27th June, Tottenham
About all I knew going in was that the Venice Biennale was an international contemporary art festival, with numerous pavilions run by different nations, and the only secondhand descriptions of it I’d ever engaged with at length were those in Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and the main memories I have from that novel (which I read well over a decade ago) was a fictionalised Geoff – “Jeff” – honking coke on a yacht, praising hanging out with millionaires who’ve fallen off the wagon, and then honking coke off one of those weird mirrors they sometimes have in medieval churches so you can look at the ceiling designs without bending your neck backwards. Then the second half, set in Varanasi, which is much more memorable, much more serious and the reason why I’ve kinda wanted to visit Varanasi ever since (to date, I’ve never been further east than the east side of the Bosphorus).
Anyway, that Dyer book, combined with the experiences I have had at contemporary art fairs in London (i.e. boring) led me to expect nothing but – at best – dusty parties full of pricks surrounded by uninspiring bad art as it’s aggressively sold to people with more disposable income than normal (yes I do mean normal) people have in a lifetime. I was expecting every pavilion to be like one of those dulllll commercial galleries you see in cities, where it looks like more time has been spent writing the zeroes at the end of the price than was spent on the creation of the work.
This, though, was not the case!
Each pavilion was an installation, and the large centrally-curated sections were spell-binding – a wide and fascinating variety of visual and sound and video art using a wide array of forms and materials and styles. Some, yes, was less interesting than others, but there was very little to see that was commercial or unexciting, and even the dull bits tended to be well-executed even when they had nothing interesting to say or imply.
And the reason, yes, for why I am telling you all about this is because it was in the book shop of the Giardini della Biennale where I found Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings by Nellie Bly.
Nellie Bly was a trail-blazing “lady journalist” active from the late 1880s until her death in 1922, with a brief hiatus in the middle when she tried – and failed – to become a trail-blazing “lady industrialist”. Why was this Penguin Classics book – edited by Jean Marie Lutes and first published in this form in 2014 – in the Venice Biennale gift shop?
Nellie Bly has been dead for a hundred years, she is not an exhibitor, but the reason is one of comparison, for this Venice Biennale is the first in its 127-year history with a “lady curator and artistic director”.
That’s right, there are still a handful of industries and jobs in “the western world” where it is possible to be a trail-blazing lady in common era 2022! What else is left? Not much: a lady Pope? A lady American President? A lady Leader of the Labour Party of England and Wales? Sorry, carried away there – that last one is pushing the limits of fantasy lolololol hahaha ahah ahah hahaha!
Nellie Bly was born in 1864 as Elizabeth Jane Cochran and was one of those “poor” people of the kind you find in posh children’s novels (Ballet Shoes, I Capture The Castle and so on), whereby she was incredibly privileged but always on the edge of losing the prestige: often broke but never destitute (tbh that’s a bit like me in adulthood, though I lack the precocity, connections and self-confidence that comes from growing up with cash).
Bly got her big break after writing a letter to her local newspaper, the Pittsburgh Dispatch, in response to a very sexist article they published which basically said that women were good for breeding and nothing else, an idea that has basically been written into law in about half of the United States in recent days at time of writing, so that lack of progress is pretty bleak!
The editor – not as retrogressive as his choice of columnists might imply – invited Bly to write a long-form response, where she wrote about the many positive directions available for young, privileged women at that time, but also the iniquity that kept middle class women from positions of real political and economic power, as well as the much more rigid barriers keeping working class women uneducated, unhappy, illiterate and trapped in servile positions aimed to not just stifle ambition, but to ensure its total absence.
After this, Bly got a few more feminist(ish) pieces published in the same paper, but when the appetite for her writing on this dried up, she grabbed her mother as an escort and headed to Mexico to become a foreign correspondent, arriving with no Spanish but staying for a while, filing ambient touristic descriptions as well as increasingly political opinions, which eventually led to her being – politely – asked to go home, before she could write anything that might necessitate a harsher punishment.
Back in America, she headed to New York and became, essentially, a proto-gonzo journalist.
She got herself committed to a notorious psychiatric hospital to report on its conditions, she tricked a political lobbyist into listing all of the politicians whose votes could be bought and for what price, and – most spectacularly and the title of this collection – she set out on a solo trip around the world with the aim of beating Phileas Fogg’s fictional 80 day record. She did beat Jules Verne’s fictional Englishman, and met and was cheered on by Verne and his wife when she passed through France. Bly’s descriptions of the various places she visits aren’t particularly vivid, to be honest, and are frequently very racist, and despite her solid feminist credentials and solid work as an advocate for the health and safety of the impoverished working class and those institutionalised due to diagnoses of genuine (or falsified!) psychiatric disorders, this lack of compassion towards (or even basic acknowledgement of the humanity of) people of other races (except the people of Japan – she liked them!) is one of those ever-present reminders that progressives have always had to fight against the relentless urging (by the powerful) of the oppressed to hold in contempt their peers in other countries/societies/situations. Intersectionality is key, baby!
“INTERSECTIONALISE THIS ⬇️⬇️⬇️ “, as the t-shirts say.
After a decade plus of her writing career, Bly married a very old, very rich man who soon died, leaving her in control of his floundering business, which she kept afloat for a bit, before returning to writing full-time, initially as a war correspondent on the Eastern front of the First World War – she happened to be in Austria for business when the war kicked off, and used that to her advantage. It is the pieces from this part of her career that include the best detail and description out of everything in this book – quite possibly because there was no risk of the potential libel suits that could have happened if she had gone in too hard on her previous, local, subjects (i.e. New York hospitals and New York politicians).
Bly ended her career as an agony aunt and, again, activist, working to help adoption and fostering agencies connect needy children with adults able and willing to help them.
Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings is an interesting and intriguing collection, though how and why Jean Marie Lutes chose these particular pieces as representative of several decades’ worth of journalistic writing is never explained.
By far the least interesting pieces here are those from Bly’s round the world trip, which take up over a third of this volume.
Her investigations into institutions and institutional abuses of power are far more interesting, as are her very much completely out of her depth war reports, which Lutes directly states are only three out of 21 published pieces. There are only two columns from her time as an agony aunt, there are only a couple of interviews when she conducted many.
The round the world stuff shows Bly in a bad light: she loses compassion and curiosity when outside of America, and as travel writing from a century and a bit ago it isn’t particularly revelatory, and the explanatory annotations often explain things that are very obvious while failing to comment on the veracity of regular bizarre assertions about normalised violence that were – one hopes/presumes – prejudiced hyperbole, but maybe not?
Nellie Bly was definitely a trailblazer, and though I don’t know if she is as famous in America as asserted in the introduction at the front of the book, she is certainly an important figure in the development of American letters and widespread creative nonfiction.
That titular section, though is by far her weakest work: much more Round Ireland with a Fridge (I presume that’s shit, I’ve obviously never read it) than Slouching Toward Bethlehem, but someone had to crawl before Didion could fly, right?
Great, but a more interesting selection could definitely have been possible!!!