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  • Dignified Sensationalism:Cosmopolitan, Elizabeth Bisland, and Trips Around the World
  • Karen Roggenkamp (bio)

From November 1889 through January 1890, Nellie Bly raced around the world in a widely-publicized and sensationalized circumnavigation of the globe. Editors at Joseph Pulitzer's New York World sent the plucky young Bly on the seventy-two day long trip, intending to test the validity of Jules Verne's 1873 novel Around the World in Eighty Days and to drive up newspaper circulation in the process. They wished to prove that fact could triumph over fiction, that a lone traveler (and a woman at that) could circle the globe in less than eighty days. Bly's trip became a prime example of the "new journalism" of late nineteenth-century America, a newspaper style known for its emphasis on sensational stories, manipulated to bolster circulation and appeal to a mass audience that thrived on such exciting and dramatic fare.1 Pioneered by Pulitzer in the 1880s, new journalism was marked by such journalistic novelties as ample illustration, enormous stacked headlines, celebrity writers, and above all, an emphasis on drama—all for the low price of two cents a copy. New journalism approached the news with an aesthetic of storytelling. Unlike more expensive, informational newspapers, which catered to upper-class tastes and focused on business and political news, papers operating under the banner of new journalism understood that readers enjoyed a good story in their news even more than they expected accuracy and dry information. In response, new journalism appropriated the conventions of popular literary genres—including travel narratives and fantastic novels—to frame the news for readers, and as news writers formulated a compositional style based on "the real thing," they positioned their works in explicit competition with such entertaining fictions as Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days.

But the story of Nellie Bly and her race against fiction includes another, virtually forgotten chapter involving the magazine Cosmopolitan, [End Page 26] which presented itself as a rival to Bly and the World. As this article discusses, Cosmopolitan searched for a way to appeal to the enormous audience that enjoyed the sensation of new journalism, while retaining the style and appeal of a more genteel periodical meant for an intimate coterie of readers. Cosmopolitan was a publication struggling to find its way in a periodicals marketplace that was becoming increasingly crowded and complex in the late nineteenth century. As the century neared its end, publishers more frequently divided the American reading public into discrete market segments and directed periodicals to specific populations. One factor influencing such market segmentation was a general movement in the late nineteenth century toward cultural segmentation.2 Cosmopolitan came of age at a time of increased cultural division and preoccupation "with discussing, defining, and categorizing culture,"3 and the era witnessed what Lawrence Levine has described as a "sacralization of culture" that worked to stratify the American reading public based on social class.4 With the rise of a "highbrow" culture, defined against "lowbrow" publications and cultural practices, certain periodicals gained cultural authority and were subsequently marketed toward genteel, well-educated audiences (and toward readers who aspired to be genteel and well-educated). Other publications met the growing needs of a theoretically lower-class, sensation-hungry audience. New journalism itself—in part because of its vast popularity and attention to all things sensational—was rejected by cultural critics as hopelessly common and even corrupting of readers' tastes, while expensive newspapers and periodicals gained favor as more suitable fare for the gentle reader. Indeed, the phrase "new journalism" was coined in 1887 by Matthew Arnold, that ultimate arbiter of culture, to describe—and ultimately denigrate—the energetic editorial style Pulitzer had been championing, first in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and then in the New York World. New journalism "has much to recommend it," Arnold admitted in 1887; "it is full of ability, novelty, variety, sensation, sympathy, generous instincts." However, he added, new journalism's "one great fault is that it is feather-brained. It throws out assertions at a venture because it wishes them true; does not correct either them or itself, if they are false; and to get at the...


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