Jules Verne Confronts the Uknown

By: Ben Nechmad

20000-leagues-under-the-sea-robert-slackJules Verne seems to be peering into the future in his notable novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Published in 1870, the book is far ahead of its time. It is rife with concepts that were previously unheard of, such as deep-sea travel and nuclear-electric power. However seemingly prophetic Verne’s ideas were, they were often scientifically possible to a degree and largely influenced by the 19th-century infatuation with technological progress.

The author’s description of submarine technology is strikingly similar to the technology that we have today. There is also some foresight present in his other works. His book, “From the Earth to the Moon,” portrays space travel and even goes to state how Florida is the most opportune place to launch a rocket to the moon. These coincidences may give the impression that Jules Vern could see into the future, but in actuality, his work is reflective of a time period in which scientific thought and theory seeped into popular culture. Timothy Unwin highlights this in the book, “Jules Verne: Narratives of Modernity.” He writes,


“Verne has been hailed as a prophet of space-travel, and his lunar novels are probably the first to envisage a journey to the moon as a real possibility—but the launching of the Columbiad in Florida and its eventual touchdown in the Pacific are not the visions of a prophet who foresaw the Apollo space programme. They are based on known and, for Verne, readily available calculations of the moon’s movement around the Earth and of the most favourable launching opportunities.” (Ch. 4 Pg. 49)


Jules Verne did not completely make up the technology in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” he merely took the scientific knowledge of his time and placed it into a practical context.

Verne’s books were written at a time of great technological development spurred by the military-industrial complex of the Civil War. New inventions and scientific discoveries were a major aspect of the latter half of the 19th century. There were newer and faster ships, trains, and even primitive cars. These and other inventions left much of the population wondering what would come next. Scientific progress was apparent to everyone and was shaping the world like it had never been before. “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” among other novels by Jules Verne, is the embodiment of the scientific curiosity that enshrouded 19th century society. This curiosity laid the framework for the major technological development of the 20th century. His work incorporated radical ideas and characters because progress, according to Verne, was to push the barriers of science and society. Carter Kaplan discusses this in his article, “Jules Verne, Herman Melville, and the “question of the monster.” He writes,


“Verne exhibits strict adherence to known science or pseudo-science, a journalistic style ornamented by a wealth of technical detail, and a curiosity for radical character types existing at the fringes of conventional society.”


During the 19th century, much of the scientific knowledge that had recently been discovered had no practical application yet. The electrical apparatus that powered the Nautilus for example, would not be possible at the time Verne was writing the novel, but electricity was still very much on people’s minds. It was this fascination of pushing the limits of science and adventure that inspired Verne to imagine an electrically powered submarine. This imaginative drive eventually allowed humanity to actually develop this technology in the next century. The 19th Century was full of confronting unknowns from the seemingly endless land of the American West to the discovery of bacteria. Jules Verne, imbued with a desire to dream and hope, took the emerging scientific knowledge of his time and came up with a strikingly human story of confronting the unknown.

Science fiction has not changed much in the Century after Verne’s death. Star Trek for example, “predicted” the cellphone decades before it was invented. These novels and stories are the embodiment of humanity’s progress and desire for discovery. Who knows? In the digital age that we live in, with new earth-shattering technology coming out every day, the science fiction on Netflix today could become the reality tomorrow.


An example of a Thomas Edison lightbulb. One of the 19th Century Technologies that revolutionized the way we live today. Jules Verne could have easily incorporated it into a novel, only for it to be invented a few short decades later. The lightbulb among many other 19th Century inventions were the products of the imagination and dreaming spurred by the major scientific discoveries of that time.

Smyth, Edmund J. Jules Verne: narratives of modernity. Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 2000. Citing from Chapter 4: The Fiction of Science, or the Science of Fiction by contributing author, Timothy Unwin

Kaplan, Carter. Extrapolation. Summer, 1998, Vol. 39 Issue 2, p139, 9 p. Kent State University Press, 1998.

Verne, Jules. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. 1870

Civil War Monuments Dishonor the Soldiers that they are Commemorating.

By: Ben Nechmad

The amount of killing and death that occurred during the American Civil War was practically on an industrial scale. There were no graceful or peaceful deaths, soldiers lives were ripped from under them in a hail of bullets and shrapnel made exponentially worse by the new weapons of the time. The traditional views of a quiet death at home were completely disrupted and perverted. I believe that we as the American people were so severely traumatized by this abrupt exposure to death, that it has influenced our view of patriotism and war until today.

Killing and war are not natural human tendencies and can inflict horrible emotional and mental trauma on soldiers as well society as a whole. The Civil War caused soldiers to have no remorse for killing. Drew Faust Writes,

“Soldiers acted with as little concern as if it were not men but “hogs dying around them.” (59)

There was so much death going on that the only way to cope with it was to shut off any emotional response. People became mere objects of war. The only way that 19th Century Americans could come to terms with this inhumanity was to assign glory to the deaths themselves. Faust points out in the “Republic of Suffering” that understanding the way someone passed was a crucial step in the acceptance process of loved ones. Up until the war, it was normal for people to die at home surrounded by family. This was considered a “Good Death” and allowed the family to view their loved one in a positive light during their last moments on earth.  The thought of thousands of young American men dying on a field far away from loved ones completely contradicted this concept and death was seen as disgraceful and undignified.  Americans were deprived of the ability to process this vast amount of death so, in turn, they placed the very idea killing and war within a noble and patriotic context. Dying in war became the new “Good Death.” Abraham Lincoln turned the soldiers at Gettysburg into martyrs for the patriotic cause of democracy, He said,

that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

What was formerly disgraceful was now honorable. This concept replaced the older notion of death in order to alleviate the trauma that the American public was going through.  Civil War monuments were styled in a way that highlighted this honor and are usually overexaggerated symbols of bravery and dominance. While they may have been necessary to alleviate the trauma and pain of the time, I believe that these glorifications of war are not appropriate for public spaces.

We as well, live in an era of traumatizing death and destruction due to war and extremism. We may be farther removed from the killing on a geographical level but modern media has brought the trauma close to home and into our living rooms and palms. The graphic images of death that we are confronted with on a daily basis are enough of a reminder that violence is not something to be glorified or positively remembered, especially on public grounds. It is then, increasingly crucial to reevaluate what we place in our public spaces. Civil War monuments, in the exaggerated way that they are depicted, are no longer culturally relevant. I have the utmost respect for the veterans that have sacrificed their lives for the great democracy we now live in, but I have to acknowledge as an urban planning student and, more importantly, a human being, that glorification of violence and war, no matter how noble the cause is, does not belong in the public spaces meant for all of us to enjoy and grow from.


landscape-1450391925-jacksonstatueThis is a clear example of a Civil War monuments glorifiying the act of war and practically deifiing the solider. The rider can be seen in valiant clothing as well as on horseback, a traditional pose representing dominance.


The Korean War Memorial is a good example of a healthier and more appropriate remembrance of our soldiers. The men are depicted as ordinary people with even a slight look of fear and anxiety on their faces. This and other more modern war memorials convey the harshness and undesirable nature of war while still respecting the fallen soldiers. If we were to erect future civil war memorials of any kind, I believe they should be portrayed in a realistic and educational manner.





An American Culture Emerges Out of The Woods

By: Benjamin Nechmad

Nineteenth Century Americans were living in a young country, one that was awash with immigrants from across the ocean, bringing with them a colorful array of cultures. However, there was no apparent “American” culture that had been established due to the uniqueness and chaotic nature of the fledgling state. Ralph Waldo Emerson established a uniquely American voice by combining his experience as a pastor, the principles of freedom and independence that helped establish the country, and the sprawling and beautiful scenery that characterized the American landscape. All of the ingredients for an American culture were present and Emerson skillfully wove them together in his work Nature.

America was founded on the belief that every person should be free and allowed, as individuals, to contribute to the betterment of the country and society. Nature is fundamentally about individuality and one’s own personal ability to better themselves by comprehending the mystical and supernatural nature of the wilderness and understanding a higher sense of purpose. Once someone betters themselves, they are by default bettering the whole of society along with them. Each person, regardless of race, creed or religion, is free to contemplate and learn from the beauty that envelops them. He explains,

“Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobbler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world.”

Emerson is highlighting the fact that everyone inhabits the same physical world and therefore, regardless of where people start out, they have the potential to establish their own personal legacy by engaging with their surroundings and actualizing their potential. This holds true whether the person is a simple blacksmith or a world-renowned scientist.

Nature, according to Emerson, is a universally accessible connection to God and ultimate fulfillment. There is no canon or dogma that can prevent the common person from connecting to the world around them in a spiritual and meaningful way. It is in this realm that the individuality of the American soul has the ability to flourish. This is where Nature is clearly seen as a fundamentally American text. No matter where a person stands in life, they have the ability to find meaning through individual contemplation of morality and self-betterment. He is speaking to an audience that only recently banded together as low-level colonists and farmers to overthrow an imperial power. The vast and unexplored North American wilderness was untainted by any classist society. According to Emerson, it could inspire anyone who was willing to open their eyes and look. The physical landscape of the country itself represented freedom and individuality, the mentality of the American people was represented by the wilderness.  Emerson explains,

“The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”

Nature is not only a “metaphor for the human mind,” it is a representation of the American spirit of individuality. Each part of nature works together in an unending cycle, much like cogs in a clock. This can also be related to the importance of each and every American and how everyone, regardless of background, is essential to the success of the country. Transcendentalism

– “Lake Squam from Red Hill” by, William Trost Richards (American, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1833–1905 Newport, Rhode Island)

This painting is a clear representation of the American perception of nature, namely the newly discovered landscapes that made up huge swaths of the new country. The scene is vast and brightly colored with shimmering sunlight reflected on the water. With tall mountains in the distance, the painting conveys a strong sense of hope and purpose. These characteristics are indicative of the bright future that Americans saw for themselves.

The painting also represents the aforementioned sense of individuality. Untouched by the burdens of society, nature is beautiful in its purest form, just as individual people are. Everyone is a part of nature and it is a part of us. According to Emerson, contemplating this scenery allows us to find the beauty within ourselves and understand our individual purpose.


Works Cited:

Osgood, Samuel. “Excerpts from: Samuel Osgood. “Nature.” The Western Messenger.” 1837 Review: Nature. Accessed November 07, 2017. http://www.transcendentalists.com/nature_review_emerson.htm.Phillip F., Gura.

“Transcendentalism and Social Reform.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. July 30, 2012. Accessed November 07, 2017. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/first-age-reform/essays/transcendentalism-and-social-reform.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. James Monroe and Company, 1836.




Window into an Enslaved Person’s Soul

By Benjamin Nechmad

People take autonomy for granted. In many countries today, people have the ability to decide where to live, what to eat, and what clothes to wear, along with countless other choices. North American enslaved persons had no agency over the trajectory of their lives. They lacked the opportunities to set goals for themselves or to even dream. The enslaved people were considered property and deprived of the basic human right to have agency over one’s own life. This lack of humanity was a governing force in many of their behaviors and attitudes. It caused anger, depression, hopelessness and even religious fervor.

An example of this horrid deprival of control was the separation of enslaved families. Often times, family members were sold to different owners and could be sent great distances away from their loved ones. Even if a family stayed together, they did not have a say on when they would be able to see each other or even on how they would interact when together. John S. Jacobs discusses his father’s lack of control over his family in an account of his life as an enslaved individual. 

“To be a man, and not to be a man—a father without authority—a husband and no protector—is the darkest of fates … His wife is not his: his children are not his; they can be taken from him, and sold at any minute … A slave’s wife or daughter may be insulted before his eyes with impunity. He himself may be called on to torture them, and dare not refuse. To raise his hand in their defense is death by the law” (85).


A grandfather and grandchild featured together in Peter Bruner’s A Slave’s Adventures Toward Freedom (1918). African American families in slavery were prevented from enjoying family unlike this freed slave.

John Jacobs’ father is most likely one of the many fathers who were unable to protect their families from the whim of their masters. This lack of control can cause anger and depression, as was the case with John’s own father.

“…my father’s violent temper, although, in justice to him, I must say that slavery was the cause of it…The knowledge that he was a slave himself, and that his children were also slaves, embittered his life, but made him love us the more” (86). 

This issue was especially sensitive due to the gender roles that males held in nineteenth-century American society. Men were the breadwinners, they ventured into the cruel world, (especially in the case of the enslaved male,) and expected to come home to the peace and serenity traditionally provided by his wife and children. If these emotional assets are not under his control, the nineteenth-century male can become bitter and paranoid. They would have lost their coping mechanism that got them through the harsh days.

In the Johnson reading, “Turning People into Property,” we clearly see that African Americans were largely viewed as property. Property is normally under the full control of the owner. Unfortunately, when people are placed in this classification, they too, are stripped of all agency.  Slavery was an established aspect of the American South and there was nothing that the enslaved people could do to improve their circumstances and fate. This unending cycle of depression and uncertainty only had one remedy—faith. By believing in God, many enslaved people were able to overcome their terrible situation by engaging with agency over their internal lives. They may have lacked agency over their external choices, such as what to eat and where to live, but by having faith they were able to feel comforted and loved, carrying those feelings with them regardless of their circumstances. 

In her narrative, “Old Elizabeth” passionately describes how God was the only one in her life that she could count on.

“I had none in the world to look to but God, I betook myself to prayer, and in every lonely place I found an altar. I mourned sore like a dove and chattered forth my sorrow, moaning in the corners of the field, and under the fences” (4).

Elizabeth painfully came to the realization that she was physically alone in the world after being separated from her family and sold to another slave owner. She could turn to none but God in her search for companionship and meaning.


African Americans worshipping in church as featured in Daniel H. Peterson’s The Looking-Glass (1854). Religion provided slaves with a sense of purpose in a very difficult environment.

The physical bondage and torture of enslaved African Americans is usually at the forefront of the American slavery experience. However, these narratives provide a personal window into the lives of enslaved persons. They play a crucial role in helping us understand the emotional and mental struggle that was part of their daily lives.