The present publication of "Humbug" is the first ever in English. (1) This would seem a surprising omission for the best-selling author of all time and the most translated writer in the world. It is all the more astonishing given the importance and interest of this short story.
First, "Humbug" is set in America, and analyses Anglo-Saxon customs -- always illuminating when done from the outside. Secondly, this tale elucidates the better-known Voyages extraordinaires. The theme of the dangers of deception ironically shows up all the "extraordinary" discoveries of the rest of the canon, especially in Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864). (2) And lastly, this story, first published in 1910, was not entirely by Jules Verne. It was revised by his son Michel; and constitutes therefore another key to the Jules-Michel mystery, which has still not been totally elucidated to date.
Virtually all of the Extraordinary Journeys have been translated into English (3) -- if the word "translation" can be used. Most of the hundreds of attempts have indeed been atrocious: often truncated by up to half, and demonstrating precious little understanding of the original works. They contain a large number of howlers: "the Passage of the North Sea", "jumping over an island" and "each square 3/16 of an inch", to quote but three. (4) From the beginning, the English versions were the result of, but also contributed massively to, the masking of that highly original writer, Jules Verne, a creative artist of the very first order. The Extraordinary Journeys are indisputably literary works -- except in their English versions.
Although Verne's significance has systematically been undervalued in Britain and America, there are signs, finally, of a revival in his reputation, with several PhDs and scholarly books written recently on his works. Oxford University Press will very shortly be publishing a new translation and critical edition of Journey to the Centre of the Earth in the "World's Classics" series, to be followed by Around the World in Eighty Days and possibly others; and Backwards to Britain, the first book Verne ever wrote, published in France only in 1989, is also due to appear in 1992. This edition of "Humbug" comes therefore at an opportune time for a new understanding of Verne.
"Verne", rather than "Jules Verne": one does not normally say "William Shakespeare", "Jean Racine" or "Charles Dickens" (only female writers tend to need both names, for some strange reason). But the omission of the first name also helps to avoid the thorny problem of authorship. Many of the works appearing after Jules Verne's death in 1905, although published under his sole name, were in fact extensively revised and added to by his son Michel Verne (1861-1925). Up to three quarters of The Barsac Mission (1919) and probably the whole of the masterpiece "The Eternal Adam" (1910) seem indeed to be Michel's unaided work. (5) This revelation clearly has important implications for our understanding of the Verne phenomenon.
The son's participation in the collected works is far from a crass bolt-on job. Michel's contribution, although perhaps making our knowledge of Jules more difficult, must be considered an important literary œuvre in its own right. It is an excellent imitation of his father's style (it had to be, to convince); but it also furnishes an ironic commentary on the Extraordinary Journeys as a whole -- including the posthumous production itself!
It is therefore fitting that the present volume should acknowledge Michel Verne in the authorship formula. This seems in fact to be the first time Michel has ever been credited as an author of any fictional work in permanent form, anywhere in the world. (6) (A remarkable irony: the son repeatedly criticised by his father as not being self-effacing enough successfully effaced his own literary œuvre for nearly a century.) It is to be hoped that it will not be the last; that future publications of the posthumous works will acknowledge Michel Verne's contribution as either reviser, co-author or main author. (7)
* * *
Humbug was first published in 1910 in the volume of short stories Yesterday and Tomorrow. Verne had apparently not intended it to be included, planning instead to publish "Memories of Childhood and Youth" and "Le Comte de Chantelaine" (1864). In other words, "Humbug" is unique amongst Verne's finished prose works (with Backwards to Britain) in that he did not foresee its publication. (8)
Three versions of the story exist. Jules Verne's handwritten manuscript was bought from his descendants by the town of Nantes in 1981, and thereafter very jealously guarded. Piero Gondolo della Riva had, however, acquired the typescript from the archives of the publisher: this had been typed on Michel Verne's initiative by an averagely competent secretary in 1905. It was this typescript that the Bulletin de la Société Jules Verne was able to publish in 1985 as the original, unrevised version. (9)
If we compare the two versions, Jules's version contains about 11,400 words, as against 10,700 for Michel's. Many of Michel's revisions are in fact simply excisions, although there are a large number of other changes designed to increase the story's coherence. (These revisions, when they are significant or involve more than five or six words, will be indicated in this edition by endnotes.) Other alterations in the 1910 version include the correction of the very numerous spelling mistakes and a reduction in Jules Verne's numerous semi-colons and exclamation marks. (10) The confusion as to whether the fossil is a Mastodon, a mammoth or a human being is decreased (but not totally eliminated); and a particularly racist remark is removed (see endnote q), as are most of the references to the Old Testament. Also cut by Michel are references to a character with the name of a real-life friend of his father's (see endnote d).
The present volume is thus the first in any language to explicitly indicate the variants, and hence allow a direct comparison between them. Even more surprisingly, it seems to be the first critical edition of any of Verne's works to indicate the vextual variants: a significant sign of the neglect of Verne as a serious writer.
Olivier Dumas finds the posthumous amendments on balance negative. I personally cannot agree: Michel's version seems more to the point, more modern, more lucid and more coherent. Little useful information is in fact lost through the cuts. Of course, much of the revision work would normally have been done by Jules himself had he prepared the work for publication -- he typically demanded, à la Balzac, six or eight sets of proofs in order to polish his prose. It is accordingly the revised version which is the basis for the present edition, with Jules's original text indicated as variants in the footnotes.
There is no conclusive evidence as to when the story was written. Terrasse has pointed out a very similar claimed discovery of a human fossil near the same Albany in 1869; and therefore argues that "Humbug" was probably written in about 1870 -- a view shared by Dumas. (11) Chelebourg (12) places the writing after 1871-2, when Darwin's The Descent of Man was published. Daniel Compère, on the other hand, has argued for 1865, indicating similarities (the prehistoric aspect, the theme of evolution, the doubt as to the veracity) with both Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) and From the Earth to the Moon (1865), including an explanation by Verne of the word "un `Humbug' ", in a footnote simply glossing it as "mystification" (ch. 18).
The short story itself starts "In March 1863, I embarked . . .", and we know that the internal date in Verne's works is generally the date of writing. The story could easily, of course, have been written in stages. But the indication "1863" (in the very middle of the Civil War (1861-5) -- a detail that the previous commentators do not seem to have noticed) is in fact an addition by Michel, and need not necessarily be taken at face value. It is possibly based on a guess as to Jules's date of writing, or even a deliberate . . . mystification. Further evidence is perhaps provided by Verne's own visit to New York and up the Hudson to Albany in 1867, although there are differences with the account he gives in the lightly fictionalised Une Ville flottante (1871), especially as regards the scenery along the Hudson. (13) Again, no mention is made in the published narration of slaves or slavery -- although one of the remarks cut by Michel (endnote q) refers to slavery as if it still existed, perhaps even in the North. Again, the opera-singer Mme Sontag gives a concert in Albany in the tale -- although she died in 1854. The date of Verne's writing, in sum, remains highly uncertain.
* * *
The purely literary aspects of the text often point back, most curiously, to the conditions under which it was written. In particular, the question of fraud -- of works not being entirely what they seem -- runs persistently through all the posthumously-published works. In many cases, it works in conjunction with that other self-referring theme of "filiality" -- father-son relationships -- often including the idea of material or spiritual inheritance. The central theme of deception in "Humbug" can clearly not be linked directly to Michel's revisions. But it does perhaps tie in with Jules's relationship with his own father, who is thinly disguised throughout the works as a highly domineering figure: a sort of Lidenbrock crossed with Phileas Fogg. Whatever the origin, these concerns clearly re-emerge here. In other words, there is a continuity running throughout Verne's works.
Perhaps also relevant is Delabroy's thesis that all of Verne's early works centre on the problems of beginning, of setting up new objects, paradigms or systems. (14) "Humbug" clearly conforms to this tendency, for it demonstrates that even an apparently radically new discovery is in fact nothing but a reshuffling of existing elements, a heteroclite heap of not-even-old bones.
Three strands, fraud, filiality and novelty, are therefore all visible in "Humbug" and all form part of what can be called the Vernian "cosmogony". A persistent filial rebellion underlies the relations of Jules with both his father Pierre and his son Michel. But even the first mutiny seems undermined from the beginning by self-doubt. Jules has a nagging apprehension that in reality it may be very hard to do better than one's ancestors, that there may be very little new under the sun. If we accept this idea of the impossibility of bettering one's forefathers, deception then becomes a necessity. Since the past benefits from an unfair, overwhelming, primacy, the only way to beat the past, the only way to effect any change at all, is to cheat. Thus, although Michel was not even alive when the tale was written, Jules's tale does treat the theme of whether the future is just a repetition of the past -- the very theme that Michel was later to make "his own". "His own", in inverted commas, given the essential difficulty of positing any first-level writing for Michel. He seems to have been foredoomed always to be the rebellious-son-of-a-famous-man, a Sartrian writer-against, a frustrated re-explorer of deflowered virgin territory, a writer without hope of returning to the lost innocence of the beginnings. The Vernian son is the father to the man.
A last theme connected with Michel's role is the scientific ideas at the centre of the tale. Despite Verne's reputation, the Extraordinary Journeys involving the novel use of science (and it cannot be pointed out too often that even they are in a distinct minority) do their utmost to minimise the impact created on history. Virtually all of the machines are "one-offs", and nearly all of them are destroyed at the end, as are their creators and even the blueprints. The problem with the 1863 setting of "Humbug" is that the usual damage-limitation is well past its sell-by date, for the reader of 1910 may easily know that Fort William was not destroyed then, and most certainly will know that science was not transformed by the discovery of a remarkable fossil.
This constitutes a problem in all historical fiction, with a tension between the knowledge of the fictional characters and that of the writer and readers, but it is clearly more acute in works involving scientific knowledge. It can on occasion be highly productive in terms of ironical distance, clins d'œil and even deliberate anachronisms, à la Anouilh. For the rewriting of "Humbug", however, the intervening changes in scientific theory cause must have a considerable problem, if only in deciding what to leave in.
But Michel largely avoids getting embroiled. One avoidance tactic is the mode of narration. If, in Jules's version, events are by implication recounted shortly after they happen, in Michel's, the date of narration is not indicated. The use of the first person presumably limits the time to some point in the narrator's subsequent life. But the use here of the passé simple (totally absent from many of Verne's short stories and even from some of his novels) distances the events recounted. Ultimately the narrator's own views on these questions (can one really be an anti-evolutionist in 1910?) are reduced, because of the indeterminacy of when he is writing -- an indeterminacy which again points, or rather, will come to point, to Michel. Jules seems, paradoxically, to be writing as if he knews of Michel's future involvement.
We know in fact very little about the narrator: nothing at all of his name, marital state, profession or age. But he is French -- in order to write in that language, but also to act as a pedagogical bridge for the reader. He is not entirely sympathetic, being a little stuffy and conformist, and even slightly hypocritical in the European fashion: perhaps all the better to highlight the strange directness of the Americans which only contrasts all the more with their love of Humbug. Apart from his freedom to travel and observe unencumbered, he remains largely a man without qualities. His one defining trait, a highly unAmerican scepticism, is the one that leads to the central discovery. He is apparently the only person in the whole of the United States to doubt the authenticity of the skeleton, or to wish to check the story. The narrator thus becomes the sole possessor of the truth, the unique repository of the fact that the origins of humanity have been transformed through a hoax.
At this point he could, presumably, tell the world all about it, and hence return the views on the origins to their previous position. But he doesn't (if one discounts the act of narration itself) -- possibly so as not to draw undue attention to himself. This story is thus perhaps uniquely paranoid among Verne's writings, and frivolously unpedagogical. Elsewhere Verne had stretched the limits of what was plausible -- by recounting a Journey towards the Centre of the Earth, or the tearing away by a passing comet of a populated fragment of the Earth (Hector Servadac). These limits are extended even further here, not only because of the brevity of the story, but also because it was not designed to be published by Hetzel, and therefore censored. In interviews with journalists Verne repeatedly stressed the plausibility and even practicability of his works. His claim can now be seen to have been very much exaggerated. One possible reason, then, for the non-publication others work is that Verne may have wished to protect his own self-view as the ultimate realist.
Other short stories are in fact just as implausible, such as the brilliant "Dr Trifulgas" (1884), where the eponymous doctor is depicted as splitting into two physical beings. Another example is "Aventures de la Famille Raton" (1891) where rats are transformed successively into various other animals via the process of "metempsychosis". "La Famille Raton" and "Humbug" together in fact constitute a major attack on evolution. Once again, Verne's reputation as pro-science is wildly off-beam. He was in fact so reactionary as to to deny the most important scientific revolution of the mid-nineteenth century and to base his anti-evolutionary ideas on much earlier attempts to reconcile the Bible and science (hence the importance, in "Humbug" and elsewhere, of the Flood and the Garden of Eden, and the repeated idea of the superiority of the first beings). In this tale, he presents scientists as at least as vulnerable to chauvinism, conformism, self-seeking, self-delusion, fashion and rumour as anyone; and in fact ultimately assimilates them the status of journalists, simply reassessing other people's ideas. But "Humbug", because it uses a realistic time and place, emphasises even more the basic implausibility of the events recounted -- which is presumably why Michel Verne, in the prominent footnote he added on the first page, calls it a mere "jest".
"Humbug" remains very close to life; and also close to Verne's life, for rivers in general were important for him. He was born on an island in the Loire in central Nantes; and the most vivid part of his "Memories of Childhood and Youth" is the sailing of makeshift rafts on the Loire with his brother Paul, who was later to become a naval officer. Water-courses, with their uniquely linear structure and built-in progressiveness, are in fact central to many of Verne's works. Even his conceptions of time and space have been shown by critics to be highly "fluvial".
The remarks in "Humbug" about the dangers of steamboats may seem extreme, but are in fact the opposite of exaggeration. At the time blacks were frequently paid, not just to stand on the safety valves to prevent them working, but even to sit on them, and accordingly there were frequent explosions of the boilers. Many Europeans, including Dickens, were horrified by this lack of concern for human life: they booked cabins as far away from the boilers as possible, despite being mocked by the locals, as in Verne's tale, for their pusillanimity.
Another aspect drawn from life is that of the stock-exchange. Verne was himself a broker for about four years, although not with any degree of success. His language remains marked by the experience: "speculation" for him is both a financial and a philosophical activity. (15) But in any case it is marked by its inner emptiness, its vain attempt to be more than it is, its dishonest endeavour to create something out of nothing. True, speculation represents a model of how things can get started in the first place: as Mr Wilson says, one starts with invented share values, which then become real. Even a bankruptcy seems to harm no-one.
The master of irony, it becomes totally clear only at the end, is corrosively commenting on the role of publicity in American capitalism, on its thrusting modernity, its willingness to knock down everything in its course, even historic monuments. The title itself of the short story is of course a reference to Ebenezer Scrooge's repeated "Bah, Humbug!" in Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843). But in addition to this meaning of "hypocrisy", it also means "hoax" or "fraud". The word was highly popular in the nineteenth century, due to its use by Barnum, especially in the catchphrase "the American people like to be Humbugged".
But Verne's irony is also visible in many other areas. The whole problem of the implausibility of the find, and the associated abuse of coincidence, is directed at the characters, the narrator to a certain extent, and most certainly at the readers. The language of the narration is thus full of ironical traps, with its description of the "monstrous", "miraculous", discovery, a Flaubertian "enormity". The irony connects with the ongoing debates throughout the Voyages, setting chance and Providence off against each other, and hence pointing to the simultaneous absence/presence of the author in his own story.
But the irony is also directed at the production of text itself. Literature is unsubstantiated words, a creation ex nihilo. Even if, as Michel puts it, in his (probably pseudo-posthumous) short story, writing can be a "silver mine", fictional share-values can go down as well as up. Professional writers are speculators, gamblers on a hypothetical future. Verne's surface positivism thus hides a convoluted irony aimed even at his own livelihood.
The story omits the blacks' degrading role as human safety-valves, but this very omission may point, for the modern reader, to two further concerns haunting the Journeys. Racism is visible in "Humbug" in the remarks about the superiority of black servants and about the "children of Africa"; but also, in more full-blooded form, in the comment on their loquacity and the origin of this, considerably toned down by Michel (see endnotes, especially q).
More original are the metaphors concerning the human body. (16) The dimensions of the bourses and portefeuilles (both meaning wallets) are always impressive in Verne's works. But Vernian man is also a machine: people are worth less than their weight in coal or coffee (perhaps another racist remark); they "jump, derail or sink rather than miss out on an affair"; and they can be "fitted neatly into each other" (in Jules's, ruder, version). The humour of the last quotation also illuminates the word "jump" ("sauter", also meaning "to have sexual intercourse" (17)). Verne's conscious or unconscious was probably thinking here of his hero's libertine friend, who, it is explained in the original version, decided not to embark with him because of a pressing engagement with a lady friend: in other words, "rather than miss out on an affair". Sex, in sum, is a mechanical metaphor for Verne, and one that vibrates in unison with many of his other obsessions.
* * *
"Humbug" is thus revealed, on close inspection, to be a rich and complex narration. Its century-long occlusion from the English reading public seems inexplicable. The present publication will, it is hoped, help to continue dispelling the mythical Verne that has accreted over the last century.
Bibliography of Studies on "Humbug"
Chelebourg, Christian, " `Le Humbug’, une pierre au jardin des savants", Bulletin de la Société Jules Verne (BSJV), Vol. 19, No 76, 4e tri. 1985, pp. 278–82
Compère, Daniel, "Préface", Le Gué (Villelongue d’Aude), Oct.–Dec. 1978, pp. 47–50
Delabroy, Jean, "Le `Humbug’ et la crise des spéculations", Colloque d’Amiens II : Filiations - Rencontres - Influences, Paris, Librarie Minard, 1980, pp. 187–97
Dumas, Olivier, "Le Humbug en version originale", BSJV, Vol. 19,No 76, 4e tri. 1985, pp. 256–7
Martin, Charles-Noël, "Préface", "Le Secret de Wilhelm Storitz" et "Hier et Demain", Lausanne, Rencontre, pp. 7–17.
1. Edward J. Gallagher, John A. Van Eerde and Judith A. Mistichelli, Jules Verne: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography, Boston (Mass.), G.K. Hall & Co., 1980, British National Bibliography catalogue and catalogue of American Library of Congress.
2. All dates of book publication refer to publication in book form in French (often after the first serialisation).
3. See for example Gallagher et al., who show that the only others not translated are Le Superbe Orénoque (1898), Les Frères Kip (1902), Bourses de voyage (1903), L'Invasion de la mer (1905), "Le Comte de Chantelaine" (1864) and "Aventures de la Famille Raton" (1891).
4. Quoted by Walter James Miller, "A New Look at Jules Verne" and "Jules Verne Rehabilitated", in The Annotated Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, New York, Crowell, 1976, pp. 7-22 and 356-62.
5. Although this discovery was claimed in 1978, it was proved only with the publication over the period 1986-91 of the unrevised novels.
6. The chapter on "Jules and Michel Verne" in the Critical Bibliography of French Literature: The Nineteenth Century, ed. David Baguley, University of London (Ontario) with Syracuse University Press (N.Y.), 1992, will acknowledge both writers.
7. Not to include such an acknowledgement may possibly be illegal in future in the United Kingdom, for an author's "moral rights" are now enshrined in law, including those of seeing his work acknowledged.
8. Volker Dehs ("A propos de la gestation de quelques nouvelles verniennes", Bulletin de la Société Jules Verne (BSJV), Vol. 20, No 79, 3e tri. 1986, pp. 36-7) deduces from the subtitle ("Mœurs américaines") that it was originally intended for publication in the Musée des familles, given the marked similarity with the subtitles of three of Verne's short stories published there during the period 1851-65; and that it must have been rejected, perhaps because of its anticlerical nature.
9. No 76, 4e tri., pp. 258-77. The ownership of copyright is relatively complex in such cases. "Pierre-Jean", Jules Verne's original version of "La Destinée de Jean Morénas" (1910), was published by Olivier Dumas in 1988 (Jules Verne, Lyon, La Manufacture): he was successfully sued for breach of copyright by the owners of the manuscript, the town of Nantes, but won on appeal on the basis of having used a manuscript from another source, acquired before Nantes'. The result of this appeal is being taken to an even higher court in 1992.
10. As Dumas has shown, in the same issue of the Bulletin, "Le Humbug en version originale", pp. 256-7.
11. Pierre Terrasse, "A `Humbug', Humbug et demi", BSJV, Vol. 18, No 71, 3e tri. 1984, pp. 150-2. Amongst the notable similarities pointed out by Terrasse are the "discovery" in 1869 at Cardiff, near Albany, of a prehistoric giant 10 ft 4½" tall, the tremendous publicity that resulted, the exhibiting at a dollar a time, the discussion by the academic establishment, the giant poster, and a display in the Albany Museum (mentioned in Une Ville flottante), an offer by Barnum, the exposing of the fraud in 1870, and the fact that this did not diminish interest in the phenomenon.
12. BSJV, " `Le Humbug': Une pierre au jardin des savants", Vol. 19, No 76, 4e tri. 1985, pp. 278-82.
13. In Une Ville flottante, the trip from New York to Albany is done at night -- in a fog "that you could cut with a knife". There are very few shared details between the two narrations. Nevertheless, the Saint-John is described as "whinnying in the shadows, like a terrifying Mastodont", a clear allusion to the central theme of "Humbug". What is more, in visiting Albany, the narrator comments, tongue in cheek, on the "extremely remarkable fossil museum": perhaps the origin of "Humbug".
14. Jean Delabroy, "Jules Verne et l'imaginaire: Ses représentations et ses fonctions principales dans la période de formation de l'œuvre romanesque (1851-1875)", Paris, Univ. de la Sorbonne nouvelle (Paris III), 1980 (Thèse de doctorat d'Etat).
15. Delabroy has written illuminatingly on Verne's "speculation": "Le `Humbug' et la crise des spéculations", Colloque d'Amiens II: Filiations -- Rencontres -- Influences, Paris, Libriarie Minard, 1980, pp. 187--97.
16. Backwards to Britain (probably written in 1859-60) shows that, from the beginning, Verne employs a persistent metaphor equating men and machines.
17. This interpretation is perhaps supported by Une Ville flottante, where reference is made to the steamboats on the Hudson "qui sautent volontiers" ("which willingly blow up/screw") (ch. 35).