Jules Verne never visited Cincinnati, but he mentions Cincinnati—and particularly Cincinnati’s Observatory—in several books. Cincinnati, it can be said, loved Jules Verne and knew his works well.
Verne lived his entire life (1828-1905) in France and rarely traveled, but his books have opened infinite vistas for generations of readers. His imaginative novels, known collectively as “Voyages Extraordinaires,” are often credited for the origin of science fiction and Verne had a strong influence on the Surrealist artists, but Verne conjured all these fantastic tales from his study, lined with a superb collection of books. According to an interview published in The Cincinnati Enquirer [13 February 1898] Verne said:
“I am quite content to sit at home in the quiet of my study and learn about all those countries, concerning which I write, from the volumes on my library shelf. Some novelists think it absolutely impossible to write about a particular place without going there first in order to study its local color. It is probably advantageous to do so, but it would puzzle a writer to find a means of obtaining such help in writing a romance of the ocean such as my ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea’ or my ‘Voyages From The Earth To The Moon.'”
Verne’s library must have had some reference works on Cincinnati, because the Queen City pops up from time to time. Verne’s From The Earth To The Moon (1965) makes passing mention of Cincinnati’s Porkopolis roots when describing an encampment around the large Florida gun that will send his travelers into space:
“All the various classes of American society were mingled together in terms of absolute equality. Bankers, farmers, sailors, cotton-planters, brokers, merchants, watermen, magistrates, elbowed each other in the most free-and-easy way. Louisiana Creoles fraternized with farmers from Indiana; Kentucky and Tennessee gentlemen and haughty Virginians conversed with trappers and the half-savages of the lakes and butchers from Cincinnati.”
A lesser-known Verne novel, Robur The Conqueror (1886), is a sort of prequel to 1904’s Master of the World. After a mysterious light flashes through the sky, several American observatories argue about the details of its appearance:
“Then there intervened the observatory at Cincinnati founded in 1870, on Mount Lookout, thanks to the generosity of Mr. Kilgour, and known for its micrometrical measurements of double stars. Its director declared with utmost good faith that there had certainly been something, that a traveling body had shown itself at very short periods at different points in the atmosphere, but what were the nature of this body, its dimensions, its speed, and its trajectory, it was impossible to say.”
Another obscure Verne novel, Le Testament d’un excentrique, 1899, translated as “The Will of an Eccentric” briefly mentions Cincinnati in a passage praising Cleveland by describing Euclid Avenue as the “Camps Elysees of America,” a description that makes Cincinnati jealous.
Several references to Cincinnati’s Observatory appear in a posthumous Verne novel, The Chase of the Golden Meteor (1908). Although many of Verne’s posthumous novels were significantly rewritten by his son, Michel, this particular—and quite satirical—science fiction novel was reconstructed from a manuscript Verne himself began writing in 1901. The plot concerns two amateur astronomers and their rivalry in attempting to claim credit for discovering an unusual new meteor that proves (as the title suggest) to be quite valuable. To claim credit, one astronomer writes to an observatory in Pittsburgh, while the other writes to the Cincinnati Observatory in Mount Lookout.
A search of various newspaper databases finds more than 500 mentions of Jules Verne in Cincinnati newspapers during his lifetime. Any mention of world travel, particularly Nelly Bly’s 1890 trip around the world, was sure to elicit comparisons to Verne’s Around The World in Eighty Days. Likewise any mention of submarines brought forth an allusion to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Cincinnati editors. New inventions, especially those involving electricity or electromagnetic communication, almost invariably drew comparison to Verne’s literary prophecies.
Cincinnati appreciated Verne through media other than his books. Theatrical productions of Verne’s most popular novels appeared on Cincinnati’s stages as well.
Jules Verne’s death in 1905 was noted with great sorrow in Cincinnati and various local authorities were quoted by The Cincinnati Post [27 March 1905] to evaluate the French novelist’s enduring value to American readers. Cincinnati attorney Eugene Pociey, who served as vice consul for France, used to see Verne at France’s royal palace:
“While Verne never posed as a prophet, his imaginative creations have been fulfilled to a wonderful degree. He had a cordial character and loved to associate with the ‘Bohemian crowd.’ ”
E.W. Wilkinson, principal of Cincinnati’s First Intermediate School, cautioned that Verne was not for everyone:
“Some of Verne’s books are good for some boys. Some boys are so dull they cannot appreciate them, others so high strung that the imaginative creations of Verne may work harm. For the great majority of young people, however, the books are pleasing and instructive reading.”
Verne is still remembered in Cincinnati today. In October, the Cincinnati Observatory hosted a steampunk event using From The earth To The Moon as an organizing theme.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities