Saturday, August 12, 2017

Where no man (or woman) had gone before

Our two newest releases—one fictional, one autobiographical—provide a glimpse into the burdens, dangers and excitement of traveling around the world by ship (and later, by rail) in the Victorian Era. 

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) was Edgar Allan Poe's first and only full-length novel.  Around the World in 72 Days (1890) recounts New York World reporter Nellie Bly's attempt to beat the fictional circumnavigation record set by Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne's novel Around the World in Eighty Days.

Poe's tale of a whaling ship stowaway who finds himself caught up in a maelstrom of mutiny, shipwreck, starvation, and terror originally appeared as a serial in the Southern Literary Messenger magazine. After Poe either quit or was fired from the Messenger, he reworked the story as a standalone novel with several elements that were popular at the time: early attempts to explore the Arctic and Antarctic regions; the "hollow Earth" theory that portals to a secret world inside the Earth's core could be found at one or both poles; and tales of notorious real-life sea disasters and mutinies. 

Unfortunately for Poe, Pym did not sell well and received generally negative reviews, which discouraged him from attempting to write another novel. After Poe's death in 1849, however, other prominent authors in America and Europe paid homage to the story in various ways. Verne's 1897 novel An Antarctic Mystery is a sequel to Pym, as is A Strange Discovery by American author Charles Romyn Dake (1899). Today some scholars regard Pym as one of Poe's best works.

As for Verne, when he published Eighty Days in 1873 travelogues were a popular literary genre. The advent of steamships, railroads, mass media (newspapers, magazines) and telegraph communication, along with well-publicized discoveries and expeditions to remote parts of the world, stoked interest in faraway places and in the accounts of those who explored them. 

Several well-known travelogues predate Eighty Days, including Voyage autour du monde (1853) by Verne's friend Jacques Arago; Round the World: Letters from Japan, China, India and Egypt (1872) by American William Perry Fogg; and The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain (1869), which outsold all of Twain's other works during his lifetime, including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

When Bly (born Elizabeth Cochrane) set out to recreate Phileas Fogg's journey, she had already made a name for herself as one of the first modern-day investigative reporters. Among other notable "scoops", in 1888, she exposed unsanitary and abusive conditions at a New York insane asylum by posing as a mentally ill, homeless woman and getting herself committed to the facility for 10 days. 

Bly's editors at the World were initially reluctant to allow a young, unaccompanied female journalist to take on the challenge of beating Verne's 80-day record. When they finally agreed, Bly arranged the trip with only a few days' notice and boarded an Atlantic steamship bound for England on Nov. 14, 1889. On the very same day, another female journalist, Elizabeth Bisland of The Cosmopolitan magazine, departed by train for the West Coast in her own attempt to beat Verne's record traveling in the opposite direction (east to west). 

In the end, both women beat the 80-day mark; Bly completed her trip in 72 days and six hours while Bisland (delayed by a missed connection and slow passage across the Atlantic) did so in 76 days. Bly diverted from her initially planned route to visit Verne at his home in Amiens, France, where he said he would "applaud with both hands" if she beat Fogg's record. Verne also sent a congratulatory telegram to Bly upon her return to the U.S. in January 1890. 

Although Poe and Bly, like most English-speaking Victorians, tended to regard non-Western cultures with a blend of fascination and suspicion, their colorful and at times gripping accounts give readers a valuable snapshot of the many "frontiers" that still existed in the Victorian Age.