On November 14, 1889, Nelly Bly, reporter for the popular newspaper The World, sailed from New York on the trip that would make her famous: an attempt to travel around the world in less than eighty days. Eight and a half hours later, unknown to Bly, the literary editor of the monthly magazine, The Cosmopolitan, boarded a westbound train in a reluctant and largely forgotten attempt to beat Bly around the world. Matthew Goodman tells their story in Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World.
Goodman emphasizes both the differences and the surprising similarities between the brash investigative reporter from a Pennsylvania coal town and the southern lady who educated herself in a ruined plantation’s library. Alternating between their experiences, he contrasts their reactions to publicity, their fellow travelers (especially the British), and the new cultures they encounter. Even knowing that Bly will win, the race is a page-turner, complete with storms at sea, damaged ships, nearly missed connections, the kindness of strangers, and a hair-raising train ride through western mountains.
Although the race is engaging in its own right, Eighty Days is more than an adventure story. Goodman does not limit himself to a step-by-step narrative of his heroines’ travels. Instead he uses the race to illustrate the social impact of new modes of transportation, a growing popular press, and new opportunities for women. The result is a social history of America on the verge of modernity.
This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.