Dan Sherrell

Nellie Bly leaves her berth


In the old pictures, apparently, you had to stand very still for a long time. This time was called the exposure. You can imagine the man behind the camera, tented under a canvas hood, with an arm and two fingers raised and held, like a clock about to chime. This may have been it for Nellie Bly in her heyday — the tense boredom of the long exposure. The dawn languor on the deck of her steam ship as it churned a silty wake down the Suez. The feeling of static motion, the long-held gaze of the world as she inched its circumference.


Pulitzer himself had commissioned her to travel the globe in under 80 days and beat the fictional record set by Jules Verne. She may have been used to this, breaking records in a game whose terms were set entirely by the imaginations of men. So that even as she prepared for her departure, she weathered subtle domestications: whole features on the sturdiness of her frock coat, the contents of her small purse, the quantity of underwear she deemed necessary to bring with her. In the promotional picture taken with the long exposure somewhere in the port of Hoboken on the morning her ship sailed, you see this in her face — the weariness of a woman waiting for the rest of the world to match her pace.


She made it in 72 days. And knowing this, we have to smile with her, as her ship rounds Penang and she opens the door of her berth at night and over the railing she sees the small lights in the dark hills along what — in those days — were called the Straits of Settlement.