Jules Verne's America

By Evans, Arthur B. | Extrapolation, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Jules Verne's America


Evans, Arthur B., Extrapolation


As an author who once quipped "In the beginning ... God created America in six days and rested on the seventh" (A Floating Island 67), Jules Verne's lifelong fascination with the United States had an indelible influence on his writing. (1) Although he made only one trip to America (voyaging to New York in 1867 aboard the huge steamship The Great Eastern and then making a brief trek northward to visit Niagara Falls), more than a third of the 60+ novels in Verne's series Voyages extraordinaires dans les mondes connus et inconnus [Extraordinary Journeys in Known and Unknown Worlds] take place in whole or in part on American soil. And the number of Vernian heroes and heroines that are of American nationality--from the retired Civil War artillerymen of the Baltimore Gun Club in From the Earth to the Moon (1865) to the ever-faithful Dolly Branican of Mistress Branican (1891)--is far greater than those who are French. (2) It must also be acknowledged, however, that Verne's feelings about America evolved dramatically during his lifetime. Many of his later works from the 1880s and 1890s, for example, depict a United States that is far different from the one found in his earlier and more well known novels from the 1860s and 1870s.

Why was Verne, at least initially, so enamored with America and all things American? According to noted Verne scholar Jean Chesneaux,

  Verne was fascinated by the nineteenth-century United States, by the
  American character, and by American society. For him it was as if the
  United States stood on the frontier between "known worlds" and
  "unknown worlds" ... [W]ith hardly any ties to the past and its rapid
  demographic, technical, and economic development, it constituted a
  futurist theme in itself. In the world of the mid-nineteenth century,
  it was the United States which came closest to the "model for
  development" which Verne dreamed for humanity. (150)

As a quarante-huitard (a supporter of the ideals of the Revolution of 1848) and a strong believer in republicanism, Verne was both attracted to and amused by the American system of free-wheeling and passionately partisan politics. Note, for instance, that delightful episode in Around the World in 80 Days (1873), when Phileas Fogg and his travel companions come ashore in San Francisco amid what appears to be a tumultuous street riot only to discover that it was, in reality, only a local election--ironically, for a justice of the peace! Or consider a similar scene in From the Earth to the Moon when President Impey Barbicane wishes to make a speech, and the unruly crowd begins

  pushing against the gates, trying to get closer, all eager to find out
  what Barbicane had to say, elbowing their way forward, jostling,
  crushing each other with that freedom of action particular to a people
  nurtured on the idea of "self government." (8)

Refreshingly different from Europeans, Americans for Verne were an essentially logical and pragmatic people who don't stand on ceremony and never hesitate when making decisions: "A Yankee, as we know, does not waste time beating around the bush. He takes one path only, and usually the one that goes straight to his goal" (Robur 9). They make very successful businessmen, entrepreneurs, and industrialists:

  Everyone knows that Yankees are born traders; wherever fate sends
  them, from the arctic zone to the tropical, their business sense has
  to find to useful outlet. (From the Earth 201-02)

  These businessmen's thirst for profit, the zeal with which they work,
  their need to extract money by every means that industry and
  speculation can discover, does not have the same repulsive aspect in
  the traders of the New World as it sometimes produces in their
  overseas counterparts. They act with a certain grandeur that is quite
  compelling. ("The Humbug" 162)

Further, by their emphasis on education--America is hailed as a land "where everyone knows how to read and write" (From the Earth 158)--as well as by their "can-do" temperament--"Impossible is not an American word" (Journey Through the Impossible 114)--Yankees make the world's best engineers and builders. …

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