Around the World in 72 Days: The Audacious Adventures of Nellie Bly

Around the World in 72 Days: The Audacious Adventures of Nellie Bly, 2006)
About midway through this appealing, if tightly focused, PBS American Experience episode, Catherine Robe points out that, “Always, the main character in any Nellie Bly story is Nellie Bly herself, and she was very much a character.”

This video biography, playing that theme consistently, in the process helps viewers who might have only a general sense of women journalists in the late nineteenth century, or none at all. The production presents an array of artifacts and images, from period photographs (including many of Bly herself at various stages of her life), drawings, and maps, as a nearly constant moving camera that pans and zooms and tilts over still documents in ways popularized by Ken Burns and others. It also employs enjoyable uses of sound and visual effects.

The program also presents an eclectic roster of astute commentators: New York University professor and author Brooke Kroeger, Bly’s biographer, is the episode’s principal consultant, joined by such authorities as NYU colleague Mitchell Stephens, the news historian; Harvard historian Ellen Fitzpatrick; writer and National Public Radio Fresh Air review Maureen Corrigan; actress Muriel Nussbaum, who created a one-woman play about Bly; historical novelist Caleb Carr; and Robe, whose honored Harvard thesis was, “On the World’s Stage: Nellie Bly and Nineteenth-Century Stunt Reporting.”

“Around the World in 72 Days” does not concentrate only on that famous trip in 1889-1890, and the resulting celebrity it brought for Bly (Robe: “She was an advertiser’s dream because everyone recognized her name and assumed that if her name, Nellie Bly, was connected with something, it would sell.

While other women “stunt” journalists are mentioned, such as Meg Merrilies, there is no mention of the fact that one 1889 issue of the Journalist was devoted entirely to female news people, highlighting some fifty around the nation, including ten African-Americans. In addition, the 1900 U. S. Census reported more than 2,000 women reporters and editors (about 8 percent of the total journalists recorded), nearly tenfold the number for 1880.

The documentary includes those kinds of fascinating “footnotes” that make history so enjoyable for popular audiences (and for professional historians, too) – the fact that Bly risked losing precious time on her global trip in order to have tea with Jules Verne, who proudly explained that he was keeping track of Nellie’s trip by making notations on a map of the fictional Phileas Fogg’s journey, or the irony that while Bly easily convinced a judge to order her to Blackwell’s Island based on just a few rantings and acts of unstable behavior as the “mysterious Nellie Brown,” more than a week later she found it impossible to convince doctors she actually was sane so that she could leave the asylum (the World’s attorney got her released after ten days).

The DVD edition includes a “Teacher’s Guide” and a link to the American Experience Web site, which itself includes several interesting, albeit brief, “extras.”

Even with such close attention to Bly, an acknowledgement of a larger, persistent theme emerges: fame and influence fade, and what once was essential and fascinating becomes, well, something that happened a long time ago. Bly returned to journalism in 1912 several years after she had left it to marry an elderly industrialist. She had directed his company upon his death, but it had fallen into bankruptcy. She joined William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal as a columnist, still devoted to addressing social issues. By her death in 1922 of pneumonia, still young at 58, she was, as Kroeger points out, “seen more as relic than icon. Young reporters no longer saw her as a model, they saw her more as a curiosity. As someone who was kind of left over from another age.”
William Rainbolt University at Albany Rainbolt@albany.edu

 

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