I want to start by saying that I really enjoyed reading Nellie Bly’s book Around the World in 72 Days. I fear that my review may imply otherwise, so I want to be upfront up front.
In 1888, the then 23-year-old journalist Nellie Bly convinced her editors that it was possible to break Phileas Fogg’s fictional 80-day record and that she was the reporter to do it. They agreed and put her on the next boat for England.
The newspaper accounts of her journey made her so famous that crowds of people greeted her when she arrived in San Francisco and at each small town where her special train stopped between the west coast and Chicago. The final leg of her journey from Chicago to New York was one step above coach.
I picked up this volume of Nellie Bly’s work based on a review I either read or heard, I can remember which, a while ago which described her writing as basically a blog. Informal, concerned with minutia, opinionated, personal. This is true for the outset. After getting the assignment to travel round the world, her first subject is what and how to pack. She has just over a day to prepare so there won’t be much time for shopping. Here’s how to pack for an around the world trip against the clock:
I bought one hand-bag with the determiniation to confine my baggage to its limit.
Packing that bag was the most difficult undertaking of my life; there was so much to go into such little space.
I got everything i it at last except the extra dress. Then the question resolved itself into this: I must either add a parcel to my baggage or go around the world in and with one dress. I always hated parcels so I sacrificed the dress, but I brought out a last summer’s silk bodice and after considerable squeezing managed to crush it into the hand-bag.
But hers is not a hardship journey, not really. There are a few bad vacation moments, ones that would forever put me off a certain shipping line, but for the most part she travels in decent to fine style.
Like a good blogger, she makes an extended visit to a major celebrity along the way, Jules Verne himself, who is quite charming and more than happy to show her the room where he writes.
The room was very small; even my litle den at home was almost as large. It was also very modest and bare. Before the window was a flat-topped desk. The usual litter that accopanies and fills the desks of most literary persons was conspicuously absent, and the waste-basket that is usually filled to overflowing with what one very often considers their most brilliant productions, in this case held but a few little scraps.
Other than this stop, and a few others, Ms. Bly is much more interested in more extreme sightseeing. She visits the execution grounds in China where she sees the aftermath of the previous days beheadings. She goes to a crematorium in Japan. Visits several unsavory markets and salons and a leper colony. All of which struck me as something an adventurous girl travelling alone in 18– would do, especially one seeking material for her articles. Most of it was interesting reading some 140 years later.
As you will find with just about all 19th century writing, Nellie Bly’s book contains an unfortuante level of racism. Here she is on the difference between the Japanese and the Chinese:
The Japanese are the direct opposite to the Chinese. The Japanese are the cleanist people on earth, the Chinese are the fithiest; the Japanese are always happy and cheerful, the Chinese are always grumpy and morose; the Japanese are the most graceful of people, the Chinese the most awkward; the Japanese have few vices, the Chinese have all the ices in the world; in short, the Japanese are the most delightful of people, the Chinese the most disagreeable.
Ms. Bly is writing at the time of great anti-Chinese hysteria in America. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed just six years before her 72 day journey in 1882. And this passage is really no worse than the anti-Irish portions of Mark Twains Innocent’s Abroad. Even Fredrick Douglas expressed anti-Chinese views. I don’t offer this as an excuse for Nellie Bly’s racism–I’m not one to let people off the hook because they are men or women of their times. They should have known better. And we should not forget just how bad the situation was.
Nellie Bly retired from journalism after marrying an industrialist millionaire some 40 years her senior. She spent the rest of her life running his manufacturing plants and doing charity work. Her life is quite a story. Someone should write a book about it.
If you only read one book by Nellie Bly, and let’s face it, chances are you’ll only read one if you read any, you should read Ten Days in the Mad House instead of this one. This one is good, but it’s Ten Days in the Mad House that put Nellie Bly on the map and impressed me much more than this 72 day journey.
Even if Nellie Bly was the first person to break Phileas Fogg’s record.