Pulp | Art around Ann Arbor
In December 2019, Ann Arbor-born David Blixt, a Greenhills and EMU graduate who is now a Chicago-based theater artist and writer, made an amazing discovery while researching a novel series based on the life of journalist Nellie Bly .
“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 in the late afternoon that day, ”said Blixt. “I wanted, honey, this can’t be real. It can’t possibly be real. … I’m sure everyone knows that, right? ‘”
Not correct. Blixt, on a seemingly unlikely but possible guess, had stumbled upon a dozen long-lost serial novels that Bly wrote after her famous world tour in 1890.
Bly was born Elizabeth Cochrane in Pittsburgh in 1864 and got her pseudonym from her first newspaper editor, who named her after a popular 1850 by Stephen Foster. Scholars and biographers have long known that Bly wrote fiction for publisher Norman Munro’s New York Family Story Paper – she signed a lucrative three-year contract for $ 40,000 – but few to no copies of that publication have survived, so Bly’s fiction has largely been lost in time for well over a century.
“I have to [Bly biographer and NYU professor Brooke Kroeger] to let her know I found this and her return email was just three words: ‘Who had it?’ “Said Blixt.
It turned out that Munro had also produced a sister publication across the Atlantic called London Story Paper, in which he had reprinted Bly’s fiction.
And unlike the New York Family Story Paper, entire collections of London Story Papers were microfilmed in London, Sydney and Toronto. Blixt spent weeks browsing the archives online, but about a third of it was illegible, so he traveled to Toronto in late 2019 to fill in the blanks.
Then Blixt kept his literary discovery under wraps while quietly handing out feelers to potential publishers.
“I was concerned for a couple of months,” said Blixt, a combat choreographer who first became interested in Bly when he noticed that many old silent films featuring female action stars were inspired by her. “I thought if I tell someone… I’ll be scooped up. … Then I found that the publishers I turned to just weren’t interested. There was no money in it. I thought OK this is valid I guess. That won’t make me my fortune, but it’s so cool. And it gives her that incredible look. “
Bly’s thoughts were troubled at this time in her life. Angry about not receiving a bonus and exhausted from her trip around the world and now way too famous 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 suffered from the worst depression that has ever befallen human or mortal or anything like that,” said Blixt. “She injured her knee and at some point she is confined to her bed. She complains about just being lazy, getting fat, and feeling depressed. And at some point all of these books are about a woman who tries to kill herself by throwing herself into a body of water. “
In fact, Blixt believes Bly leaned into her fiction in an attempt to overcome her depression.
But since Blixt couldn’t interest publishers in Bly’s novels, how would the world ever find out about them?
Blixt decided that he had to bring them into the world himself through his indie publisher Sordelet Ink. A dozen Bly novels, 11 of which have not been read or available since their original publication, will hit stores on March 16, 2021.
The previously available Bly novel, The Mystery of Central Park, originally appeared in The New York World (Bly’s employer, owned by Joseph Pulitzer), but the following book version did not sell particularly well.
“The year [Mystery of Central Park] When she got 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 Blys Eva, the adventurer. “She kicked it out in a month … in 1889, and then she’s on a trip around the world. But she must have tried selling it before starting the journey, because right in the middle it appears on the pages of the New York Family Story Paper. I think it happened, she tried to sell it, but her publisher [Norman Munro] wasn’t interested. And then he saw all the hype about their trip and thought, “Well, I’d be a fool not to publish this novel.” So he starts releasing it while she’s halfway around the world. When she comes back she has it over a barrel. He released it without any agreement. So she gets an amazing contract … to write novels for him, and she does. But they are exclusive to his paper and it is said at the beginning of everyone that this novel will not be collected in book form. “
Blixt counts Eva as one of his favorite Bly novels, along with New York by Night, in which a reporter (obviously modeled on Bly) “investigates the theft of diamonds worth half a million dollars – and the opposite is a playboy, an amateur detective, Millionaire named The Danger, ”explained Blixt.
But Blixt’s top pick might be In Love With a Stranger.
“It’s episode after episode a series of your articles in a book. It’s like sneaking into that opium den. Then I sneak into this card game. I’ll dress up as a man and spend a day doing it. It is one thing at a time. … And she’s basically a stalker. She falls in love with this guy at first sight and decides to find out who he is. And then at some point she locks him in a building and she’ll keep him there until he loves her. At another point she’s going to derail the train because he’s going to marry someone else, and if we’re going to die, at least we’re going to die together. So there are things that are wrong in this book … but too often their heroines are passive and just allow things to happen to them. This is not the book. “
And Blixt made the editorial decision not to publish any of the Bly novels he restored, largely because of the racist tropes he was using.
“In chapter one, I thought, OK, where are we going?” Said Blixt. “By the third chapter, I thought, maybe I could donate the proceeds to the Sojourner Truth Scholarships or something. And in the sixth chapter I said, “No. Can’t post that in the world. ‘… There are some racial relations historians who have expressed an interest in reading it for historical purposes, and I’m absolutely fine 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 wrote it. … I don’t want to pretend she’s someone she wasn’t, but neither do I want to maintain the idea that the formerly enslaved people were happy when they became enslaved. I don’t think she was more racist than her time, but neither do I think she was any less racist than her time. “
In addition to Bly’s novels, Blixt also publishes (via Sordelet) two book collections of Bly’s newspaper articles that he expects to be of greater public interest than her meaty, romantic novels. Even so, he believes the novels represent an exciting new piece in the puzzle of Bly’s legacy.
“It offers a broader view of them as a person – their ideas and their imaginations,” said Blixt. “She aspired to be a writer from an early age, and it has clearly made a lot of money. I don’t think she enjoyed it that much. Because after a three-year break, she reports again. … She was always looking for something else. I think she was a very restless person. “
Jenn McKee is a former arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she mainly covered theater and film events, writing general articles and occasional articles on books and music.
The Nellie Bly novels will be available through Sordelet Ink and davidblixt.com.