The Rehabilitation of Jules Verne in America:

From Boy’s Author to Adult’s Author— 1960-2003

by Walter James Miller

(This is a talk that Miller gave at the Library of Congress on July 23, 2003. Miller was introduced by Brian Taves, co-chair of the Science Fiction Forum of the Library of Congress Professional Association. Their audience consisted of more than forty librarians on their lunch hour and many visitors, including several members of the NAJVS.)

This is really just a progress report on the rehabilitation of Jules Verne in America. I’m reporting mixed results mainly luminously good news with some residual bad news.

In most parts of the world like France, Italy, Germany, Russia, Venezuela and Taiwan Jules Verne has always been regarded, without serious question, as a great popular writer for mature, sophisticated, intellectual adults. I’m talking about adults who are fascinated not only by Verne’s scientific notions, but also by the social/political questions he raises and by the psychological and literary maneuvers he uses.

Yet in America Verne was until recently widely regarded as a children’s writer, meeting only a child’s intellectual needs, and few of those.

Another sinister note of suspense here (as I will show in detail later): many American publishers still profit by promoting that diminished Jules Verne as the real Jules Verne. You can check that out in your neighborhood gift shop or bookstore, or even in your average public library. To get the authentic Verne you might have to order his titles from a non-profit publisher.

Notice, most American adults are puzzled when I refer to the social/political questions explored in Verne’s works, or to his literary strategies. Right there is clear proof that they have not experienced the authentic Verne; the Verne the rest of the world enjoys...the Verne who could never separate science from politics or science from literary fun.

True, most American adults do have fond memories of that great prophet whose books they put aside with their kiddy toys. They smile when they read that NASA is experimenting with shooting payloads into space through a gun tube, and that this costs one-fortieth what it costs to lift them off by rocketry. They smile as they read a piece by a New York Times science reporter who calls this a replay of Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. They smile again that a Jules Verne Launcher Co. in Alaska is drilling a two-mile long gun-tube through a mountain. They smile knowingly when they read that scientists are generating electricity in the Caribbean by stretching cables from the warmest strata of water down to the coldest. The science reporter recalls that Captain Nemo said, offhandedly, that he could generate electricity that way if he wanted to.

Yes, most American adults do read about Jules Verne in the news. But they no longer read his books. That’s kid stuff.

They’re puzzled too when I talk about rehabilitating Verne. How can you rehabilitate a children’s writer into an author for adults when he was a children’s writer in the first place?

Why how could these criminal disparities and misunderstandings have occurred?

The easiest and simplest way for me to explain it is to tell you about my own personal part in solving this case...the case of the near-assassination of Jules Verne in America. I shall concentrate on three of Verne’s works. Two of them —From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea— were translated into English in the 1870s. The third —The Mighty Orinoco— was not rendered into English until 2002. It had been suppressed in English for 104 years, for political reasons, as Brian Taves has made clear in The Jules Verne Encyclopedia.

In 1963, Simon & Schuster asked me to write an introduction to their new edition of the “standard” translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues. This was the 1872 version by Mercier Lewis, one of the pseudonyms of the Reverend Lewis Page Mercier, M.A. from Oxford. I came upon a strange sentence at the opening of Chapter 2, Part I. Professor Aronnax says: “I had just returned from a scientific research in the disagreeable territory of Nebraska.” This so puzzled me that I resorted to the French. I found that Aronnax actually had come back from the badlands!

In the good reverend’s Chapter 11, Part I, I found it strange that Captain Nemo gave no details about the batteries that powered his submarine. Checking the original for the hundredth time, I discovered that Mercier had omitted several crucial technical paragraphs. And a few pages later, he has Captain Nemo saying that his steel plates have a density of “.7 to .8 that of water.” This Mercier Lewis figure is nonsensical. It would mean that Nemo’s steel was lighter than water! As every high school student knows, the specific gravity of steel is 7.8.

The next great shock came when I realized that Mercier Lewis omitted a delightful scene in which Verne, the master adult educator, contrives to explain the scientific classification of fish in a very humorous fashion. So Lewis has us on a submarine journey with no details about how to propel the ship or classify the creatures outside. But science was not the only component tampered with. Lewis also disliked Nemo’s politics. He left out the famous passage about Nemo’s portrait gallery of heroes. He omitted Nemo’s denunciation of the British treatment of the native Indian pearl divers. Isn’t it strange that in our honest clergyman’s “standard” translation, all reference to Darwin is eliminated?

I finally calculated that 23% of Verne’s text had been junked. Lewis had omitted so much that by the time he reached the subject matter of Verne’s chapter 13 he just called it chapter 12. Ironically, Verne’s chapter 13, “The Nautilus,” is missing entirely from Lewis’ table of contents!

Of course, these cuts meant that not only Verne’s scientific and philosophical, but also his literary integrity had been destroyed. The “standard” translation features a haphazard story line, shallow characterization, and an intellectual depth of near zero. We have been stuck with this version for five generations. At least five publishing houses still issue this version as authentic Verne. Other translators working in the 1870s and 1880s were equally unreliable and even tendentious in their renderings. For example, W.H.G. Kingston, in translating The Mysterious Island, actually rewrote Captain Nemo’s deathbed speech to make it less critical of British imperialism. The one novel to escape such cynical treatment was Around the World in Eighty Days. How come? By then Verne had become so famous that as each chapter of this work appeared in a French magazine serialization, foreign correspondents cabled home a summary! Naturally, when the Reverend Lewis came to translate that novel, he could leave nothing out!

Needless to say, literary critics in America and other anglophone countries, reading Verne only in the English editions, considered him a very poor writer. They considered his work fit only for children. The low point in American attitudes toward Verne came in 1961, when Galaxy magazine published an article that sneered at Verne for creating steel so light that sheets of it would float, and for failing to give the specs for his batteries. Of course, the author, T.L. Thomas, like all other American critics, blamed Verne himself instead of his translators. Even such an SF intellectual as Damon Knight was taken in. Verne’s reputation in America was destroyed.

My editor at Simon & Schuster agreed that we could not help perpetuate Mercier Lewis’ travesty. He assigned me to do a new translation. While I was working on it, I discovered another horrible trend in Verne publishing in English. Anthony Bonner had put out, in 1962, a version of Twenty Thousand Leagues that was 99% complete in content but had new flaws. When in doubt about what Verne meant Bonner relied on the Mercier Lewis edition; for example, on Nemo’s steel being .7 to .8 the density of water! And although, while consulting Lewis, Bonner must certainly have discovered Lewis’ crimes, he said nothing about them in his introduction because he wrote no introduction. He neither exposed Lewis nor claimed a first for himself. And Bonner’s own mistake in following Lewis remained uncorrected for four decades until Frederick Paul Walter helped Bantam put out a new edition just a few years ago.

So now there are two Lewis legacies to contend with. Some publishers still issue the Mercier Lewis translations intact, as in 1872; and others correct his more obvious mistakes but do not restore the passages he cut.

The most valuable feature of my Simon & Schuster translation, which appeared in 1965, was that I did write an introduction—”Jules Verne in America”—which did what Bonner could have done. Simon & Schuster had to rush out a second printing before publication because the first was snatched up by a book club! I was invited to explain my edition on twenty-seven radio and TV shows in just the first month! The Reader’s Digest Best Loved Books series bought the rights to produce a condensed version. Yes, the irony of it my version, done largely to close the gaps in the “standard” translation, was now issued in a popular new condensation, with gaps all its own.

But at least the rehabilitation movement was underway. At least among scholars and the more enlightened SF fans. A year or so later my S&S editor moved to the New American Library and of course he wanted an NAL edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues. Across the hall from my office at New York University sat a distinguished Romance language teacher, Mendor Thomas Brunetti. I talked him into doing the NAL translation, and that gave me a chance to get into print some important improvements over my S&S edition. And in 2001, when NAL decided to put out a new edition of Brunetti’s book, I got to write an afterword in which I put into the record for the first time the story of our collaboration.

Later Brian Taves told me that these early Miller-Brunetti efforts inspired him to become a Verne scholar. Now Verne became respectable in the academic world. Stanford Luce and Arthur Evans and William Butcher all wrote their Ph.D. dissertations on the Great Romancer. For a while it looked as if the anti-Lewis forces had won a major victory. But no. Most commercial publishers continued to put out expensive, handsome, beautifully illustrated gift editions of Mercier Lewis. In the Seventies there were fifteen such editions, many of them not identified as Mercier Lewis’ work, but all of them featuring that disagreeable territory of Nebraska!

So by 1974 we Verne lovers sank back down in the depths of despair. Verne was still in trouble in America. Then one of the great editors of our time Hugh Rawson at the famous old T.Y. Crowell Co. had an idea. He reminded me of the fabulous success of The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner. Why not make our case through annotated editions? We could annotate Mercier Lewis’ three-quarters of Twenty Thousand Leagues to show his errors, and add [in brackets] my new version of the remaining quarter that Lewis had omitted, to show the damage he had done to Verne’s reputation.

So in 1976 T.Y. Crowell published the first volume of The Annotated Jules Verne. My afterword was optimistically titled “Jules Verne Rehabilitated.” Crowell ran a three-column ad in The New York Times Book Review. The famous journalist Herbert Mitgang wrote a news article about this expose! The young German Volker Dehs, now an illustrious Verne scholar, bought a copy of it while he was in America and has praised it ever since. The French critics noted that this was the first annotated edition of Verne anywhere. And it became a Book-of-the-Month Club Book Dividend! Now, I felt, we’ve really rehabilitated the Great Romancer in the anglophone world.

So in 1978 Crowell published the second volume, a complete new translation of From the Earth to the Moon, with annotations and appendices to show the errors and distortions in the nineteenth-century versions by Mercier Lewis and Edward Roth. I demonstrated that, properly and completely rendered, this genuine space novel was also an anti-war classic on a level with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I showed how Lewis once again had diluted Verne’s anti-imperialism and emasculated his anti-militarism. But before my edition was published, T.Y. Crowell was absorbed by HarperCollins, who had no further interest in annotated SF except to sell subsidiary rights. For example, a Japanese publisher bought the rights to translate my edition wholesale. It has come out twice in a neat two-volume paperback format. Even my name Miller was rendered into ideograms.

Rehabilitation seemed now safely in progress, but Mercier Lewis and Edward Roth and W. H. G. Kingston versions were still mainstay Verne in gift shops, book stores, libraries.

And then I faced a comical dilemma. Scribner’s asked me to write chapter 75, about Jules Verne, in a massive tome to be called Writers for Children. If I declined because I don’t see him as primarily a writer for children, somebody else would write him up as exactly that. So I somehow diplomatically made the case that Verne wrote for all ages, that as a matter of fact in France he is issued mainly in adult editions but also in special children’s editions, but properly translated, he is an author for adults even in English.

Then came a big surprise, a major victory! United States Naval Institute Press asked Brian Taves at the Library of Congress to nominate someone to do a special deluxe annotated translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues. After I was one-third through I got the bright idea to take aboard Frederick Paul Walter, whose translation for Random House had run afoul of anti-Verne prejudice. I especially wanted Rick as a collaborator because he is well-versed in marine biology and technology and has done exhaustive research on the proper American names for the thousands of species of fish that Verne describes. NIP produced our edition in 1993 and our editor there claims that it’s their longest title still in print; it’s now in its fourth printing; it’s due for a second edition in 2005, the centennial of Verne’s death.

Soon after, when William Butcher produced a mass paperback edition through Oxford University Press, he made us feel good because he quoted us twenty-two times. Readers of English now have both quality and mass paperback editions, thoroughly annotated from the historical, biographical, technical, and literary points of view. Soon Rick Walter and I will make Bill Butcher happy by quoting him in our centennial edition.

Brian Taves summed up our work in the Summer 1999 issue of Extrapolation: “Walter James Miller,” he wrote, “first vividly exposed the drawbacks of earlier Verne translations in the preface to his 1965 edition. Miller elaborated on these problems in his Annotated Verne Series and other scholars have since followed his lead.”

For example, Wesleyan University Press has launched its Early Classics of Science Fiction Series, with a team of Verne scholars including Arthur Evans, Sidney Kravitz, Stanford Luce, William Butcher, and me, following my own lead. Thus in 2002 Wespress issued Luce’s first-ever English translation of The Mighty Orinoco, originally suppressed in English for political reasons. This well-plotted novel is, as I show in my Introduction and Notes, strongly anti-colonialist and pro-feminist, even androgynist. It is well-reviewed on Amazon.com. And a year later, the North American Jules Verne Society issued Verne’s SF drama, Journey through the Impossible, in a handsome volume published by Prometheus Books. This has been the first publishing venture by the NAJVS. Its president, Jean-Michel Margot, edited this book with an Introduction, with Edward Baxter doing the translation, and Roger Leyonmark the stunning illustrations. Again, Impossible is praised on Amazon.com. One reviewer said this “incredible book...will forever change the way readers think of Verne.” Reviewers on Booksense.com and BarnesNoble.com seem to agree wholeheartedly.

Many other English editions of Verne for adult audiences are in the works. In 2005, to mention just one, the University of Nebraska Press will issue Verne’s own original version of The Meteor Hunt, translated and annotated by Frederick Paul Walter and Walter James Miller.

But as I warned you, there is still residual bad news. Barnes & Noble, in their fat Verne anthology, actually feature the Mercier Lewis version of Twenty Thousand Leagues! The Quality Paperback Book Club, Scholastic Magazine Press, Wordsworth Press, and Nelson/Doubleday all still issue the Mercier Lewis as genuine Verne. Will we ever be able to stamp out Mercier Lewis if Scholastic feeds him to public school children; Wordsworth feeds him to college students; Nelson/Doubleday to its Science Fiction Book Club members; and B&N and QPBC to adults everywhere?

Thanks to publishers like these, many American adults still do not know the genuine prophet of science fiction; do not know about his social and political stance or his splendid literary talents.

Jules Verne foresaw not only the environmental crisis, the endangered species crisis; the possibility of crossing the Poles by sailing under them; of producing self-renewing energy by inexpensively running cables down through several strata of sea; of establishing underwater towns, mines, farms, and labs; of escaping gravity by using gun-tubes instead of rocketry.

He also foresaw the collapse of colonialism, the emergence of new attitudes about gender and androgyny, the industrialization of China, the smoldering of French separatism in Canada, the rise of the American Goliath, the prostitution of science by new power elites: by private financiers and the military-industrial complex. Thanks to Scholastic and Barnes & Noble and others of this stripe, American children and adults hardly know this side of Verne. They hardly know the Verne who explored all varieties of nonconformism, from vagabondism to guerrilla war to philosophical anarchism; the Verne who gave a voice in his books to every shade of social and political opinion, from utopian socialism to anti-semitism to proto-fascism. Indeed, the great French scholar Jean Chesneaux ranks Jules Verne with H.G. Wells as a major writer of political fiction.

Why are so few commercial publishers interested in the authentic Jules Verne?

Well, Mercier Lewis, W.H.G. Kingston, and Edward Roth are in the public domain: they no longer have to be paid for their work. And these publishers by now have a heavy investment in their children’s-level illustrations. And the children’s-level editions are non-controversial’ they are fumigated of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, anti-militarism, and pro-feminism!

But the tide has been reversed. Americans now have some access to the Jules Verne who can create three-dimensional characters; who can accent some characters as archetypes; who can create mood and atmosphere, convincing motivation, authentic dream states, and wonderment and respect for Nature; who is mature and responsible in seeing science and technology as intertwined with social-political conditions.

American readers can now have the authentic Verne that sea captains in Murmansk, bank tellers in Caracas, mathematicians in Paris have always enjoyed. The Verne who has been a perennial challenge to literary critics in Europe is now a growing challenge to scholars and critics in the U.S.A.

But to get that real Verne you might have to go to a non-profit publisher, like Wesleyan University Press, University of Nebraska Press, or the United States Naval Institute Press. Amazon.com gets you there.

Copyright 2003 - Walter James Miller

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