Not just a book review, but also the first book I can check off for Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge !
I was already reading this when I saw the list for this year’s Read Harder challenge (about a week ago), so it’s fortunate that it fit so neatly into one of the categories. Specifically, it fits challenge #8: “Read a travel memoir.”
But this isn’t just a travel memoir. Or rather, in addition to Nellie’s account of her race around the world, it also contains a number of her other writings, both pre and post. I don’t want to try giving a full biography (especially since the one in the introduction was rather brief) of her, but I’ll lay out the basics, for those who don’t know who she was.
Nellie Bly (real name Elizabeth Jane Cochran) began her career in journalism somewhat by accident: following a scathingly sexist advice column, she was one of many women who wrote in to the newspaper in protest, but her letter caught the attention of the editor, who asked to meet her, and she was allowed to write up a full response to the column, which was then published in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, January 25, 1885. She was hired on and given both the pen name of Nellie Bly and a “women’s page” beat, which quickly chafed her, so she talked the editor into allowing her to travel to Mexico and send back reports on what life was like there. In the end, Pittsburgh wasn’t working out for her, and she moved to New York to work as a reporter there. She could only get hired by agreeing to spend ten days undercover as a patient at the infamous Blackwell’s Island. She did so, and “stunt journalism” was born, a subsection that would make her famous. By 1888, she had come up with the idea of traveling around the world in an attempt to beat the 80 day record set by Jules Verne’s fictional Englishman, Phileas Fogg. It wasn’t until 1889 that the paper agreed to send her (they wanted to send a man), and she was given only two days to prepare. She not only beat 80 days, but she even beat her own calculated result of 75 days. In the process, she became famous the world over, sold a massive number of newspapers, and yet got neither a bonus nor a raise. That led her to quit and try her hand at fiction, which didn’t pan out for her, and she was soon back in the journalism business, until she got married to a much older man (he was about seventy, while she was thirty), and took over much of the running of his steel business, at which she was skilled. Following his death, things unraveled quickly, and Nellie actually had to flee the country, ending up in Austria days after World War I started. She was the only female journalist reporting from the eastern front, and remained in Austria until the end of the war, which naturally made the authorities a little leery when she finally returned to the US! By then she was broke, and returned to writing, doing a weekly column, which focused back on her journalistic roots, of helping women find work, and finding homes for orphaned/abandoned children.
Well, that turned into a bit more of a biography than I meant for it to. So I’d better move on to the actual review!
The first piece in the book is her original column, “The Girl Puzzle,” in which she lays out clearly, concisely and intelligently all the reasons that women should be allowed to work at more jobs than they were at that time, and points out the shocking disparity in pay between men and women. (Sadly, that part hasn’t changed as much as it should have, more than a hundred years later…)
The next piece is an excerpt from “Nellie in Mexico.” It’s a fascinating glimpse into what Mexico City was like in 1886, albeit a bleak one, since this excerpt is exclusively dedicated to describing the urban poor, rather than the wealthy upper classes.
Third is presented the two parts of her exposé of the horrible conditions on Blackwell’s Island. Everything about this is shocking, from the absurd speed with which she was pronounced insane (and she was acting merely odd, or drug-addled, not insane by any modern perception of the word) to the horrific treatment of the prisoners (there’s not point in pretending they were patients) on the inside. It’s definitely something everyone should read for themselves, though it’s certainly not pleasant reading material.
Two more undercover pieces follow, one in which she spends two weeks working in a box factory (fancy boxes for chocolates, every step done entirely by hand) and one in which she tricks a corrupt lobbyist into exposing his graft. The former was more engaging to me than the latter, personally, but both showed her determination, something that she was (and still is) known for.
The next section of the book is dedicated to her interest in advancing women’s rights: two serious interviews with important women, and a rather fluffy piece about who should propose marriage. (Apparently in the 1880s, women were only permitted to propose during Leap Year. An odd little tidbit of knowledge that, but rather pointless, unless one plans on writing historical fiction set in that era.) The interviews were fascinating, though. The first one is with Belva Lockwood, who was running for president in 1884. The introduction to the interview carefully describes her as “the first woman to appear on official ballots” rather than the first woman to run for president, because whether or not she appeared on official ballots, Victoria Woodhull ran twelve years before she did. Nellie repeatedly asked Lockwood if she thought she stood a chance of winning (implying that Nellie realized it was impossible), and Lockwood always said she did intend and expect to win. (And in the sad reality, she stood no chance, and although she received a few thousand votes in her first candidacy, in 1884, no votes are recorded for her 1888 presidential bid, when Nellie was interviewing her. There may have been some, but they’re not recorded.) The second interview was with Susan B. Anthony, which was altogether fascinating, but the part that stood out the most for me was Anthony’s response when Nellie asked her if she was afraid of death:
“I don’t know anything about Heaven or hell,” she answered, “or whether I will ever meet my friends again or not. But as no particle of matter is ever lost, I have a feeling that no particle of mind is ever lost.
I think that’s a beautiful sentiment, and quite a comforting one.
Then, finally, we get to the title piece, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days. It runs from page 145 to page 281, making up a substantial portion of the book’s length. (It was published as a stand-alone book at the time, and has been reprinted in that way several times.) In addition to Nellie’s own report of her trip are a few interjecting bulletins that were run in her paper (The New York World, published by Joseph Pulitzer), which are interesting but sometimes infuriating for their casual sexism. (For example, when they referred to her as “the plucky little woman” and said that in accomplishing her task “Her grit has been more than masculine.” Which I suppose is technically true: feminine is much more than masculine. Only that wasn’t what they meant.)
Since this is counting as my “travel memoir” for Read Harder, I want to go into even more detail on this part than on the earlier portions of the book. The tale of Nellie’s trip around the world starts out well, fitting neatly in the vein of her other “stunt journalism” pieces: much more focus on herself than there would be in standard reporting (particularly modern reporting) but the same crisp, brisk style that makes her work so easy and pleasant to read. The style never really changes, of course, but as it goes along, it becomes less pleasant to read for other reasons. However, before I get to that point, I want to mention one thing that was really striking: on arriving in England, she was met by one of her paper’s foreign correspondents, and informed that as soon as she crossed the Channel into France, Monsieur Jules Verne and his wife were hoping that she would have time to stop at their home for dinner. She gave up sleep to make the time for the visit. Can’t say I blame her!
It starts to go downhill after she sails from Brindisi, as she starts showing just how much she was a part and product of her era, despite the way she was much more progressive on other issues. Specifically, she has this to say about some of the sailors aboard the boat:
[I sat] in a dark corner on deck, above where the sailors had their food, and listen[ed] to the sounds of a tom-tom and a weird musical chanting that always accompanied their evening meal. The sailors were Lascars. They were not interesting to look at, and doubtless, if I could have seen as well as heard them at their evening meal, it would have lost its charm for me. They were the most untidy looking lot of sailors I ever saw. Over a pair of white muslin drawers they were a long muslin slip very like in shape to the old-time nightshirt. This was tied about the waist with a colored handkerchief, and on their heads they wore gaily colored turbans, which are really nothing but a crown of straw with a scarf-shaped piece of bright cloth, often six feet in length, wound about the head. Their brown feet are always bare. They chant, as all sailors do, when hoisting sails, but otherwise are a grim, surly looking set, climbing about over the ship like a pack of monkeys…
If they looked grim, perhaps it was because all those English (and the occasional American like Nellie) passengers were so racist! That and they undoubtedly were given little pay, and possibly had been given little choice about leaving India to become sailors. What really struck me about this passage, though, was that she starts out by saying how uninteresting these men were to look at, and then she spends several sentences describing their fascinating apparel, which I’m sure was quite interesting to look at. (As, no doubt, were the people wearing it.) Still, at least she didn’t describe them as being “black,” which she used to describe pretty much everyone else, including the Chinese. (Seriously.) Speaking of things that are black, at one point in her journey aboard a ship, some of the passengers decided to put on a blackface minstrel show. While they were sailing off the coast of Africa. And — as the notes pointed out — Nellie didn’t seem aware of the irony (not to mention the offensive nature) of that.
Nellie first encountered what we now call a rickshaw — the name hadn’t yet been Anglicized to that form, and was called a jinricksha — in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), surprisingly enough. After she had talked about being pulled around in one several times, she gave her feelings on that mode of transportation as a whole:
I had a shamed feeling about going around the town drawn by a man, but after I had gone a short way, I decided it was a great improvement on modern means of travel; it was so comforting to have a horse that was able to take care of itself! When we went into the shops it was so agreeable not to have the worry of fearing the horses were not blanketed, and when we made them run we did not have to fear we might urge them into a damaging speed. It is a great relief to have a horse whose tongue can protest.
Yeah. She seems more worried about the horses than the men pulling the rickshaws.
Another appalling moment comes in Penang, Malaysia:
That photographer knew how to use his English to advantage. He showed me cabinet-sized proofs for which he asked one dollar each.
“One dollar!” I exclaimed in astonishment. “That is very high for a proof.”
“If Miss thinks it is too much she does not need to buy. She is the best judge of how much she can afford to spend,” he replied with cool impudence.
“Why are they so expensive?” I asked, nothing daunted by his impertinence.
“I presume because Penang is so far from England,” he rejoined, carelessly.
I don’t know how people read that exchange in 1890, but let me tell you how I read it now. This Malaysian photographer, having had to pay through the nose to obtain supplies from British traders who doubtless weren’t charging him a fair rate, is trying to make a living selling his prints (at least, I assume that’s what she means by “proofs”) and along comes this rude American woman who insists that he’s charging too much. He politely tells her that she doesn’t have to buy it if she doesn’t want to pay the price, and she still objects, as if she’s the one who’s being put upon. I have to presume that she saw it as “impudent” when anyone of non-European ethnicity refused to bow down and do the bidding of every white person they saw.
Already giving America a bad name in a day when it was so little known that an Italian telegraph operator didn’t know where New York was. (Seriously.)
Rather than continue to dwell on these examples of racism (and they pervade a large part of the narrative, I’m sorry to say), I just want to quote one more for its brazenness.
At the door of [the carriage driver’s] home was a monkey. I did resist the temptation to buy a boy at Port Said and also smothered the desire to buy a Singalese girl at Colombo, but when I saw the monkey my willpower melted and I began straightaway to bargain for it. I got it.
A casual suggestion of slavery? That’s all I can read it as — unless one takes it to mean the unlikely and (possibly) even worse meaning of buying them for temporary sexual purposes — and it took me so much by surprise that I had to read it several times to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. I’m not sure what’s worse, the implication that people in Egypt and Sri Lanka were attempting to sell Nellie children, or that she outright admits to having been tempted to buy them. I suppose, in theory, one could try to believe she means “buy to adopt” but given that she was still in her twenties, that seems improbable to me.
Something that struck me as a (non-offensive) difference between then and now is reflected in this passage:
When we landed [in Hong Kong], a man sued the company for getting him in ahead of time. He said he bought his tickets to cover a certain length of time, and if the company got him in before it expired they were responsible for his expenses, and they had to pay his hotel bill.
Nellie seemed to think this was very strange behavior, but in today’s world, it would — I should think — be expected by all that the company would provide accommodation for those unexpected days of stay in port. Whether this man was expecting to catch another ship or planning to stay awhile, the fact is that the ship’s early arrival meant that he had two nights in Hong Kong more than he intended. If he only had enough money to pay for the nights he had already planned for (if any), then how would he pay for those extra nights that he needed shelter for? I doubt “coming in early” is ever a thing anymore in passenger liners, but it’s much the same issue as coming in late: if a plane is so late that passengers miss their connecting flights, the airline makes it their business to get them new flights, and provides them a place to stay in the meantime if necessary. (Or that was the case last time I traveled. Which was, admittedly, in 2008. So maybe that’s changed since then?)
I was decidedly leery when she had a lengthy layover in Yokohama, but it turned out that Nellie absolutely loved the Japanese. Partially due to the fact that Meiji (and later Taisho) Japan made a point of embracing all the foreign technologies and ways that they decided would be useful or could improve on their traditional ways, thus feeding Western arrogance. And arrogance is definitely the word for it.
The food [at the Grand Hotel in Yokohama] is splendid and the service excellent. The “Japs,” noiseless, swift, anxious to please, stand at the head of all the servants I encountered from New York to New York; and then they look so neat in their blue tights and white linen jackets.
She may have thought that Japanese men “do not go far as we judge manly beauty, being undersized, dark and far from prepossessing,” but she thought they made great servants. Pardon me while I bash my head into a wall for a few minutes.
Oh, and one of her fellow tourists, on seeing the fifty foot Buddha in Kamakura, offered to buy it for $50,000. Even in 1890, that’s an insulting offer! Fifty feet tall and nearly 750 years old (at that time), a national treasure, and he wanted to buy it? Ugh. (Also, Nellie insisted on calling it the Diabutsu, instead of the Daibatsu.)
Once she got back to America, the racism went away in favor of an account that felt like “everybody in the whole country is throwing me a parade!” The worst part about the ending, to my mind, is that when she reached Hong Kong she first learned that a competing publication (a magazine called Cosmopolitan, but probably bearing little to no resemblance to the modern magazine by that name) had sent out another woman, going in the opposite direction, trying to beat Nellie back to New York. The man in Hong Kong who told her about it said he believed the other woman would win the race, but since Nellie saw her race as exclusively being a race against time, she didn’t care in the slightest. But she never follows up on that story, never tells you when the other woman got back to New York, or even who she was or who she worked for. The book’s introduction does mention that the other woman, Elizabeth Bisland, did not beat Nellie back, but that’s all we’re told. At some point, I’m going to have to look up Bisland’s story and find out what her trip was like. (Probably very depressing, as everyone gave all their attention and love to Nellie.)
While Around the World in Seventy-Two Days is quite lengthy, it’s nowhere near lengthy enough. Nellie doesn’t spend enough time telling us about the foreign ports and people; she spends as much time — if not more — talking about her fellow passengers on the ships and trains. While it’s certainly interesting that one guy started talking about taking her in his arms and jumping off the ship to drown them both, it’s hardly as interesting as a more complete picture of these distant ports in 1889/1890 would have been. As the modern introductory material points out, Nellie takes no interest in the hardships suffered by the locals who have to stock the coal (and in fact becomes annoyed when her ship is delayed because some of the locals took too long getting off the ship after having lugged all that coal on board, seeming to think that it would have been more reasonable of them to be away from home for weeks going to a distant port rather than delay the passengers by an hour or two so they could get off the ship and stay at home) and has no interest in local customs as anything but quaint curiosities. The tantalizing glimpses of non-European ports of call in a day when Europeans (and Americans) were trampling over the rest of the world as if it was their property and not preserving what they were destroying…they’re more frustrating than anything else, for their lack of understanding and detail. But maybe someone without anthropological training would find it less frustrating? (No, probably not…)
Anyway, after the whirlwind tour of the world, what could follow it up? Well, in this book, World War I. Anyone who thinks war is a good thing should read what Nellie had to say about seeing the suffering and death up close and in person. I know war is different now than it was in 1914, but not different enough.
The last piece is from her last years, two sections of her column after she became known for helping people out, and especially for helping find homes for children in need of them. The first is about finding a home for a child, and the second a failure to help a young woman who was seeking her aid. The most striking part of the latter was this passage from the young woman:
Would you care to know what I dream about? It’s just a woman friend. I am sixteen years old and in all my life have never been kissed by a woman.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but was she really looked just for a friend, or something more? Kissing people on the cheeks in greeting was not an American custom at this time (Nellie felt awkward about the gesture with Mme. Verne) so the mention of kissing feels odd here. But maybe that’s just me. The problem about both of these last pieces is that there’s no way of finding out what happened to the people in question. Nellie doesn’t provide the name of the man who adopted the little boy in the first one, and didn’t even know the name of the girl in the second one. An odd thing to say about events almost a hundred years ago, but I felt worried about them as I was reading it.
Anyway, there you have it. My disjointed and all too long reaction to Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings.
The next book report will come swiftly, as the next Read Harder book is going to be for challenge #18. That’s going to be followed by #20, because I’d already ordered something from Amazon that’s going to fit the bill perfectly, and it just arrived today.
If I end up finishing the 2017 challenge early (which will depend on what class is like and if I end up dropping it because it looks horrible), I may try doing the earlier challenges as well.