Was Nellie Bly the Great American Journalist?


As a friend wrote on Twitter this morning: why hasn’t there been a biopic about the fascinating life of Nelly Bly yet? A pioneering female journalist at a time when women were relegated to the lifestyle section, Elizabeth Jane Cochran, writing under the pen name “Nellie Bly,” pulled off stunt journalism that entranced America and had its part in shifting the world a bit.

She got her start writing an indignant reply to a column called “What Girls Are Good For” in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. From there, she was hired full-time at the newspaper, following the plight of the factory woman. Avoiding all attempts to be shunted into the “women’s papers,” she moved to Mexico at 21 to be a foreign correspondent. In New York City at 23, she made her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer and got a job at the New York World. She went undercover in a mental institution and wrote an exposé about the experience, and then, in a beautiful newspaper-stunt answer to Jules Vernes’ Around the World in 80 Days, she tried (and succeeded), alongside a rival newspaper’s girl reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, in beating that record in a race against time. (For more about Bly and Bisland’s race, with a sharp, relevant look at the state of the newspaper business, read Matthew Goodman’s wonderful book from last year, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World.)

Those two stunts are how Bly made her name and legend, but she kept going. She married a rich industrialist and ended up running his whole company. She continued to write for newspapers, covering World War I (with much controversy) and penning agony aunt columns, where she worked to find homes for foundling babies (after all, Bly started as an “orphan girl”).

Hell of a life, right? So why is Nellie Bly’s reputation such that people have to seek her out, that we don’t read her words today? This year marks the 150th anniversary of Bly’s birth, and to celebrate it, the first complete collection of Bly’s writing has been released by Penguin. Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings spans Bly’s whole career — including a wonderful interview with Susan B. Anthony — and the weirdly striking thing about her work is that — and I hate to write this — she sounds a bit like a blogger.

Here’s why: In Joseph Pulitzer’s day, people read the newspaper for information, sure, but they also wanted perspective and a point of view. Objective journalism wasn’t an idea that came into vogue in American newspapers until about the 1890s, and Bly made her name writing personal, very subjective pieces about her life and her experience. That perspective made her advocacy work, and her “Ten Days in a Mad-House” reads like a good thriller — surprising and moving. She makes the point that the asylum is not just a place for the insane: women are also put there when they have no options. “Having some family trouble and being penniless and nowhere to go,” she writes, “I applied to the Commissoners to be sent to the poorhouse until I would be able to go to work… then I believed them when they told me that this was the place they sent all the poor who applied for aid as I had done.”

This frankness didn’t translate to Bly’s reportage around the world, however. The world is a great big place, and she was focused on winning the race, writing observations that are small-minded and racist. (Another reason Goodman’s book about the race is great: it puts every piece of writing in context.) But it is marvelous to read and to see the span and scope of Bly’s writing, as it still feels very contemporary and current, like a friend telling you stories that you need — no, you must — hear.