The publisher of The Cosmopolitan, John Brisben Walker, first read of Bly’s journey in The World on the day she left. He quickly summoned Bisland. Walker, an eccentric millionaire from Denver who had already made and lost a fortune in iron manufacturing, served in the Chinese army, and earned a PhD from Georgetown before trying his hand at journalism, told his literary editor that she would go around the world, too.
The shy, bookish Bisland thought Walker was joking. She couldn’t go, she protested, she had people coming over for tea the next day. Walker was not joking. Bisland left New York that evening, eight hours behind Bly.
Eighty Days goes back and forth between the two journeys, taking the reader step by step around the world. Bly went east, Bisland west. They crossed paths in the South China Sea around Christmas, 1889. But despite Goodman’s title, it wasn’t really a race—primarily because The World barely acknowledged Bisland’s travels. Walker bet Pulitzer $1,000 that Bly couldn’t complete the journey first, but The World wouldn’t take wager. Bly didn’t find out until she reached Hong Kong that someone else was taking a journey around the world, too.
Along the way, the reader is treated to stories of the hijinks the women endure in the course of their travels. On one boat, Bly is romanced by an impoverished English aristocrat who thinks, for some reason, that the journalist was an heiress to a great fortune. She acquires a fez-wearing monkey somewhere in Asia, who then proceeds to terrorize Bly’s traveling companions for the rest of her trip. At one point in her journey Bisland, having been warned of the dangers of tigers in Singapore, trembles with fright in her hotel room, sure that the rustling she hears as she lies in bed is a tiger preparing to devour her. Only when she lights a match and discovers that her visitor is actually a very large rat can she relax. “This is almost as bad as the tiger,” she admits, “but as I have no intention of attacking this terrible beast and my notice appears to bore him, I blow out the candle and go to sleep.”
But despite the tigers, monkeys, and improvident suitors, The World’s editors occasionally had “trouble finding enough news to keep the public interested in the trip,” Goodman writes. This is a problem Goodman seems to face as well. The book often feels padded, and the reader can sense him straining to tease meaning and broader social significance out of a story that really could be just a travelogue. It also seems the author might be retroactively making more of Bisland than her achievements actually warrant—as if, 100 years from now, some enterprising writer produced a story about the rivalry between Steve Jobs and Steve the IT consultant who works in your office (well, they’re both guys who are into technology and started their own companies . . .).
At times, Goodman is too quick to connect the Bly/Bisland race with the struggle against gender disparities in late Victorian America. Among the women who worked for newspapers, Goodman asserts that “it must have been gratifying to see the names of two female reporters appear daily on the front page of newspapers, on the editorial pages, even on the sports pages—anywhere but the style pages.” Well, perhaps it was gratifying. Possibly these women were also resentful. Or maybe they weren’t really noticing at all. Who knows how they saw this contest?
But if we don’t really know how America’s female journalists thought about these journeys, the country at large eagerly awaited news of the writers’ return—well, Bly’s return, anyway. When she arrived on January 25, 1890—four days before Bisland made it home—she was received “with the sort of fanfare usually reserved for a conquering hero; her race around the world was already being turned from a personal to a national triumph.” The World, which characterized the journey as “a tribute to American pluck, American womanhood, and American perseverance,” even sponsored a contest for readers to guess the exact time the reporter would step off the train. (The winner, F. W. Stevens of 193 Second Avenue, predicted that Bly would return 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 2/5 seconds after she had departed. He won an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe—for one.)
Bly’s glory was short-lived. After a stint on the lecture circuit, she had continuous fights with editors and moved with her mother to a farmhouse in the country to escape publicity and what Goodman calls “unpleasant talk.” Though she returned to journalism later in life, she was too famous to do the undercover investigative reporting at which she really excelled.