Tuesday, February 08, 2011

From Tampa to the Moon with Jules Verne

Today, Google’s homepage features an interactive doodle celebrating author Jules Verne’s 183rd birthday. Although the doodle features his well-known Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, his novel From the Earth to the Moon hits closer to home.

Writing in French for a young audience, Verne spun the story of man’s first moon shot. Published in 1865, the premise of From the Earth to the Moon is that industrialist members of the Baltimore Gun Club found themselves without purpose or relevance at the end of the Civil War. Club president Impey Barbicane proposes building the biggest, most powerful gun yet, one so immense that it could shoot a projectile to the moon. Over the course of the novel, the project turns into a manned space mission, with men traveling to the moon in a metal capsule, intending to return home safely.

While choosing a spot to build their tremendous gun, the Gun Club members narrow their search to either Texas or Florida. And within Florida, one place prevails: “Florida in its southern part reckons no cities of importance; it is simply studded with forts raised against the roving Indians. One solitary town, Tampa Town, was able to put in a claim in favour of its situation.” Barbicane visits Tampa to select a building site. Leaving Baltimore, he and his companions travel to New Orleans where they board a steamship to cross the Gulf of Mexico. Two days and 480 miles later, the Florida coast comes into view: “On a nearer approach Barbicane found himself in view of a low, flat country of somewhat barren aspect.”

Jules Verne sprinkled his text with authentic place names and scenic descriptions. As a Frenchman who visited the United States only once in his life, a brief trip to New York State after From the Earth to the Moon was published, how was Verne able to provide these details? The answer is in the story itself:

When the decision was arrived at by the Gun Club, to the disparagement of Texas, every one in America, where reading is an universal acquirement, set to work to study the geography of Florida. Never before had there been such a sale for works like Bartram’s Travels in Florida, Roman’s Natural History of East and West Florida, William’s Territory of Florida, and Cleland on the Cultivation of the Sugar-Cane in Florida.

These were popular natural histories of Florida published in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and provide descriptions of Florida that continue to be quoted and studied by scholars and historians today. Parts of From the Earth to the Moon echo the phrasing of these texts, with their mixture of florid descriptions of plants, flowers, and creatures alternating with prosaic scientific descriptions or measurements.

Although Verne went to some trouble to include accurate details, the truth suffers at times to advance the story. As a case in point, the site selected as a launch site is described as being less than a day’s ride from Tampa yet at an elevation of 1,800 feet above sea level. The highest point in the entire state of Florida is Britton Hill at 345 feet above sea level, and which is so far north it’s practically in Alabama. Furthermore, Barbicane is greeted in Tampa by 3,000 people, easily three times the actual population in 1865.

Verne’s descriptions of the Seminoles are reminiscent of a cowboys and Indians western. Here, Florida is the wild frontier. Once in Tampa, Barbicane decides to explore the country, looking for the best spot for the moon gun.

On the morrow some of those small horses of the Spanish breed, full of vigour and of fire, stood snorting under his windows, but instead of four steeds, here were fifty, together with their riders. Barbicane descended with his three fellow-travelers; and much astonished were they all to find themselves in the midst of such a cavalcade. He remarked that every horseman carried a carbine slung across his shoulders and pistols in his holsters.
On expressing his surprise at these preparations, he was speedily enlightened by a young Floridan who quietly said,--
“Sir, there are Seminole there.”
“What do you mean by Seminoles?”
“Savages who scour the prairies. We thought it best, therefore to escort you on your road.”
“Pooh!” cried J.T. Maston, mounting his steed.
“All right,” said the Floridan; “but it is true enough nevertheless.”
“Gentlemen,” answered Barbicane, “I thank you for your kind attention; but it is time to be off.”

Riding along, they came to an open area.

“At last,” cried Barbicane, rising in his stirrups, “here we are at the region of pines!”
“Yes! And of savages too” replied the major.
In fact, some Seminoles had just come in sight on the horizon; they rode violently backwards and forwards on their fleet horses, brandishing their spears or discharging their guns with a dull report. These hostile demonstrations, however, had no effect upon Barbicane and his companions.
Ultimately, the very act of building their projectile protects the men from Baltimore, as it “created a circle of terror which the herds of buffaloes and the war parties of the Seminoles never ventured to pass.” Technology conquers the wilderness.

The full text of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon is available on Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=nskpAAAAYAAJ&dq=from%20the%20earth%20to%20the%20moon&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false. Compare the drawings on the plates following pages 66 and 82, “Tampa Town before the undertaking,” and “Tampa Town after the undertaking.”

Ballast Point Park in Tampa was originally named Jules Verne Park in recognition of the author’s selection of the town as a likely launch site.

Also available through Google Books:

William Bartram, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida (1792)

Bernard Romans, A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida (1776)