Ann Arbor native David Blixt discovered a cache of long lost novels by journalist-adventurer Nellie Bly
In December 2019, while researching a novel series based on the life of journalist Nellie Bly, Ann Arbor native David Blixt—a Greenhills and EMU grad who’s now a Chicago-based theater artist and writer—made an astonishing discovery.
“At that point, my office was right next to the kitchen, and Jan [Blixt, David’s wife, and the producing artistic director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival] was in the kitchen late in the afternoon that day,” said Blixt. “I was going, ‘Honey, this can’t be real. This can’t possibly be real. … Surely everybody knows about this, right?’”
Wrong. Blixt, following what seemed an unlikely-but-possible hunch, had stumbled upon 12 long-lost serialized novels that Bly wrote after her famous trip around the world concluded in 1890.
Born Elizabeth Cochrane in 1864 in Pittsburgh, Bly got her pseudonym from her first newspaper editor, who named her after a popular 1850 song by Stephen Foster. Scholars and biographers have long known that Bly wrote fiction for publisher Norman Munro’s New York Family Story Paper—she’d signed a lucrative, three year $40,000 contract—but few to no copies of that publication have survived, so Bly’s fiction has largely been lost to time for well over a century.
“I reached out to [Bly biographer and NYU professor Brooke Kroeger] to let her know I found these, and her return email was just three words: ‘Who had them?’” said Blixt.
Turns out that Munro had also produced, across the Atlantic, a sister publication called London Story Paper, in which he’d reprinted Bly’s fiction.
And unlike the New York Family Story Paper, complete collections of London Story Paper were stored on microfilm in London, Sydney, and Toronto. Blixt spent weeks poring over the archives online, but about a third of it was illegible, so he traveled to Toronto at the end of 2019 to fill in the blanks.
Then Blixt kept his literary discovery under wraps while quietly putting out feelers to potential publishers.
“I was worried for a few months,” said Blixt, a fight choreographer who first grew interested in Bly when he noticed that many old, silent movies starring female action stars were inspired by her. “I thought, if I tell anybody … I’m going to get scooped. … Then I found that the publishers I approached just weren’t interested. There was no money in it. I thought, OK, that’s valid, I guess. This is not going to make me my fortune, but it’s so cool. And it does provide this incredible view into her mind.”
Bly’s mind, at this time in her life, was troubled. Angry for not receiving a bonus and exhausted from her globetrotting trip as well as far too famous now to do the undercover stunt journalism that made her a household name, Bly suffered from migraines and depression.
“We know from her letters … that she was suffering what she called ‘the worst depression that has ever beset’ human, or mortal, or something like that,” said Blixt. “She’d hurt her knee, and at one point, she’s confined to her bed, and she’s complaining about just being lazy and getting fat and feeling depressed. And all these books deal with, at some point, a woman trying to kill herself by throwing herself into a body of water.”
Blixt, in fact, believes that Bly leaned into her fiction as a means of working through her depression.
But since Blixt couldn’t seem to get publishers interested in Bly’s novels, how would the world ever know of them?
Blixt decided he’d have to release them into the world himself, by way of his indie publishing house, Sordelet Ink. A dozen Bly novels—11 of which haven’t been read or available since their original publication—will go on sale March 16, 2021.
The Bly novel that had been previously available, The Mystery of Central Park, originally appeared in The New York World (Bly’s employer, owned by Joseph Pulitzer), but the book version that followed didn’t sell particularly well.
“The year [Mystery of Central Park] came out, she interviewed the wife of Alexander Hamilton’s grandson, who was accused of attempted murder, and [Bly] was inspired by her to write another novel,” said Blixt, referring to Bly’s Eva the Adventuress. “She jammed it out in a month … in 1889, and then she’s on a trip around the world. But she must have tried to sell it before she started the trip because, in the midst of it, it starts appearing in the pages of the New York Family Story Paper. What I think happened was, she tried to sell it, but her publisher [Norman Munro] wasn’t interested. And then he saw all the hype around her trip and thought, ‘Well, I’d be a fool not to publish this novel.’ So he starts publishing it while she’s halfway around the world. So when she gets back, she has him over a barrel. He’d published it without any sort of agreement in place. So she gets an incredible contract … to write novels for him, and she does. But they’re exclusive to his paper, and it says at the beginning of each one, this novel will not be collected in book form.”
Blixt counts Eva among his favorite recovered Bly novels, alongside New York by Night, wherein a female reporter (obviously modeled after Bly) “is helping to investigate the theft of half a million dollars in diamonds—and her counterpart is a playboy, amateur detective, millionaire man-about-town named The Danger,” Blixt explained.
But Blixt’s top pick may be In Love with a Stranger.
“It is, episode by episode, a bunch of her articles in one book. It’s like, I’m going to sneak into this opium den. Then I’m going to sneak into this card game. I’m going to disguise myself as a man and spend a day doing this. It’s one thing after another. … And she’s basically a stalker. She falls in love with this guy at first sight and decides she’s going to figure out who he is. And then at one point, she locks him in a building, and she’s going to keep him there until he loves her. At another point, she’s going to de-rail the train because he’s going to marry somebody else and, you know, if we’re going to die, at least we’ll die together. So there are things that are not OK in that book … but too often her heroines are passive and just allow things to happen to them. This is not that book.”
And Blixt made the editorial decision to not publish one of the Bly novels he recovered, largely because of the racial tropes it employed.
“By chapter one, I was like, OK, where are we going?” Blixt said. “By chapter three, I thought, maybe I could donate the proceeds to the Sojourner Truth scholarships or something. And by the sixth chapter, I was like, ‘Nope. Can’t put this out in the world.’ … There are a couple of historians of racial relations who have expressed interest in reading it for historical purposes, and I’m totally good with that. … It should be like Disney’s Song of the South and live in the vault. I don’t want to pretend it doesn’t exist. She did write it. … I don’t want to pretend she was somebody she wasn’t, but I also don’t want to uphold the idea that the formerly enslaved were happy when they were enslaved. I don’t think she was any more racist than her time, but I don’t think she was any less racist than her time, either.”
In addition to Bly’s novels, Blixt (via Sordelet) is also publishing two book collections of Bly’s newspaper articles, which he expects to be of greater interest to the public than her pulpy, romantic novels. But he nonetheless believes the novels provide an exciting new piece in the puzzle of Bly’s legacy.
“It provides a fuller view of her as a person—her ideas and her imagination,” Blixt said. “She had aspirations early on to be a novelist, and she clearly made a lot of money doing it. I don’t think she enjoyed it as much, though. Because after three years off, she goes back to reporting. … She was always looking for something else. I think she was a very restless person.”
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.