How Verne Inspired a Real World Tour
Zachary Davis: In November of 1889, a 25-year-old journalist named Nellie Bly set off from New York with a mission: she was going to circumnavigate the globe.
Zachary Davis: Bly was inspired by the fictional voyage of Phileas Fogg, a Londoner who traveled around the world in 80 days. That seemed impossible fast of that time, but Bly’s goal was even faster. She would make the journey in 75 days—at most.
Zachary Davis: Along her journey, Bly made a stop in France to visit Jules Verne, the author who had created the character she was racing. Verne was skeptical—sure, he had imagined a trip that fast, but could Bly actually do it?
Zachary Davis: It was a close call. A rough crossing on the Pacific delayed her, but the owner of the newspaper she worked for chartered a train to bring her home. She arrived back in New York in 72 days, beating Phileas Fogg’s time and setting a (briefly held) world record.
Zachary Davis: If it weren’t for that chartered train, Bly wouldn’t have returned in time—but if it weren't for Jules Verne, she might never have left at all.
Zachary Davis: Welcome to Writ Large, a podcast about books that changed the world. I’m Zachary Davis. In each episode, we talk to one of the world’s leading scholars about the impact a book can have. In this episode, I sat down with Harvard history professor Joyce Chaplin to talk about Around the World in 80 Days, a 19th century novel that reflected—and helped to create—a new global consciousness.
The Story of Around the World in 80 Days
Joyce Chaplin: The book is an adventure story that was written for a Paris newspaper, Le Temps, and was serialized and that sort of breathless way in which you'd be waiting for the next installment that the author, Jules Verne was busy writing.
Zachary Davis: Jules Verne was born in Nantes, France in 1928. He was a prolific writer—Around the World in 80 Days was part of a collection of 54 novels called Extraordinary Voyages— and he was also quite inventive, known for bending and blending genre lines. He wrote works for the stage and the page, including romance-tinged adventure stories and science fiction.
Joyce Chaplin: He's a pioneer now of what might be regarded as steampunk. He really imagines this Victorian world, and you can, you know, see boring, privileged white guys going to the reform club, droning on and on and on about stuff. And then, oh, my God, somebody is off in a balloon. They've got electric clocks in their households. They have submarines, for crying out loud.
Joyce Chaplin: So it's that level of imagination that I think has been the longest lasting legacy of Jules Verne’s work, even as a lot of the specific novels and characters are not so well remembered now. And his glorification of imperialism, masculinity hasn't worn well. But that way in which he sews together different ways of being technologically and physically and materially in the world remains really quite compelling.
Zachary Davis: Around the World 80 Days was first serialized in 1872 and published as a book a year later. Although it’s an adventure story, the protagonist Phileas Fogg is not an adventurer by trade. His journey starts to a bet. Here’s the professor Chaplin reading a bit of the text.
Joyce Chaplin: “A true Englishman doesn’t joke when he is talking about so serious a thing as a wager.” Replied Phileas Fogg solemnly. “I will bet 20,000 pounds against anyone who wishes, that I will make the tour of the world in 80 days or less in 1920 hours or 115200 minutes. Do you accept it?
Why is World Tour Limited to Certain Groups?
Zachary Davis: Part of the excitement of the story is going around the world in 80 days felt like extraordinarily fast. Before, going around the world was something only a few people in history had done? It was just like not even a possibility for a normal person?
Joyce Chaplin: Going around the world was actually a possibility and recognized as such and had been since 1519 when one ship and 35 men returned to Spain having survived Magellan’s kind of crazy around the world voyage. Magellan himself didn't make it back. He was the most famous man never to have gone around the world.
Joyce Chaplin: And people continued to do it. And it became a kind of trademark of imperial power that various European powers would demonstrate their global reach by making a circumnavigation. And the time for doing so had been going down.
Zachary Davis: Thanks to newly-developed current and wind charts, it was easier than ever for sailing ships to find their way. Ship design was evolving as well—the new clipper sailing ships of the mid-1800s were built for speed rather than cargo capacity. But maritime technologies weren’t the only factors at play.
Joyce Chaplin: The thing that really speeds up around the world travel are two other factors in the 19th century.
Joyce Chaplin: First of all, the consolidation of European imperialism, which means that some people can travel around the world in safety, convenience, and greater speed simply because of the fist of European power in different parts of the world.
Joyce Chaplin: The other factor would be the development of steam power, the way in which first ships and then railroads, trains would make travel not only faster but predictable—that you would have not only set departure times, but arrival times that you could guarantee because you’re burning fossil fuels to create that kind of travel.
Joyce Chaplin: So when Jules Verne has this imaginary around the world voyage, he is not so much defining a new world as consolidating a lot of things that people already understood about the world and making something implausible entirely plausible.
Imperialism Behind World Tour?
Zachary Davis: Part of the colonial imagination, as I understand it, is that Europeans saw themselves as ahead of time, that they were the vanguard of history and progress, and that because they were ahead of time technologically, civilization and culturally, that they had a certain right to the rest of the world, a right to explore and to claim.
Joyce Chaplin: It is the first demonstration of human power on a planetary scale. So these 35 men who come back from Magellan voyage out of hundreds and hundreds who die or desert along the way, they create this visual icon that you draw a line on the map all the way around the world and say, yes, actual human beings did this.
Joyce Chaplin: There'd been all kinds of metaphorical ways of thinking about humans in relation to the entire earth. But this was like, no, this is not a metaphor. This really happened. And then it becomes a kind of hallmark of imperialism: This is the kind of planetary power we have as members of certain kinds of cultures from a certain part of the world.
Joyce Chaplin: So it is absolutely an imperial gesture and an imperial demonstration and would definitely have been recognized as such by anyone reading Jules Verne at the time.
Joyce Chaplin: What's interesting about the novel, which was first serialized in 1872 and then published as a novel in 1873, is that non-Western powers are beginning to get in on this game.
Joyce Chaplin: We are planetary too, the Japanese, for instance, would say. They send an around-the-world delegation around the same time and they would be followed by Korean embassies and other voyagers from beyond the western core who say, “No, this may have been an imperial demonstration, but it might be one that globally all human beings are capable of.”
What Does the Lamp in the Story Imply?
Zachary Davis: It makes me think that human power exerted on a planetary scale is linked to divine imagination in some way that, you know, previously only God can kind of see or behold the entire world.
Zachary Davis: We were always localized as particular tribes, but now, right, European colonialists and then other subsequent powers think of themselves as masters of something cosmic. And I wonder, is there a link between circumnavigation and kind of ecological extraction ideas?
Joyce Chaplin: There is one running joke in the novel. Passepartout, who goes with Fogg, accidentally leaves the gas lamp burning in his bedroom in London.
Joyce Chaplin: Fogg says, “Yes, so that's your fault and you'll be paying for it.” And it's an embedded gag that for the entire journey, fossil fuel is burning and burning and burning. The joke is probably now on us. We realize even more than people in the 1870s what the actual planetary cost would be. But Verne is really interestingly trying to remind people of what we would now call a carbon footprint.
Joyce Chaplin: This is apparent in the illustrations of the novel as well. When the novel is published as a book, there's an illustration at the front with Fogg and Passepartout pointing up at an image of the earth. And in the middle of the earth is this gas lamp burning. As if that is the metric that we measure the planet according to the kinds of fuels that we're taking out of it and burning and burning and burning now constantly.
How Does the Book Depict Communication Revolution?
Zachary Davis: What role did this book play in fostering a certain kind of tourism industry where cultures are sort of props or things to consume or stories to gather?
Joyce Chaplin: I think especially the problem of these places being invisible, just terrain to be passed through to set a record remains absolutely problematic. And in this regard, one technological development of the 19th century was implicated and that was the telegraph.
Joyce Chaplin: There wasn't a telegraph cable all around the world yet, but people were already talking as if there were and there was going to be. So the way in which it prefigures the Internet, the way in which you could be in the middle of someplace where you might be paying attention to that place, but no, you’re online, just as people in the past would have been at the telegraph office getting or receiving information about distant places that mattered more to them.
Joyce Chaplin: So Fogg is in communication back to the Reform Club, his bank, whoever.
Is Harnessing Technology Still a Spirit of Today?
Zachary Davis: There is something about like a heroic will that's able to harness technology to accomplish goals. That animating spirit of reaching to frontiers, going to the edge of humanly possible.
Zachary Davis: Where do you see some of this 19 century adventure travel, colonial spirit present today?
Joyce Chaplin: It's not so much the adventure necessarily that I'm interested, but the sense of planetary scale.
Joyce Chaplin: What is distinctive about Jules Verne's novel is that sense of confidence that certain people at least can easily stroll out of the reform club and go around the world. And it may cost money and the gas may be burning, but hey, it can be done.
Joyce Chaplin: This is in such contrast to the way around the world travel used to kill most people who tried it and everyone knew that. That it was incredibly dangerous and risky and it's not something that you would embark on.
Joyce Chaplin: I really think that now we live with both these legacies where that era of confidence is so attractive. The idea of democratizing is important. And yet the way in which this seems maybe not the best set of goals to continue with and that there may be ways in which little did we know we were killing ourselves, even in that era of confidence, now that the accumulation of carbon in our atmosphere is the gas lamp bill that we'll be paying.
How did the World Tour Expanded People's Imagination?
Zachary Davis: So, with Columbus or Magellan—they expanded this imaginary, but it wasn't until some of these more available transportation technologies or communication technologies, like the telegram, that people started to think this is maybe even possible for me.
Zachary Davis: Is that the major shift that you're identifying, that its sort of a democratic, more mass, widely available feeling that the world is ours or the world is possible as a whole?
Joyce Chaplin: Well, it would have only been democratic within terms of people who had access to steam power, to protections of various imperial systems. And I really want to emphasize that having a passport, even at this moment in history, was a rarity and a privilege, and not everyone could really run around with that kind of identity paper.
Joyce Chaplin: And the way in which you could feel comfortable going on around the world really depended on class, race, access to imperial networks. It did seem, however, as if this were a moment when well maybe more people could do this, maybe more nations could issue passports, maybe the cost of travel would go down.
Joyce Chaplin: And indeed, that's what happens. So it's not only that Jules Verne's novel, in a sense, wraps up a lot of historical processes that had happened and were happening and people would recognize, but it makes them even clearer. But then the book is an invitation to all kinds of people to try this. And it becomes this sort of exercise where people can say, I'm going to make a point that I can do this, too.
Zachary Davis: One notable navigator was Li Goo, a Chinese man who was sent out by the government of China in the late 19th century. Because of his official status, he would have had all the documents and introductions he needed—but it was still a challenging time to be a non-white traveler.
Joyce Chaplin: He talks very movingly about being in Wyoming, where he meets Chinese workers building the railroad. And he says that it was as if we were like family, you know, to meet these people, to know that there were other global migrants who migrated out of necessity and his awareness that he was not like them, but was— that racism meant that they were like family and that they, in a sense, had to meet and comfort each other in somebody else's country, if not empire.
Joyce Chaplin: The other invitation is to think about speed and oddness of travel. So people go around the world on bicycles and they start with Penny farthings. Those Victorian bicycle, so have the enormous front wheel where I just can't even imagine. What did people think when they saw you know something like this on the horizon coming toward them but nevertheless?
Zachary Davis: That was just one of the strange ways that people found to get around the world. Others rode horses, or mules, or simply walked.
Joyce Chaplin: Sometimes these two invitations that more people should be able to go around the world and unusual travel would be a great way of kind of marking a new way of doing it—sometimes these converge.
Joyce Chaplin: So, I want to talk about Soboloff, who is a white Russian, a refugee from the Russian revolution, who ends up in Asia without any kind of national documents. He's a person without a passport. And a nationless person.
Joyce Chaplin: Precisely to help this kind of emergency and as an early way of providing refugees with passports, The Nansen Commission of the League of Nations created what was called the Nansen Passport, which was a document backed by the League of Nations to say that this person existed. This was their name. This is where they were born. These are the rights they should have. Soboloff sets off first on a bicycle, eventually on a motorcycle, and he has a Nansen passport. And the first couple of times people look at it and they wonder.
Joyce Chaplin: But interestingly, the more it becomes stamped, the more it just becomes accepted. And he is just a great test of how you give a refugee person rights. He makes it back around the world and he makes sure he goes over the terrain that he covered by bicycle, by the same motorcycle, so he can claim that he did it all on this newfangled, amazing kind of conveyance. And with this completely unprecedented documentation.
Is the Book an Immediate Hit?
Zachary Davis: What was the immediate reception of this book? Obviously, there were people starting to do different ones, but what’s the immediate impact of the text?
Joyce Chaplin: There was a way in which it validated all efforts to create environments that would speed up travel. So the novel had featured the brand new Suez Canal, opened 1869; the brand new Transcontinental Railroad across North America, opened 1869; as well as a new branch of a railway across India.
Joyce Chaplin: And the way in which the novel was saying there are these things and they are good and making people think that reconfiguring the actual planet for human convenience was part of the progress of their era.
Joyce Chaplin: There'd already been a kind of imaginary of how many dollar coins, how many books put spine to spine would go around the world. And these become very evocative in terms of, well, how do we think about our planet-girdling technologies and units of value that make it easy for us to think of ourselves on a planetary scale every day, all the time.
How Do Europeans View Pacific Nations?
Zachary Davis: So we've talked about how it's sort of encouraged a colonial perspective, but there's also perhaps a more felicitous development, which is a sense that we're united.
Zachary Davis: And I wonder, did standardization of time, of technology, of maybe legal recognitions?
Zachary Davis: I mean, some of that, too, seems like maybe it led to things like the League of Nations or the United Nations—just having standardized time seems like it is this great kind of binding technology between peoples.
Joyce Chaplin: Magellan’s crew, when they come back, are the actual first time travelers because they have changed a day in their calendar by going around the world and crossing some line that eventually, by the end of the 19th century is more or less officially placed in the Pacific. And this has been very controversial.
Joyce Chaplin: I mean, people in Pacific nations point out now that this is a legacy of European imperialism, to think that part of the world opposite to Europe is a strange place where the calendar changes and poof, you're either a day richer or poorer. And a lot of Pacific nations still would like the international dateline put somewhere else—that it is a designation that they are the back of beyond and makes time truly shared. It has this kind of global universal quality now, but at somebody’s expense that they are stigmatized in that way.
"Time" as a Key Player
Zachary Davis: Time is a key player in Around the World in 80 Days—both in terms of plot and characterization.
Joyce Chaplin: So at the very start, Jules Verne compares Phileas Fogg to a chronometer, as if he's something that ticks very, very steadily and is keeping track of time calmly.
Joyce Chaplin: The surprise of the novel is that somehow Phileas Fogg, chronometer doesn't remember that if you travel around the world going eastward, you lose a day on the calendar because you're in a sense competing with the sun and changing your position in time, even as you're returning to the same place on earth.
Joyce Chaplin: And that is crucial to the plot, because when Fogg returns, he assumes he's lost the bet, but he's actually returned early and within that 80 day measure. But he the chronometer lost track of time.
What Does Aouda Imply about Power?
Zachary Davis: What is its link to techno-boosterism—that if there are problems in the world, we can invent our way out of them.
Joyce Chaplin: I definitely think that the novel is techno optimistic. So, Fogg is presented as an early adopter. His household is not only fired by coal gas, but has electricity, which in 1872 and London would have been kind of unusual. And he even has an electric clock, which in an era of key wound clocks would be like us having an atomic clock at the time. It's conceivable, but kind of a conceit that you would have new-fangled toys like that.
Joyce Chaplin: So there was definitely, someone who believed that human ingenuity, and predominantly male ingenuity within Western societies was creating a better world for everyone. This is pretty widespread at the time, so I'm not sure that he invented that so much as was kind of sticking up for that perspective at that moment, that we can invent our way out of difficulties and come up with solutions to problems.
Joyce Chaplin: We, of course, might wonder about the cost of that. Again, I think the one pessimistic or questioning thing that Verne implants into the novel is that burning lamp, that question about, well, we're extracting all this coal. How long can that last and what does that cost? And can certain people pay it?
Zachary Davis: This question of power—over resources, technology, people, and land—is a big one in the novel. But all power has its limit.
Joyce Chaplin: One way of looking at the novel is to see it as a kind of comedy about what you can control and what you can't control. Fogg is represented as this tightly wound chronometer who can predict everything, and yet he's a betting man.
Joyce Chaplin: So the whole reason he goes around the world is because he's gambling. He's always playing cards with people, so he's leaving certain things to chance and accepting that, you know, he's smart, he knows how to gamble, but you don't control that situation. And then in some ways, the most amazing thing for a novel by Jules Verne is that it's a woman who saves the day.
Zachary Davis: The woman is Aouda, an Indian princess whom Fogg and Passepartout take from her home in India when they find her being forced to sacrifice herself atop her husband’s funeral pyre. Aouda accompanies the pair on their journey home and falls in love with Fogg in the process.
Joyce Chaplin: When Fogg gets back to London. He thinks he's lost the bet. He thinks he's lost all his money and he's taken this woman away from India, promising her safety in London. And he has to say, look, I'm friendless. I'm penniless. I have no family. What can I do?
Joyce Chaplin: And she says, well, you can marry me. I would be your friend and your family. And he says, yes. And then they have to go find a clergyman. And that's how they find out that they've lost a day because they asked for a marriage to be performed and the clergyman says, I can't do that. And they say, well, it's not Sunday. And then, of course, they realize everything is going on.
Joyce Chaplin: So this way in which this is supposed to be a novel about the British Empire, control of the world, knowing things, planning things, being confident about things. And it's the non-European woman who is the key to this story. Again, raises questions about Jules Verne was imagining a kind of confidence that we have about the planet. But in some sense, he's planting this tiny suggestion that maybe it's something that has to open up and include other kinds of people.
Zachary Davis: Zachary Davis: Writ Large 【Writ Large为喜马拉雅独家自制《哈佛通识课》的英文版名称】 is an exclusive production of Ximalaya. Writ Large is produced by Galen Beebe and me, Zachary Davis, with help from Feiran Du, Ariel Liu, Wendy Wu, and Monica Zhang. Music is by Blue Dot Sessions. Don’t miss an episode, subscribe today in the Ximalaya app. Thanks for listening!