Much of the impact of Nellie Bly’s Ten Days In a Mad-House has been negated by time, since in the century and a quarter since the article’s publication the conditions Bly reported on have been drastically improved upon and are no longer as extreme of a problem. But while the contents have become archaic, the shock and anger Bly felt when writing the piece are just as obvious to modern readers as they would have been to people in 1887. It’s survived as well as it has not for the news it was originally published to spread, but rather for how much of herself and her era Bly poured into it: in other words, it’s become a character-driven work despite beginning as plot-driven.
In the first chapter alone, it’s possible to pick up Bly’s opinion of herself, the public view and curiosity towards asylums, the prevalence of religion in daily life, common customs, and Bly’s social circle. I don’t generally read much nonfiction outside of schoolwork, so clearly I’m not the most accurate judge of this, but out of the stories (and even articles and reviews and rants specifically written to share information about their authors’ opinions) I have read, nothing comes even close to the amount of information Bly casually hands out about herself. Most of the time it seems like you have to dig through boatloads of symbolism and imagery and apparently random sidenotes that on the seventh read-through turn out to actually be the piece’s keystones to get an idea of what the author felt about the topical issue at the time of the story’s setting, but from just the first few paragraphs in Mad-House one can piece together Bly’s social status, general personality, etc. It’s honestly a little uncomfortable to read.
Tying into that is the way she dumps in information about events from later on in the article without even considering holding back. In fact, the last two paragraphs are nothing more or less than a full, complete summary of the entire point of the article; this in the first chapter, before she even begins recounting anything of what actually happened.
The main lesson I took away from her article is that good writing does not have to be deep or subtle or lyrical; and that the content of a story, if fascinating enough, can carry just as much of the weight as manipulation of grammatical mechanics and other such traditional elements of literary style.