; her hair, which she had not yet taken to wearing up, fell in auburn curls around the shoulders of her coat. The young woman was plainly uncomfortable in her surroundings, intimidated by her first visit to a city newsroom. In a voice that barely rose above a whisper, she asked an office boy where she might find the editor.
“That is the gentleman,” the boy said, and he pointed toward Madden sitting a few feet away.
Seeing the dapperly mustached young editor, she broke into a smile, revealing a physical detail often remarked upon by those who met her: a dazzlingly white set of teeth. “Oh, is it?” she exclaimed. “I expected to see an old, cross man.”
George Madden told her that he was not going to print her letter; instead, he said, he wanted her to write an article of her own on the question of “the woman’s sphere.” Neither Bly nor Madden ever recorded her immediate reaction to his request, but the prospect of actually writing for a newspaper, after four years of tramping Pittsburgh’s soot-darkened streets in pursuit of menial work with little hope of ever finding anything better, must have meant everything to her; within the week she had turned the article in to Madden. Her grammar was rough, her punctuation erratic (for years George Madden was heard to complain about the amount of blue pencil he had expended on her pieces), but the writing was forceful and her voice clear and strong. She had chosen to address the question from the perspective of those women who did not have the privileges “Q. O.” had summarily granted them: poor women who needed to work to support their families. It was an impassioned plea for understanding and sympathy, into which she must have poured some of her own despair at the conditions of her life and that of her mother:
Can they that have full and plenty of this world’s goods realize what it is to be a poor working woman, abiding in one or two bare rooms, without fire enough to keep warm, while her threadbare clothes refuse to protect her from the wind and cold, and denying herself the necessary food that her little ones may not go hungry; fearing the landlord’s frown and threat to cast her out and sell what little she has, begging for employment of any kind that she may earn enough to pay for the bare rooms she calls home, no one to speak kindly to or encourage her, nothing to make life worth the living?
So Elizabeth Cochrane came to be hired as a reporter for the Dispatch, at a salary of five dollars a week. Before her next article was published (this one on divorced women, another subject close to her heart), George Madden called her into his office and informed her that she needed a pen name. At the time, it was considered uncouth for a woman to sign her own name to a news story. The Dispatch’s own Elizabeth Wilkinson Wade wrote as “Bessie Bramble”; in New York, Sara Payson Willis was “Fanny Fern”; in Boston, Sally Joy (which itself sounded like a pen name) was known instead as “Penelope Penfeather.” He was looking for a name, George Madden said, that was “neat and catchy.” Together the two considered several possibilities, but none seemed quite right. It was late in the afternoon; the light from the gas lamps cast flickering shadows on the wallpaper. From upstairs an editor called for his copy. An office boy walked by whistling a popular tune of the day, written by the local songwriter Stephen Foster:
Nelly Bly! Nelly Bly! Bring de broom along,
We’ll sweep de kitchen clean, my dear,
And hab a little song.
The name was short, it was catchy, and best of all, the public already liked it. Madden instructed the typesetter to give the story the byline “Nelly Bly”—but the typesetter misspelled the first name, and as a result of the erratum she was forever after Nellie Bly.
Excerpted from Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman. Copyright © 2013 by Matthew Goodman. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About the Book
A Conversation with Matthew Goodman
Random House Readers Circle: How did the idea for Eighty Days originate?
Matthew Goodman: My previous book, The Sun and the Moon, had featured only male characters, so when I began looking around for a new book topic I knew that I wanted the next one to be about a woman. Then one day, during my book explorations, I stumbled across a reference to Nellie Bly; I recognized that name (in part because there used to be a Nellie Bly Amusement Park not far from where I live in Brooklyn), but I didn’t know much about her beyond the fact that she had been a journalist. I began to read more about her, and as I did, I discovered that she wasn’t just any journalist—she was this amazing journalist, who had feigned madness to expose the inner workings of an insane asylum, and so forth. I mean, in an era when the vast majority of female journalists were writing for the women’s pages of newspapers, she was an undercover investigative reporter for the most widely read newspaper of her time.
So I kept on reading, and when I read about how Nellie Bly had undertaken a race around the world in 1889, I knew right away that this was the story I wanted to tell. I thought it was absolutely remarkable that a young woman, 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, during the Victorian era—and do it faster than anyone ever had before her. (Frankly, I found it almost equally remarkable that no one had written a book about the race before.) I was thrilled to have found such a compelling main character, but as a writer, I was also thrilled by the prospect of being able to write about all those exotic locales. But then, as I continued my research, I discovered something even more astonishing: that in fact Nellie Bly was competing against another young female journalist, by the name of 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.
RHRC: What was the most fun in writing the story of this incredible journey? What do you hope readers take away from the book?
MG: To be honest, I don’t often experience writing as “fun” (usually there’s too much worry, doubt, and plain old hard work wrapped up in it for me to think of it in quite that way!), but certain scenes in Eighty Days were in fact a great deal of fun to write. I loved writing the story of Elizabeth Bisland’s wild train ride across Utah with Cyclone Bill Downing, for instance; and the scene where Nellie Bly gets to meet Jules and Honorine Verne in their Amiens estate was really fun, because they were all having so much fun with each other. And I took a lot of satisfaction from the pages that described the stokers shoveling coal down in their sweltering fire room; that was a section that I knew I wanted to write from the very beginning, because it was material that I felt very strongly about and hadn’t ever seen described in quite that way before.
Much of the fun that I had with Eighty Days came from the research for the book, from discovering things that I hadn’t known before (who could have ever guessed that Wisconsin used to have thirty-eight time zones?) and which I felt confident would help to make a better story. As you would expect, a lot of this research involved the lives of the two main characters, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, both of which proved to be more complicated and surprising than I had originally anticipated. Lots had already been written about Nellie Bly, of course—much of it, as it turns out, not entirely accurate—but very little was known about Elizabeth Bisland (no one had ever written a book about her before), and I very much enjoyed the process of ferreting out old books and other documents that contained odd bits of information that could add a piece to the puzzle, and help me come to know her across the decades. After the book was published I got an e-mail from Elizabeth Bisland’s grandnephew that said, in part, “Thank you so much for sharing Elizabeth with the public, since she was indeed so reticent to do that herself.” I found that incredibly gratifying.
And I guess—and this is a long way around to answering your question—what I most hope that readers take away from this book is a deeper understanding of these two remarkable women. Though they were very different from each other in many ways, they were both independent and committed to their work, and they were able to support themselves as writers at a time when that was very unusual for women. If by writing Eighty Days I can introduce a new generation of readers to Elizabeth Bisland, and reintroduce them to Nellie Bly, then I’ll be very pleased.
RHRC: As you unraveled their story, did you find yourself relating to (or rooting for!) either woman in particular?
MG: This is actually a question I hear a lot from readers—who was I rooting for to win the race? The thing is, unlike readers (or most of them, anyway), I knew right from the beginning who had won! So for me, it wasn’t really a question of rooting for either Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland to win the race; rather, when I began work on the book I was rooting for them to turn out to be characters as complex and as compelling as possible. And in that respect, both women ably fulfilled my wishes for them.
As I’ve met readers, at book events and so forth, it’s been enjoyable for me to hear about how some of them were rooting for Nellie Bly while others were rooting for Elizabeth Bisland. That’s very much what I wanted for Eighty Days; I certainly didn’t want to be writing a book about a race between a hero and a villain—then you’re verging on melodrama—or even a book in which one of the characters is clearly more sympathetic or more interesting than the other. So I’ve been pleased to discover that the audience’s sympathies have been pretty well divided. I think that’s because each woman had certain admirable qualities that the other tended not to have. Nellie Bly was physically courageous (her stint inside the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum made that very clear), independent, ambitious, socially concerned, and fully determined that as a female journalist she could do anything her male colleagues did; Elizabeth Bisland was erudite (the number of subjects about which she could write intelligently was truly astonishing), artistically inclined, sensitive, deeply curious about the world and its inhabitants. And they each had a number of flaws as well—among those flaws, certainly, a kind of reflexive, unconscious racism that was pretty endemic in the society of the time. So I think that a reader will tend to like one or the other woman depending on the particular set of qualities he or she tends to prefer generally.
RHRC: What was your research process like in preparing to write Eighty Days?
MG: I spent eighteen months basically living in libraries before I wrote a single sentence of Eighty Days. In writing this book I wanted readers not just to know what had happened during the race, but to experience it as well—to feel like they were right there with Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland on the back of a rickshaw, or in the stateroom of a steamship during a storm, or walking along the Tanks in Aden in the moonlight. I needed the world in which they were living to be as vivid as possible in my mind, so that I could make it as vivid as possible on the page.
Not surprisingly, the first thing I did was to read the books that the two women wrote about the race: Nellie Bly’s Around the World in Seventy-two Days and Elizabeth Bisland’s A Flying Trip Around the World. It was a great boon to me that each wrote a book about the race, not only because it allowed me to hear their respective voices, but also because it gave me access to their internal worlds as well as the external world through which they were racing. From there I read everything else that they had ever written, or at least everything that I could get my hands on—books, essays, articles, reviews; this helped me to gain a clearer sense of what they cared about, how they thought, how they changed over the course of their lives. I immersed myself in the newspapers of the time. (Interestingly, I found that the most useful parts of the newspapers were not the news sections, but rather the advertisements. Advertisements, after all, give a sense of the daily life of a society—they tell what people ate and wore, and what they read and how they furnished their house; they tell how much commodities cost; they tell the kinds of things people liked to do in their spare time.) I read biographies of the other significant characters in the book, such as Jules Verne and Joseph Pulitzer; I read everything I could about all the places that the two women visited during the race, including other travelers’ accounts, histories, guidebooks. Guidebooks are especially helpful, because they’re designed to acquaint the traveler with an unfamiliar destination—and a historian is very much like a traveler, except that you’re journeying through time as well as space.
RHRC: This is your third book. Was the experience of writing Eighty Days new or different in any way? Did it present more of a challenge?
MG: Well, my first book was a cookbook, so that doesn’t count—there wasn’t much in the way of recipe testing that I had to do for Eighty Days. But my second book, The Sun and the Moon, was a narrative history as well, and that book presented its own unique challenges, because it was the first full-scale work of history that I had ever written, and I was sort of teaching myself how to do it as I went along. With Eighty Days I had a clearer understanding at the very beginning of how to write a book like this: how best to conduct research, how to structure a narrative, and so forth.
The Sun and the Moon was set a bit further back in time than Eighty Days—it tells the true story of a newspaper hoax in the year 1835, in which The Sun convinced New Yorkers that life had been discovered on the moon—and there was much less available material, especially about the author of the hoax stories, Richard Adams Locke. (It’s frankly a bit disconcerting to a narrative historian when other historical accounts always refer to your main character as “enigmatic.”) There was much more to work with for Eighty Days (even about Elizabeth Bisland, about whom not very much had been written), which in turn entailed more research, more decisions about what to keep in and what to leave out, and that sort of thing. But ultimately I found it a great boon, because it meant that I had access to enough historical detail to make Eighty Days even more novelistic in style than The Sun and the Moon had been, which is what I wanted.
For me, the central challenge with Eighty Days was not so much in writing about two female protagonists (as I had initially anticipated), but rather in finding the right structure for the book. The fact that the two women were racing in opposite directions was helpful, because it meant that while one was in London, say, the other was in San Francisco—so they weren’t constantly seeing the same places at the same time, which might have gotten tedious. But there was still the question of how to handle the sections of the race where not much was going on, like during a long ocean voyage or an extended stay in a particular location. So rather than have the book just be a kind of travelogue—this happened, then that happened—I found that I could use those sections as a kind of stepping-off place to explore larger historical questions naturally raised by that section of the race itself. So, for instance, Elizabeth Bisland’s train trip across the American West provided an opportunity to discuss the power of the railroads at the time, while Nellie Bly’s voyage across the Pacific led naturally into a discussion of the horrendous working conditions endured by the stokers who were shoveling the coal that allowed her steamship to go as fast as it did. What I was trying to create was almost a kind of symphonic structure, where the two central themes (the women’s narratives) were occasionally broken up by slower, more reflective passages that provide a bit of breathing room. Ultimately, I thought, this would both tell a more complete story and produce a more satisfying experience for the reader.
RHRC: Aside from Nellie Bly or Elizabeth Bisland, who among the characters in Eighty Days would you have most liked to meet?
MG: Well, as your question indicates, I’d of course most like to have met Bly and Bisland. After spending years thinking so intently about some historical figure, you can’t help but wish that you could somehow meet that person in real life: hear her actual voice, watch her gestures, listen to her talk about subjects beyond those in the materials you’ve already read. It’s a kind of perpetually unfulfilled longing, and one that I’d guess is shared by pretty much any historian. Beyond those two, though, my research for Eighty Days leads me to think that Joseph Pulitzer would have made a pretty fascinating dinner companion. He adored the novels of George Eliot, read widely in history, was interested in all the current political debates, loved music and the arts, and could recite long passages of his favorite works from memory. Plus, he had a yacht.
RHRC: Nellie Bly carried only a single handbag for her trip around the world. How would you pack for such a trip? What would you consider the essentials to be brought along?
MG: I have to say, every time I packed a bag in preparation for an Eighty Days book event, and then schlepped it aboard a plane or train, I thought about Nellie Bly! Invariably, even if I were going only for a single night, my bag would be far larger than the one Bly brought along for a trip lasting two and a half months. (By the way, Bly’s leather gripsack—the actual one that she brought with her on the race around the world—is on display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. I’ve seen it, and I found it incredibly moving and poignant; that bag is tiny.) So I’m hardly a model of Blylike efficient packing. But if I could take only a single bag for a trip around the world (assuming that it’s a trip of some duration, involving some sightseeing in various cities along the way), I think I’d be sure to bring along an extra pair of comfortable walking shoes, a pair of khakis, and a lightweight sports jacket that could be rolled up in the bag. And while I only ever read printed books—that’s just my preference—I think that for a trip around the world I’d probably spring for an e-reader of some sort. You can read a lot of books while you’re traveling around the world, and I’d just as soon not have them weighing down the bag—the ones I love I’d buy in hard copy upon my return.
RHRC: What’s the longest journey you’ve ever taken?
MG: Many years ago I was fortunate enough to be part of an American delegation invited to China by the Chinese government. We spent a couple of weeks there, visiting Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. (The train on which we traveled from Hangzhou to Shanghai, with its wood paneling and lace curtains and afternoon tea served in porcelain cups, reminds me now of the ones on which Bly and Bisland rode across the United States.) Coming back, we flew from Beijing to San Francisco on China Air. In those days you could still smoke inside a plane—at least you could on China Air—and it seemed that just about everybody on board, other than me, was a smoker. We crossed the Pacific Ocean in a thick blue haze. That was the longest journey I’ve ever taken!
RHRC: Who are your writing influences? What are you currently reading?
MG: To the extent that I have any “training” as a writer, it’s as a fiction writer. (I got an MFA in fiction writing, though now, when I teach, it’s in creative nonfiction.) And even now I still find that I tend to divide my reading up pretty evenly between fiction and nonfiction. For instance, I’ve just finished rereading Janet Malcolm’s books of reportage In the Freud Archives and The Journalist and the Murderer, and before that I read Steven Millhauser’s amazing novel Martin Dressler; and right now on my desk I’ve got Matthew Pearl’s novel The Dante Club, Tony Horwitz’s narrative history Midnight Rising (about John Brown), and Russ & Daughters, a memoir by my buddy, the New York herring maven Mark Russ Federman. So it’s pretty eclectic—though I guess these books do tend to share a sense of engagement with American history and politics, as I hope my own work does as well.
My writing influences also tend to be pretty evenly divided between fiction and nonfiction. Right off the bat I’d mention James Agee’s astonishing and beautiful Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Agee was, as one critic memorably said, “a born, sovereign prince of the English language”); almost anything by Joan Didion (though especially her nonfiction, and perhaps most especially Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her exhilarating takedown of the excesses and false promises of the American Dream); Grace Paley’s wonderfully funny and big-hearted short stories; E. L. Doctorow’s historical novel Ragtime (I learned a great deal from him about the establishment of tone, and how one puts large observations into short sentences); and Robert Caro’s magisterial The Power Broker, which presents the sort of scholarship to which all historians should aspire.
If I had to name just one single book as the most influential to me, though, I think I’d choose a book I first read a long, long time ago: Jean Merrill’s novel for young people The Pushcart War. Set in the then far-off year of 1986, it describes the war between pushcarts and trucks for control of the streets of New York; along the way Merrill creates such unforgettable characters as Maxie Hammerman, the “Pushcart King”; movie star Wenda Gambling; and Mayor Emmet P. Cudd, who in his famous “Peanut Butter Speech” declaimed that as his opponent was against trucks he was against progress, and if he was against progress he might even be against peanut butter. In this book Jean Merrill pulled off the trick of being at once uproariously funny and deeply wise about life in New York. When I was in sixth grade I loved The Pushcart War so much that my wonderful teacher, Maureen Miletta, suggested I adapt it into a play, which my class performed for the entire school; it remains to this day the most unalloyed pleasure I have ever gotten from a piece of writing.
RHRC: What are you working on next?
MG: Tough question! At the moment, I haven’t actually figured out my next book project. I know that I want to do another book of narrative history, like Eighty Days, and it’s been my experience (and this has been confirmed for me by other narrative historians) that finding a book topic is in some ways the hardest, most harrowing part of the entire process. Before anything else, of course, it has to be a great story—something with drama, tension, excitement, what have you—and ideally it’s one that has a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. And it should feature a compelling, fascinating main character or characters, someone who will maintain a reader’s interest over the course of the book. Because I’m telling the story novelistically, with as much richness and vivid detail as possible, there has to be a lot of historical material available on the subject. (Diaries and letters are invaluable for any historian, but especially for the narrative historian.) But even as one requires a lot of available material to tell the story, one also requires a story that hasn’t been told before, or at least not told in this way before—and that’s a tricky combination. And as if that’s not hard enough, I’d also like the story to be about something more than just itself—that is to say, to reveal something larger about the politics or culture of the time.
So that’s what I’m looking for: a story as good as that of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, and that’s a tall order indeed.
1. In the book’s prologue Matthew Goodman writes, “Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were not only racing around the world; they were also racing through the very heart of the Victorian age.” What do you think he meant by this? In what way did Bly and Bisland’s race illustrate some of the larger social issues of the time?
2. In what ways were Elizabeth and Nellie similar, and in what ways were they dissimilar? Did they have differing views of themselves as women, as writers, as Americans? How might this have colored their attitudes about the around-the-world race?
3. Almost every story of the time mentioned the fact that Nellie Bly carried only a single handbag for her trip around the world. How do you think you would pack for such a trip? What would you consider the essentials to bring along?
4. How might other female journalists of the time have viewed Bly and Bisland’s race around the world? Do you think they would have been supportive or critical?
5. Throughout the book Goodman intersperses the narrative of the race with discussions of historical issues—such as the hardships faced by women journalists, the power of the railroads, and the working conditions of stokers on the steamships. Why do you think he did this? Did you feel that this added to or detracted from the book as a whole?
6. Did you find yourself rooting for one of the women to win the race? Which of the women would you rather have as a traveling companion? In what ways would you say each of the women changed over the course of the race?
7. How do you think that Nellie Bly’s difficult childhood might have helped to shape some of the choices she made as an adult?
8. Eighty Days is an example of the genre called “narrative history”—that is to say, a work of history that adopts some of the techniques generally associated with fiction writing. In what ways does this book read like a novel? How was Matthew Goodman able to accomplish this? Did you ever find yourself momentarily forgetting that it was a true story?
9. Visiting the Tanks of Aden in the moonlight, Elizabeth Bisland has a profound moment in which she comes to understand what the trip has given her: “the vividness of a new world, where one was for the first time, as Tennyson had written, Lord of the senses five, where the light of night and day had a new meaning, where years of indifference could fall away like a dried-up husk and every sense respond with the keenness of faculties newborn.” Have you ever had an experience like that while traveling? Which of the places described in the book would you most like to visit?
10. The very first story that Bly proposed to The World was to sail across the Atlantic in steerage, so that she could report firsthand on the conditions endured by the passengers there. Yet during her around-the-world race, when she had the opportunity, she did not write about steerage passengers. Why do you think this was? Do you think that she had changed as a journalist, and if so, in what ways?
11. Might Eighty Days be viewed as a kind of cautionary tale about celebrity? How so?
12. The book’s epilogue describes the very different lives led by Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland in the decades after the race. Were you surprised by the way that things turned out for them? Why or why not? How would you answer the question posed about Nellie Bly at the end of the final chapter: “She had outraced Elizabeth Bisland; but now, looking back, it was not entirely clear which of them had won.”
13. The story told in Eighty Days took place more than 120 years ago. An around-the-world trip that once required two and a half months to complete could be accomplished today in a matter of days. Are there other ways in which society has changed far less dramatically since 1889?