Little Orphan Nellie

Judith Eisler, What Are They All By?, 2004. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Cohan and Leslie, New York.

Nellie Bly was the first “girl reporter,” but as the exception, she was always playing by someone else’s rules

In 1893, the celebrated reporter Nellie Bly went to visit Emma Goldman in prison. The young anarchist provocateur was held in the first Manhattan jail to be called the Tombs; it was built on the wreck of an old swamp and stank of rot and feces. The two women had both grown up in poverty and obscurity, and found fame, if not fortune, by writing about the conditions suffered by women and the working poor. But while Bly was lauded for circling the globe in only a fetching checkered traveling cloak, Goldman was locked up for incitement to riot.

Bly was one of the only journalists to show Goldman any sympathy and the first to understand her importance as a cultural figure. In Bly’s piece, Goldman is permitted to speak her truth at length, along with some girly chat about clothes of the frivolous sort that Goldman would never have stooped to in her own writings. These are the details that never make it into the manifestos but nevertheless make the politics a hundred times more human.

The reporter mentions Goldman’s precocious ­talent—she is barely 25—and lists the six languages she can speak and write. We are invited to be impressed. Then Bly comes to the matter of marriage and whether Goldman believes it to be a universal good, the ultimate balm of a woman’s life:

“I was married,” she said, with a little sigh, “when I was scarcely 17. I suffered—let me say no more about that. I believe in the marriage of affection. That is the only true marriage. If two people care for each other they have a right to live together so long as that love exists. When it is dead what base immorality for them still to keep together! Oh, I tell you the marriage ceremony is a terrible thing!”

No counterargument is offered, or even entertained. Bly agrees with Goldman but cannot say so directly. To do so would not have been in character, at least not the character as whom she made her living.

Some people seem born to break down walls. Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Pennsylvania in 1865. She was the 13th of 15 children and, following the early loss of her father and her mother’s remarriage to and scandalous divorce from a mean drunk, she struggled to find teaching work. Her first break in journalism came when she sent an excoriating letter to the Pittsburg Dispatch, responding to an article about “What Girls Are Good For”—marriage, motherhood, and obscurity, according to the original columnist, whose name is lost to history. “If girls were boys quickly it would be said: start them where they will, they can, if ambitious, win a name and fortune,” wrote Bly, then 20. “Gather up the real smart girls, pull them out of the mire, give them a shove up the ladder of life, and be amply repaid.” She signed her letter as “Orphan Girl.”

The editor, George Madden, was so impressed that he offered her a job. Because women’s writing was considered unseemly, Madden decided that Cochran should have a pen name. He took “Nelly Bly” from a minstrel song: a white man bestowing a white girl with a name created by a white man for a fictional black serving girl. From the start, Cochran—now Bly—was caught between the stories men wanted to tell about girls and the stories girls would tell for themselves, “given the chance.”

Bly is now remembered less for the stories she wrote than the stories that sprouted up around her. Maureen Corrigan notes in the introduction to the new Penguin edition of Bly’s collected journalism that Nelly Bly has become “a headline, not an author.” Her femaleness is phrased now, as it was in her day, as a fascination; the editorial furniture, neatly preserved in the Penguin edition, sells her in the manner in which Victorian circuses might advertise a traveling freak show: See this Young Girl Write Hard-Hitting-Stories Just Like a Man! 

Bly racked up a lot of firsts in her meteoric career. Just a year after being hired by the Dispatch, she had left for New York, where the first mass-circulation newspapers were being printed, wangled a job at the World, and made her name with “stunt” reporting. She was to become the most celebrated reporter of her age, at a time when journalists did not expect to become household names. Bly was also the first decoy to allow the patriarchal press to feel really good about itself for allowing a little woman into the big boys club.

“Gonzo” journalism is now read as a macho practice: turn up somewhere ripped and stoned and undercover and immerse yourself in a culture or practice, then write viscerally, from the brain and the gut. In fact, women were doing it first. Bly was just 21 when she got herself committed to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum to report on the dispiriting conditions suffered by the inmates there: the beatings, the starvation, the cold. Her feature in the World drew public attention to the plight of the mentally unwell in the U.S. and led to some limited reforms.

From the start, Bly is a natural writer. Her voice is caustic and confident, lilting effortlessly between the gush and private wonder of a schoolgirl’s diary and the rigor of the most celebrated political reporters of her time. Bly was a celebrity, working at a time when a revolution in newspaper technology had coincided with a surge of interest in women’s liberation. She was the right face for the right time. The fact that she was also tremendously talented in the literary and practical craft of journalism was at once the whole point and somewhat beside it.

By the time she headed out on her infamous round-the-world dash, attempting to circle the globe in fewer than the 80 days described in Jules Verne’s novel, she was already famous. “Strong Men Might Well Shrink From the Fatigues and Anxieties Cheerfully Faced by This Young American Girl,” cries her home paper’s report, preserved in this edition, describing how the wind ruffled Bly’s “fair young cheeks.” Bly made her deadline and was greeted by cheering crowds in New York. The resulting column series, which became a book, is not about the world at all. Rather, it’s about Nellie Bly, the mannish young woman, the myth. We hear more about the outfits she was wearing than her impressions of the nations she glimpses out of the dining cars of cross-country sleeper trains.

The round-the-world dash is by far the weakest part of Bly’s oeuvre as presented in the Penguin collection. For a start, the speed at which the young reporter is traveling means that she barely has time to speak to anybody at all or to dig into the flesh of a place as she does in her undercover work. She is utterly focused on beating the self-imposed deadline, as if to miss it were to sacrifice her carefully built credibility. Bly sees the countries she visits mostly through train windows and the portholes of ships, and she sketches the people who actually live there in hasty and often racist caricatures.

As a young provincial reporter, Bly went to Mexico and wrote without sentiment or stereotype of the lives she saw there. In four short pages you get the starkness of inequality, the taste of a fresh tortilla, the gentleness of strangers. “The women, like other women, sometimes cry, doubtless for very good cause, and the men stop to console them,” she observes.

On her “Round the World” trip, Bly has no time for such nuance. The inhabitants of Aden, then a British colony, are simply “black people of many different tribes” and “little naked children” who “ran after us for miles, touching their foreheads humbly and crying for money.” That language, like Bly’s legend, is dressed in an outfit of patriotism. She is always that Plucky American Girl who can dash around the globe, trotting out the hasty racial stereotypes as well as any puffed-up British colonial officer.

The mainstream press has always been a treacherous trough to drink from. As her career continues, you can feel Bly fighting for maturity in her work against a climate that wants one thing from her and one thing only: her own story. She struggles to shake the wide-eyed excitement of the precocious girl-essayist at its proper time. It’s as if Elizabeth Cochran, the anonymous Lonely Orphan Girl, is trying to write her truth, but Nelly Bly, celebrity reporter, is covering her mouth. Her struggle with persona plays out on the page. In the decades after her retirement, Nelly Bly was written about in books, taught about in schools, and memorialized in songs (she appears as a side character in the traditional “Frankie and Johnny,” which was covered by Elvis). Until now, though, almost nobody bothered to read her actual work, at least not in a systematic way. It has taken a century for Bly’s journalism to be collected in print.

Bly’s zeal to write about the women the world had failed, the women locked in madhouses, trapped in bad marriages and dead-end jobs in airless tenement rooms, started early. The stories she wrote received space in return for a certain imposed sensationalism: Her editors give a measured investigation into the working lives of young women in box-making factories in Manhattan the pre-clickbait title “What It’s Like to Be a White Slave.” The more Bly struggles to expose the conditions of women in the poorest parts of America, the more Bly’s editors treat her as a fascinating trinket. Not only is she a young woman who can spell; she’s actually talking politics.

Some of these interviews and essays are collected here under the chapter “The Woman Question,” playing neatly into the notion, as popular now as it was a century ago, that there is only one. Bly had many different questions about women. She wanted to know how they lived and worked, where they were permitted to go, why they were paid so much less than men, not only in the professions to which they were slowly being admitted, but in factories, fields, and farms. She wanted to know why nobody was talking about women except as “dolls” or “drudges.”

The prison interview with Goldman is not included in this collection, although it is among Bly’s finest pieces of political writing. When Bly asks Goldman (then at the start of a long, dangerous career of exile and agitation) how she imagines her future, the political prisoner tells her: “I cannot say. I shall live to agitate to promote our ideas. I am willing to give my liberty and my life, if necessary, to further my cause. It is my mission and I shall not falter.” Entirely unbothered by notions of journalistic objectivity, Bly ties off the piece by calling Goldman a “modern Joan of Arc.”

Bly’s rebellion could be rehabilitated; Goldman’s never was. In 1893, when they could not vote, leave their husbands, or own property, women could rebel but not too much. You could be the exception to the rule as long as the rule remained intact. Nellie Bly was not permitted to become the writer for the ages that she might very well have been. In the end, there was only one story that editors were interested in hearing from her, and it was not the story of the tenement boxmakers or women’s suffrage activists. It was the all-American story of the lonely orphan girl made good.