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Nellie Bly's Book: Around the World in 72…

Nellie Bly's Book: Around the World in 72 Days

by Nellie Bly, Ira Peck (Editor)

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This Lakeside Press edition has taken the stories of two intrepid 19th century lady journalists and woven them together. In a real life effort to emulate Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, Bisland and Bly were sent by their newspapers around the world in opposite directions, one going east and one going west. They reported back on their observations and adventures to an enthralled public. Bly had proposed the idea to her editor a year before and thought it had been dropped. Unbeknownst to her, the machinations of the competitive journalism world were working in the background to turn it into a competition. She had no notion that she was racing against Bisland until she had already reached Hong Kong and was warned that she was behind and going to lose the race. As Bly is remembered and Bisland is not, you can guess how the race ended. Their observations are particularly astute. The casual racism, poverty and excess they noted shows how much the world has changed and how much it hasn't. ( )
  varielle | Jul 25, 2016 |
This is an abridged version of Bly’s book about her trip in 1889-1890, but it’s a decent length at 117 pages and definitely worth reading, since the full version is so hard to locate. It’s lively, and even though the necessity for speed made some sections of it – especially about Europe where transportation was more efficient – unavoidably brief, there’s still plenty of fascinating descriptions in it.

I’ve quite enjoyed the author’s personable tone. For instance, she writes about the necessity to get up early enough to make it for the 9:40 ship out of New York: “Those who think that night is the best part of the day and that morning was made for sleep, know how uncomfortable they feel when for some reason they have to get up with – well, with the milkman…. I thought lazily that if some of those good people who spend so much time trying to invent flying machines would only devote a little of that same energy towards promoting a system by which boats and trains would always make their start at noon or afterwards, they would be of greater assistance to suffering humanity.” Sure, it’s not a practical proposal, and anyway most people don’t travel so often as to make it so much of an inconvenience to humanity, but for someone whose organism operates on the same schedule as Bly’s it’s gratifying to see somebody describe one’s discomfort with the way the world generally operates as perfectly natural and reasonable.

Bly’s book provides a window into a world of long ago in ways not covered in history books. For instance, she mentions how, when she wanted to send a telegram to New York from Italy, the operator asked her where New York is. And when she was onboard of a ship bound for Sri Lanka, the British passengers asked her what the American flag looked like. Freezing on an overnight train ride through Italy, Bly envied the people who had taken this trip the previous week and had been attacked by bandits, which must have helped “to make their blood circulate.” But improving technology was already helping make the world safer, and Bly lamented that the pirates who used to ply the seas around the Straits of Malacca were no longer there to enliven the tedium of the sea voyage.

Her other descriptions, on the other hand, proved surprisingly contemporary. For instance, she mentions how a priest at a Buddhist college in Sri Lanka told her that he received hundreds of letters from the USA every year and that they found more converts there than anywhere else. Bly also noted repeatedly how the USA stood out in not allowing people to smoke in confined public spaces, such as trains – but back then it was out of consideration for women rather than out of health concerns.

There were places, however, when her references to the common knowledge of her day were lost on me, and the editor, usually generous with footnotes, didn’t provide any on these occasions. For example, when Bly was in London, the correspondent for her newspaper there asked her how she found London streets in comparison with New York. “‘They are not bad,’ I said with a patronizing air, thinking shamefacedly of the dreadful streets of New York, although determined to hear no word against them.” I wonder what was so dreadful about the New York streets of the time, compared to those of London. On another occasion, when Bly wasn’t allowed to enter a Hindu temple in Singapore because she was a woman, she was “curious to know why my sex in heathen lands should exclude me from a temple, as in America it confines me to the side entrances of hotels and other strange things.” I found it extremely strange indeed that a woman in America couldn’t use a hotel’s main entrance and wondered what other strange things Bly may have been referring to.

Nellie Bly had made an excellent observer: curios, indefatigable (she chose to leave the ship for an excursion in Yemen despite the 100 degrees heat) and unbiased. For example, although she was clearly patriotic and considered republic the best form of government, she admitted that the British passengers' loyalty to their queen (Victoria) had won her admiration, and even added that she experienced "a shamed feeling that there I was, a free-born American girl, a native of the grandest country on earth, forced to be silent because I could not in honesty speak proudly of the rulers of my land, unless I went back to those two kings of manhood, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln" - about whom she most likely could only know from the deifying sort of books, I suspect. This makes one see the advantage of having a ceremonial head of state not involved in politics or any actual governing to whom everybody can relate as a symbol of the country, although Bly doesn't make this distinction about the position of a ceremonial versus an actual head of state. Her favorite country of all she’d seen on her trip was Japan of which she wrote in part:

"The Japanese are very progressive people. They cling to their religion and their modes of life, which are in many ways superior to ours, but they readily adopt any trade or habit that is an improvement on their own. Finding the European male attire more serviceable than their native dress, in some cases they promptly adopted it. The women tested the European dress, and finding it barbarously uncomfortable and inartistic, went back to their exquisite kimonos…. It is true that a little while ago the Japanese were totally ignorant of modern conveniences…. They sent to other countries for men who understood the secret of such things, and at fabulous prices and under contracts of three, five, and occasionally ten years’ duration brought them to their land… and with them toiled steadily and watchfully the cleverest of Japanese. When the contract is up, it is no longer necessary to fill the coffers of a foreigner. The employee is released, and their own man, fully qualified for the work, steps into the position."

However, Bly didn't shy from describing something she couldn’t approve of, although she mostly let her descriptions stand for themselves. For instance, not satisfied with seeing Hong Kong - “the British China,” she went to the mainland to see the “real” China, where she described the execution ground where the earth was red from the blood of the eleven men beheaded there the day before her visit:

"The guide also told us that in one year, 1855, over 55,000 rebels were beheaded in this narrow valley. While he was talking, I noticed some roughly-fashioned wooden crosses leaned up against the high wall…. I asked Ah Cum [the guide] about them. A shiver waggled down my spinal cord when he answered: 'When women are condemned to death in China they are bound to wooden crosses and cut to pieces. Men are beheaded with one clean stroke unless they are the worst kind of criminals…. Then they are given the death of a woman to make it more discreditable.'”

However, Bly added, “if a man of wealth is condemned to death in China, he can with little effort buy a substitute.”

She followed Phileas Fogg’s route, with one exception: she stopped at Sri Lanka instead of going through India. When Jules Verne whom she’d made a special detour to see, asked her why she didn’t go to Bombay like his hero, she replied, “Because I’m more anxious to save time than a young widow.” Unlike Fogg, she also didn’t have a bag full of cash to bribe owners and captains of ships, hire personal transportation and smooth her way in general, as did her rival started by another newspaper on the same day unbeknownst to Bly till mid-voyage (Bly won anyway). However, there was one instance when her newspaper did intercede on her behalf: when Bly arrived in San Francisco, she found that it had hired a special train for her to take her across the western states via a more southerly route because heavy snow had blockaded the regular train’s route through Sierra Nevada, and that a host of customs and quarantine officials had sat up all night, presumably on their own initiative, so that there’d be no delay in her transfer from the ship to the train. Huge welcoming crowds met her all along her route to New York, but in one respect her trip across America eerily resembled Fogg’s: at one point her train ran across a bridge which was held in place only by jackscrews and fell the moment the train had passed it.

On the whole, I've found this a very enjoyable and interesting book. ( )
  Ella_Jill | Sep 1, 2011 |
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Nellie Blyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Peck, IraEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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Famous woman journalist tries to make a trip around the world in less than eighty days in the late nineteenth century.

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