REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN
In honor of the 150th anniversary of the birth of “stunt” journalist Nelly Bly (Born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane 1864-1922) Penguin Classics has published the first edited edition of journalism by the legendary newspaper reporter (Penguin Classics, trade paperback reprint edition, comprehensive notes, 368 pages, $17.50, also available in a Kindle eBook for $7.99). Edited with an introduction by Jean Marie Lutes, with a foreword by Maureen Corrigan. The editing is outstanding, providing the backstory for this important but all too often neglected figure in American journalism.
This work is important because Bly’s writing is still as fresh today as when it was published. I speak from experience on five daily newspapers, beginning in 1966 with The Hammond (IN) Times and including almost ten years with The Milwaukee Sentinel and more than 14 years with the Los Angeles Times.
The story of how this woman from the greater Pittsburgh area became a reporter is almost as fascinating as her brilliant writing. In 1884, when The Pittsburg Dispatch published a mocking column on “What Girls Are Good For”, Cochrane wrote an anonymous response saying they could do anything men could do. The editor was so impressed by this feisty response that he sought her out, thus beginning a truly remarkable career.
From those beginnings in Pennsylvania, Bly gained fame for being the first “girl stunt reporter,” writing stories that no one at the time thought a woman could or should write, including an exposé of patient treatment at an insane asylum and a travelogue from her record-breaking race around the world without a chaperone.
This volume, the only printed and edited collection of Bly’s writings, includes her best known works—Ten Days in a Mad-House, which was written for Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York World in 1887; Six Months in Mexico, about her experiences in Mexico, written for The Pittsburg Dispatch in 1886; and Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, written in 1890 for The New York World —as well as many lesser known pieces that capture the breadth of her career from her fierce opinion pieces to her remarkable World War I reporting for The New York Evening Journal.
Nelly Bly was so popular that a board game — similar to Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego of the recent past — was created and became a bestseller. Everybody loved Nelly Bly!
She ended her career in journalism as an advice columnist for The New York Evening Journal, from 1919 to her death in January 1922 — well before “Dear Abby” and “Ann Landers”. Several samples of her advice column writing appear, beginning on Page 304.
About the Author (and the editors)
Nellie Bly was the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane (1864–1922), an American journalist best known for her record-breaking trip around the world and her controversial undercover investigation of Bellevue Hospital’s insane asylum.
Jean M. Lutes is an associate professor of English and director of academics for Gender and Women’s Studies at Villanova University.
Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, a lecturer at Georgetown University, and the author of the literary memoir, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading! She lives in Washington, D.C.