- Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space by Alice Fahs, and: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings by Nellie Bly
While modern magazine scholarship has been aided by digitization projects such as the Modernist Journals Project, scholarship on the literary/print cultural significance of modern newspapers has lagged behind, mostly because the sheer volume of the material, even when digitized, is still overwhelming: scanned newspaper pages are often inaccurate, making searches flawed; bylines are rare; columnists’ pseudonyms are unfamiliar. Literary scholars desiring to focus on authors—to develop narratives about their careers and discuss how journalism served as an apprenticeship for authorship or how popular literary genres informed the new journalistic style—have been frustrated by the demands of this archivally intensive work.
Two recent books will make research on turn-of-the-century U.S. newspapers and women journalists much easier. Historian Alice Fahs’s monograph Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space samples the works and themes of a broad range of U.S. women journalists from the 1880s until the 1920s, and literary scholar Jean Lutes’s edition of Nellie Bly’s Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings brings together a representative sampling of one of the better known U.S. women journalists Fahs considers. [End Page 80]
Fahs’s aim in Out on Assignment is to recover and appreciate the work of turn-of-the-nineteenth-century U.S. women newspaper reporters: their writings, Fahs argues, were vital in “shaping and disseminating ideas regarding women’s changing lives, but they also created a set of public conversations about the cultural politics of modern life. Publication . . . gave these women new access to the powers of publicity . . . Publicity could act as a ‘searchlight’ that exposed areas of American life in need of reform” (3). Fahs explores how newswomen got “out” into “public space” beyond the domestic “woman’s pages” to which they were originally assigned. Out on Assignment is organized thematically: readers will be thrilled to encounter in sensibly organized chapters primary material from late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century newspapers by women reporters that addresses new subject positions for women as they began to be more actively involved in the public sphere, such as women living in “bachelor flats” in urban centers, women in the workplace, women traveling the world, women on daring adventures, and so forth. Because she has mined archives across the country and quotes thoroughly from these archives, Fahs has made available within her own monograph a veritable anthology of women’s journalism from the period.
Many of the newswomen whom Fahs considers—including New York stunt journalists Nellie Bly and Dorothy Richardson, New York World reporter and Harper’s Bazaar editor Elizabeth Garver Jordan, early African American journalist Gertrude Bustill Mossell, anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells, and middlebrow author and journalist Zona Gale—will be familiar to Americanist readers of the Journal of Modern Periodical Studies. But Fahs also provides information about other journalists who were celebrities in their own day but about whom much less is known now: for example, the satirical New York Evening Journal contributor Jessie M. Wood, New York Journal reporter and middlebrow author Anne O’Hagan Shinn, early Brooklyn Times “woman’s column” editor Eliza Putnam Heaton, “ sob-sister” Nixola Greeley-Smith, and cartoonist and talented interviewer Kate Carew. Fahs analyzes their beats, salaries, and career trajectories, and she provides extensive excerpts from their works. Many of these journalists got their start in the business as freelance contributors to a woman’s page or women’s department but, in that column, subverted its original intentions to support womanly domesticity by providing news about progressive womanhood. Fahs’s best chapter is her chapter on working girl stories, which contrasts Eva Valesh’s undercover work covering a strike from the perspective of a working...