Brief Biography of Jules Verne
From the 1905 P.F. Collier & Son Memorial Edition of FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON.
Jules Verne...his "day" is just in the first flush of its dawn.
|Jules Verne [Photo: 1905 Memorial Edition of FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, P.F. Collier & Son, compliments: private collection of Jerry Woodfill]|
JULES VERNE, probably the most widely read novelist in the world, died on March 24, 1905, at the age of seventy-seven, almost literally with pen in hand. More than forty years before he had made an agreement with his publishers to produce two novels a year for the rest of his life for $4,000 annually. Although his books had from the beginning an enormous sale, being translated into all the languages of Europe and Japanese and Arabic, he nobly stuck to his agreement, and at his death was twelve or fifteen books ahead of his contract, making a total of over one hundred novels either published or ready for publication.
It must not be thought that these novels were perfunctorily composed, slipshod and inaccurate works such as are produced under high pressure by publishers' hacks. Each one of them is absolutely fresh and original in conception, scrupulously accurate in information, and written in a literary style that is the result of drastic eritieism and careful revision by the author. He read the newspapers and scientific journals very systematically for suggestions; he made many notes; he was indefatigable in pursuing subjects that attracted him through encyclopedias and special treatises until he knew all that could be learned about them. From boyhood, when he used to sit fascinated before a working engine, he had trained himself to observe machinery. He first looked at a mechanical idea in the clear, cold light of scientific investigation. Then he illumined the subject with his warm, vitalizing, poetic imagination (for Verne was a poet of no mean reputation before he began to write romances), and brought into almost tangible existence to embody these principles marvelous machines of which the world had never before conceived, but which inventive science recognized to be not only possible but certain to be perfected some time in the future. Then he created masterful men suited to utilize these machines and principles, giving his characters free play to act in the manner appropriate to the circumstances. Therefore, however exciting his situations, his narrative never appears unnatural.
So, by following natural and reasonable processes, he anticipated nature with remarkable accuracy. His scientific imagination gave the world "Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea," a picture of a submarine boat long before the first plan of one had been drawn; he wrote about automobiles and airships when inventors were only dimly dreaming of them; and in "Tour of the World in Eighty Days" he set a mark that the completion of the Siberian Railway has since rendered easy of attainment.
Jules Verne was with reason proud of his prescience. He rightly considered himself a poet, in the old sense of "maker." He once said: "After all, poets are not necessarily dreamers, but prophets." In his own case there is certainly no impression of dream-like unreality. At no point after the title does the reader become incredulous. Even in such a preposterous conception as a voyage from the earth to the moon in a great hollow cannon-ball we are so cleverly hypnotized by the novelist's art that not only does the trip seem quite plausible, but we appear to be taking it ourselves. In Jules Verne's works it is the happening of the unexpected or the failure of the expected to happen that gives the vivid impression of reality. We do not hear the report of the cannon that sends us off on the perilous voyage. Hence we must be flying faster than sound--a mental impression so intense as almost to become physical. And with this impression we have acquired an important piece of scientific information that will remain with us to the end of our days.
After all, it is as a teacher, a popularizer of exact scientific knowledge, that Jules Verne could and claim consideration among the writers of his time. In, he modestly said to the correspondent of the London "Daily News": "You might tell your readers that these books in which I have published prophecies based upon the latter-day discoveries of science have really only been a means to an end. It will perhaps surprise you to hear that I do not take especial pride in having written of the motor car, the submarine boat, and the navigable airship before they became actual realities. When I wrote about them as realities these things were already half discoveries. I simply made fiction out of what became ulterior fact, and my object in so doing was not to prophesy, but to spread a knowledge of geography among the young in as interesting a dress as I could compass. Every single geographical fact and every scientific one in every book that I have ever written has been looked up with care, and is scrupulously correct. If, for instance, I had not wished to point the fact that a journey round the world entailed the apparent loss of a whole day, my 'Tour of the World in Eighty Days' would never have been written. And 'The Mysterious Island' owed its inception to my wish to tell the world's boys something about the wonders of the Pacific."
No teacher that ever lived surpassed Jules Verne in this fundamental pedagogic art of instructing by entertaining. And, like all good and great teachers, instructing and entertaining others, he kept his own mind strong and vigorous and his heart young and joyous to the end of life. He wrote every one of his hundred books con amore, with love and delight in his work. He retained his inventive power intact to the last by constantly exercising it. What would the world have lost had he been shelved at forty (he was thirty- five when he wrote his first scientific romance), or, indeed, had he been chloroformed at sixty (seventeen years ago) in accordance with Prof. Osler's theory! More than one great inventor has confessed that his creative imagination was first stirred by reading in youth a thrilling scientific romance by Jules Verne. The thrill arises from the probability of the story, not its unreality. Unlike almost every other writer of scientific fiction, dealing with the wonders of future civilization, Verne never in a single instance pandered to the taste for the grotesquely marvelous. He once said: "I have always made a point in my romances of basing my so-called inventions upon a groundwork of actual fact, and of using in their construction methods and materials which are not entirely without the pale of contemporary engineering skill and knowledge."
Verne's works were crowned by the French Academy for both their narrative charm and their scientific and educational value. He had the distinction of being the last man to be decorated with the Legion of Honor under the Empire of Napoleon III.
No author that ever lived was more universally beloved. Hector Malot, the French writer, called him the "best of best fellows," and Alexandre Dumas the younger was his bosom friend. Verne was shot by an insane nephew some years before his death and never recovered from the wound. He was also threatened with blindness, and when news of this went abroad he received telegrams and letters of sympathy from scientists and children in every part of the globe. During the Paris Exposition of 1900 many American visitors traveled from Paris to Verne's home in Amiens solely to see the man whose works had given them so much instruction combined with enjoyment. When one of them suggested that there should be a "Jules Verne Day" at the Exposition the old author modestly and somewhat sadly shook his head and said, "Jules Verne has already had his day"--a remark true of the physical man, but farthest from the fact when applied to his literary life. We are on the threshold of a wonderful era of scientific and social progress, and as the great prophet of this era it may be truly said of Jules Verne that his "day" is just in the first flush of its dawn.
MARION MILLS MILLER.
Courtesy of NASA JSC and Collier and Son