I have to admit that whenever I begin to think of newspaper reportage, my mind dwells on filmed depictions of a raucous, fast-paced, and aggressive vocation. Images that exist mainly in old Hollywood films of the 1930s, ‘40s, and 50s (His Girl Friday, Citizen Kane, and While the City Sleeps usually come to mind). Although this content was often merely a backdrop from which to express more completely realized romantic or comedic themes, these characterizations have endured and with them the romanticization of the newspaper-man or woman, a fast-talking, no-nonsense journalist with ingenuity and resourcefulness, who is dedicated to capturing the essence of a story, even if that involves a modicum of embellishment and financial inducement. These accounts grasp at an image ingrained within our culture and through which I was fueled to seek out accounts about and by journalists of the past that take on various issues, such as war, suffrage, the labor movement, and various other political and social issues. I was struck by Nellie Bly for numerous reasons, one of which being her desire to distinguish herself within the fiercely male dominated sphere of journalism in a very male dominated era (later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). This desire can be seen to manifest itself in various feats of physical and mental endurance that Bly embarked upon which attest to what the body is able to tolerate, specifically the female body, and specifically Bly. Bly was asserted her capability in various daring feats that differentiated her from the men on her own terms. In such a fashion, Bly published “Around the World in Seventy-Two Days” and “Into the Madhouse”. With the former, Bly wrote a series of articles as she set out to circumnavigate the globe in less time than it took in Jules Verne’s famous Around the World in Eighty Days. In the latter, Bly had herself admitted anonymously to the mental institution on Blackwell’s Island for a piece of investigative journalism that revealed the mistreatment rampant in mental institutions during the period. Additionally, Bly wrote numerous articles that detailed the female experience in late nineteenth century America and the desire for political and social equity.
Nellie Bly began her foray into journalism in the 1880s with this in mind. Her first piece was a letter in vehement denunciation of an advice columnist who assured an anxious male reader that a woman’s only proper occupation was a domestic one. Bly, much as she would come to do throughout her career, challenged the subjugation of women to dominant cultural notions, including the cult of femininity (a kind of social indoctrination in the early 1800s by which feminine and masculine spheres of interest, society, and acceptability were first delineated). Bly went on to engage in the kinds of daring journalistic pursuits mentioned above, as well as focusing on issues such as women in politics and interviewing Susan B. Anthony, one of the foremost leaders of the Suffrage movement.
Further challenging conceptions of what women were capable of, Bly became a World War I correspondent. From the Austrian front, Bly detailed her experiences of trench warfare and its barbarity, as well as the horrors of wartime hospitals. She condemned rulers who would resort to such measures and saw the whole affair as a violent and futile one. She held strong anti-war sentiments and it manifested in her evocative writing.
Bly’s trip around the world caused a newspaper sensation and was partially conceived with that in mind. Public support was enormous and can be seen as a signal that her endeavor was an inspiration, an example of extreme physical endurance showcasing what the body is capable of. Indicated by the raucous crowds that met her and are described in detail on the last leg of her journey through the United States and into New York, she herself epitomized a kind of tenacity. She inspired and as such the public was able to live vicariously through her and even, possibly, find motivation for their own personal adventures. She was the adventurer so revered in American mythology and as she had no escort or assistant, rare for a woman in that period, she was a symbol of female independence, accomplishment, and daring.