A JULES VERNIAN VOYAGE TO KENTUCKY
My mother was French. French-American as I look back on her lineage now. Good names. Good families. Just like yours. We all have had such similar backgrounds, or I wouldn’t be writing, and you wouldn’t be reading, this recitation. Congratulations to us all.
My mother was a Charette, a Henning, a Polk, a Meriwether, and an Allen. It was Ann Allen who settled this Kentucky wilderness in 1795 and gave our farm her name. How often I try to see what she saw in the trees, when she got here with her boys, a widow of the wars. A widow winding down that wild Ohio River to the west and a new home.
Did she make her way to the Falls, blocking further passage to freedom? With her boys, did she then hike to the headwaters of a creek that once sported bear along its grassy, green slopes? To a once isolated set of cabins, a pioneers’ place, Sturgis Station? Then along the old, abandoned Harrods Trace to a place she had bought. To a remarkably deep place on a curving, clear creek.
There are rivers, too, in France that freed my family there. The Loire runs south from “Ile-de-France.” Through the land of Joan and Castles of Kings. Flowing west, falling away, escaping all of that revolutionary mess. Past Charette’s Couffe, through the peoples’ Vendee, and into the trading port of Nantes. Ah, now that is a city of dreams.
A city looking out onto a western sea of possibilities. Not back past the caskets of revolution, filled in by gluttonous guillotines. But to a city of machines, ships and balloons, even submarines. Of “Extraordinary Voyages” in the mind of a young Jules Verne, born there in Nantes on February 8, 1828.
Verne is still there. And you can sit next to him. Sit next to a bronze statue of a boy on a high bluff overlooking the island city in the Loire next to his museum there. But he’s not looking at his home. He is looking at his imagination. Looking out to the sea. Looking out to the Atlantic Ocean and, in my imagination, looking out to me. Looking to the lands of my mother, just beyond that remarkable deep place, on that clear creek right over here. And does not a bronzed Captain Nemo stand there with him? Sextant in hand, he is charting the lands of your next journey.
Here are some moments that made the man.
Verne was sent to Paris to become a lawyer like his father. This he did, but did follow. Meeting the son of Alexandre Dumas, he soon fell in with the theater crowd, as young, imaginative men often do. He turned to writing plays and operas. He took up work at the Theatre Lyrique in Paris.
He also began to write short stories for a French family magazine. They are a delight to read. You see the future as forming in the mind of the master explorer. Writing adventures for you in Castles of California, Martin Paz, The First Ships of the Mexican Navy, and Master Zacharius. These got him started writing in the early 1850s. But he was soon to be introduced to the publisher who would unleash his prodigious powers in a series of novels he called, Voyages Extraordinaires. Extraordinary journeys still waiting for you.
Many are familiar, but undoubtedly not all. More than 54 and, including more, probably greater than 80 such adventures, all tolled.
Here are some you may know: Five Weeks In a Balloon (1863); From the Earth to the Moon (1865); Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1969); Around the World in Eighty Days (1872); and The Mysterious Island (1875).
Here are some you may not know: The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (1866), Begum’s Millions (1879), School For Robinsons (1882), Robur the Conqueror (1886), The Mighty Orinoco (1898), The Kip Brothers (1902), and Master of the World (1904).
And, of course, there is Paris in the Twentieth Century, written by Verne in 1863, but not published until 1994 after it was discovered in one of Verne’s trunks by his grandson. Ahh, now therein lies a tale. And a good one that involves his son and soon-to-be author successor. But first his publisher, the reason that his “Voyages” began, and also why Paris was not published, when it was first done!
To know the publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, is to study French history. Suffice it to succinctly state that he lived in the turbulent times of the French Republic and Second Empire. That’s Robespierre and Napoleon the Third. Both he and Jules Verne wanted to explore the world. Elsewhere.
Hetzel published works by Balzac and Victor Hugo. He wanted to feature science and adventure stories for the entire family. So he founded the Family Illustrated Library, which, in 1864, became the Magazine of Education and Recreation. Illustrations in that magazine would figure in his greatest success. The adventure stories of Jules Verne!
So Verne submits Paris in the Twentieth Century to Hetzel in 1863. It is rejected in unflattering terms. Hetzel wanted travel, adventure, and science, not an ugly dystopian future!
Verne then brought him Five Weeks in a Balloon. And the world of travel and adventure we explore exploded in his novel. The “Voyages” were born. Hetzel called them “Scientifiction.”
Here is how Hetzel described Verne’s writing in an 1866 preface to the series:
“His goal, indeed, is to summarize all the knowledge of geography, geology, physics, and astronomy that modern science has amassed, and to retell, in the attractive and picturesque way that is his hallmark, the history of the universe.”
I often think about Verne, as I think about things that excite me about the life and landscapes surrounding my home in Kentucky. The enthusiasm of exploration and adventure right here!
And I often think of my mother who felt such love of this place. And I remember my wife having a hot air balloon appear before my porch. The bobbing gondola, in which I alighted, crossed the creek and crested the tall wheat stalks, silently sailing across these fine fields of my found home.
So sitting on that bronze bench high above Nantes, I think that young Verne is thinking of me. Thinking of what further travels he might bring to cross these seas. Adventures that I now write and of which I speak.
You see, like you, I sit next to him too!