“Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain” was the subtitle H. G. Wells gave to his voluminous Experiment in Autobiography, and having got off to an unbearably modest start, he went on to confess that much of his literary output had been “slovenly, haggard and irritated,” as well as “hurried and inadequately revised.” Of the “gray matter of that organized mass of phosphorized fat and connective tissue” which he identified as the “hero” of his autobiography, he noted that its thinking was “slack” and “easily fatigued.” By way of summary, he hypothesized that “If there were brain-shows, as there are cat and dog shows, I doubt if it would get even a third class prize.”
If modesty is a rare trait among world-famous authors, rarer still is the ability—which Wells possessed in abundance—to analyze perceptively one’s own literary shortcomings. The critic who sorts through Wells’s prodigious oeuvre (he had published more than one hundred books before his death in 1946 at the age of seventy-nine) must be struck by how often Wells identified, and hence partially disarmed, whatever objections might be made against him. His fiction, he warned us, depended on “conventional types and symbols”; his “psychologically unsubtle” novels could be “artless self-revelatory stuff”; and as a stylist he “did not worry much about finish.”
Protestations of this sort seemed excessive or insincere to a number of critics when Experiment in Autobiography was published in 1934, but Wells clung stoutly to his assertions of mediocrity. In a manuscript entitled “Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography”—recently published, along with other personal addenda, as H. G. Wells in Love—he accused those who would find him guilty of an “inverted arrogance” of treating him with undue cynicism. “I meant exactly what I said; it was a very typical common brain,” Wells reiterated, but added that it had one great strength, a “disposition to straightforwardness.”
Straightforward he certainly could be—often scandalously so. He outraged English society, and suffered the loss of many friendships, as a result of his open and incessant sexual promiscuity. Both in conversation and in print he was a tireless proponent of free love, although one whose urgings at times had a curiously businesslike tone that seems tinged by the Protestant work ethic: “A man or woman ought to have sexual intercourse. Few people are mentally, or morally, or physically in health without it. For everyone there is a minimum and maximum below which lies complete efficiency. Find out your equation, say I, and then keep efficient.”
Although Wells was an atheist for most of his adult life, his fervent belief in the redemptive powers of rationalism characteristically partook of religious trappings and rhetoric.
Today, Wells’s reputation as a libertine seems to have overshadowed the spanning range of his iconoclasm, and one is apt to forget that he waged war against his country’s legal system, military system, and educational system, its class prejudices and social customs and religious traditions—against most of what made England England. He railed, in fact, against anything he deemed an obstruction to the emergence of a “planned world-state,” a cause that Wells in middle age came to adopt as his “personal religion.” Although Wells was an atheist for most of his adult life, his fervent belief in the redemptive powers of rationalism characteristically partook of religious trappings and rhetoric. “The idea of creative service to the World-State towards which the modern mind is gravitating,” Wells wrote at the end of Experiment in Autobiography, “differs widely in its explicitness, its ordered content and its practical urgency, from the All of Being, the Inner Life, the Ultimate Truth . . . and all those other resorts of the older religions, but its releasing and enveloping relation to the individual persona is, in spite of all that difference of substance, almost precisely the same.” The emergence of the world-state was “inevitable,” Wells repeatedly insisted, and yet he bridled with impatience at anything that seemed to hinder its progress.
For all the confidence of Wells’s predictions, our globe’s various nation-states have not disappeared—but neither have the books of this “slovenly” artist. His novels continue to attract a readership whose diversity is almost unparalleled in our century. What other modern writer could boast of having won the loyalties of children, science fiction buffs, and exacting literary aristocrats like Borges and Nabokov? His books are accommodatingly multi-tiered, permitting child and sophisticate alike to feel that he speaks to them on their own level. With his roundabout locutions and his quaint vocabulary (“contraposed,” “ostended,” “incontinently”), Wells seems on occasion a solidly Victorian writer; at other moments, especially in his best science fiction, he can seem a contemporary figure or even (given that so few contemporary authors display much interest in the scientific and technological revolution that daily transmogrifies the world they live in) a writer who is slightly ahead of our time. Manifest in nearly everything he wrote was prodigious intellectual energy—the strong sense of a mind that is probing continuously as it goes. His investigations displayed, for the most part, an impressive scientific impartiality; he analyzed himself with the same cool rigor that he trained upon the external world. And surely one source of Wells’s potent literary appeal resides in that paradox whereby, in book after book, this most straightforward and analytical of authors remained an oddly elusive figure.
If Wells remains elusive, it is not for lack of interpreters. He has been the subject of numerous biographies. The most recent, and in many ways the most imposing, is David C. Smith’s Desperately Mortal. Wells was not merely extraordinarily prolific, he was also peripatetic on a grand scale, and Smith has been commendably dogged in sorting out and recreating Wells’s journeys through Italy, Russia, India, Australia, and America. Smith has evidently dug through mountains of manuscript material, and the student of Wells must be grateful for the many fresh quotations and anecdotes that he supplies. And yet, despite the bulk of this newest biography, Wells remains a curiously inert figure in its pages. It would appear that Smith has been too respectful—one might even say cowed—in his approach to his subject. Certainly, Smith too often takes Wells, with all his rationalistic claims, at his word. What is frequently missing from this book is the complement to Wells’s optimistic rationalism—that side to the man which could be despondent and cold and resentful and childishly selfish.
Readers in search of a more vibrant portrait might better begin with Anthony West’s biography, H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life, even if, as its title suggests, it makes no attempt to be exhaustive. According to West, Wells remains elusive partly because he was sometimes misleading or dishonest when writing about himself. West ought to know. As the illegitimate son of Wells and Rebecca West, he approaches his subject from a unique vantage, singularly intimate and distanced at the same time. The scandalous love affair between the very young, very driven Rebecca and the middle-aged, hugely successful, but also very driven Wells, which began in 1913 and produced Anthony the following year, was tempestuous even in its happiest times, and left after its final dissolution in 1923 a great residue of resentment on both sides. Anthony, the sole child of the affair, was raised by his mother, and therefore must for many years have perceived his father through the filter of hostile eyes. But most of the biography’s venom—of which there is a great store—is reserved for Rebecca, whom her son portrays as a scheming woman whose accounts of her love affair with Wells are self-pitying and self-serving. Anthony West regards his father with affection and forgiveness, even when airing his dishonesties and obliquities, which were considerable; for all of Wells’s advocacy of sexual candor, he was, according to his son, a man compelled to seek out situations that would require dissembling or double-dealing. Wells was also less than candid—though perhaps understandably so—when writing about his troubled childhood. His autobiography gives a touched-up portrait of his father, the failed proprietor of a china shop, who was, in addition to other shortcomings, an extraordinarily immature man, and of his mother, a former lady’s maid, who bitterly resented her husband for removing her from the elevated society she had, however collaterally, once inhabited.
Yet the chief source of Wells’s elusiveness is probably located in something more unusual than mere fabrications or omissions of aspects of his personal life. Wells was a literary pioneer in so many ways that even now, four decades after his death, his work resists categorization. He is, for example, often regarded as the “father of science fiction,” but this was a genre not yet identified when Wells, beginning with The Time Machine in 1895, embarked upon that remarkable collection of books which he called “scientific romances” and which are likely to prove his most durable achievement. It was not until the Twenties that the term “science fiction” achieved wide currency through Hugo Gernsback, the founder of Amazing Stories magazine, and probably not until the Thirties or Forties that the reading public had assembled some common notions about the powers and limitations of this fledgling genre. Wells found himself, then, in a peculiar position, both exhilarating and perplexing: he was a writer of a type of genre fiction that had not yet become a genre. As far as Wells and his readers knew, his scientific romances were not so much progenitors as descendants—the heirs to books like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and even Lucian’s A True Story. One can understand why Joseph Conrad appeared so happily nonplussed when writing to Wells of The Invisible Man: “Impressed is the word, O Realist of the Fantastic.” It must have been in some ways a liberating advantage for Wells not to know that he was working in what critics would later determine was a limited and ancillary literary form; on the other hand, he felt at times unhappily confused about where he stood as an artist, and he spent much of his life trying, with only fair success, to define his theory of the novel and to map the sources of his own originality.
Wells’s earliest articles and stories were published almost a hundred years ago, and surely by now we ought to have some solid grasp on his literary strengths and weaknesses, and on the relationship between “mainstream” fiction and its heady young offspring, science fiction. And yet, as Frank McConnell argues in The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells, we may have misunderstood Wells by “understanding” him too easily, and thereby arranged to misinterpret the character of science fiction as well. According to McConnell, “Wells may not have been the first man to acknowledge the importance of Darwinian theory for the future of civilization and the business of fiction, but he was certainly the first to acknowledge and assimilate that theory, in all its corrosive effect upon ideas of what fiction was for and about” and “not until The Time Machine did the real power, and the real terror, of evolutionary theory find adequate expression in fiction.” Wells came by his understanding of Darwin through an unrivaled source: T. H. Huxley, with whom Wells studied at the Normal School of Science in South Kensington during the 1884-85 school year. Wells quickly perceived that although Darwin’s Origin of Species had been hugely controversial since its publication in 1859, much of its import had not yet been assimilated by the public at large. Taking Wells’s realization a step further, McConnell suggests that many of the theory’s more disturbing implications have still not been absorbed by a public ready now to dismiss the theory as old hat, and this failure helps explain why Wells’s work sometimes goes unappreciated today. McConnell singles out The Island of Dr. Moreau as a book from whose disturbing satirical notions (among them, “the great difference between man and monkey is in the larynx") the reader is apt to retreat with a visceral distaste that is soon conveniently translated into aesthetic disapproval. Wells himself was constantly aware of the temptations and dangers in misreading Darwin. He chided George Bernard Shaw for shying away from “the heartless impartiality of natural causation” and “endowing it with an ultimately benevolent Life Force,” and he ridiculed Catholic theologians for discovering that “the Church had always known all about Evolution and the place of man in Nature, just as it had always known all about the place of the solar system in space.”
McConnell calls The Time Machine a “masterpiece” and a “great first book”—claims that must be disputed by anyone eager to uphold the notion that ultimate justice is at work in the distribution of literary classics: surely no masterpiece ought to be put together so quickly and haphazardly. Wells had manifestly little sense of where he was going in this brief novel. The story’s genesis lay in an impossibly arch, deservedly abandoned short story, “The Chronic Argonauts,” in which the main character bears the name of Dr. Nebo Gipfel. This tale was then recast for possible publication in W. E. Henley’s magazine The National Observer as a series of reflective articles about time travel. The series fell so far short of editorial expectations that it was canceled before completion—and might have been forever abandoned had not Henley, now installed as the editor of the New Review, requested that it be reworked in a shape closer to the book we know today. In any case, the novel shows signs of laxness and haste throughout. What is intended as its one tragic scene—the death of Weena, the little woman of the future who befriends the Time Traveller—teeters precariously on the rim of bathos. And the book’s most haunting passage, in which the Time Traveller takes his machine forward into the future, further and further, until he winds up on a dying shore under a dead exploded sun, did not originate with Wells himself; it was a postscript to the story appended at Henley’s suggestion.
Clumsy, uncertain, bathetic it may at times be, and yet The Time Machine brims with an unmatched wonder and sweep and originality that render McConnell’s claims plausible after all. (So much for the cause of ultimate literary justice . . .) Wells helped to bring a new strength to the English novel: an awareness of something beguiling, even voluptuous, in the cool—and, for some, godless—splendors of modern science. What other novelist of his time (or, for that matter, of ours) could have peered at a “mere rock” under a microscope and beheld there what Wells did? “One saw the jumbled crystals thrust against each other, distorted by unknown pressures, clouded and stained by obscure infiltrations. . . . It was not simply an astounding loveliness, it was, one felt, a profoundly significant loveliness that these sections revealed. They were telling in this bright clear and glowing fashion, of tensions, solutions, releases, the steady creeping of molecule past molecule, age after age. And in their interpretation lay the history and understanding of the Earth as a whole.” Wells found in evolutionary theory not merely a challenge to traditional religious notions but a demand for a new morality: “Soon, for very many, as now for only a few, the pursuit of Science will become a part of the Moral Law. It will be felt as an imperative that, in order to do that which is right, man must know that which is true.”
The Time Machine is unmistakably the work of a man who perceived in our slow-evolving planet, in its stones no less than in its life forms, a scientific and yet magical process—one all the more magical for being deducible. And that magic is evident from the first page of this, his first book. Already Wells had found that marvelously matter-of-fact tone, seemingly so collected and direct, by which he would over the years propel his readers again and again into the realm of the fantastic: “The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us. His gray eyes shone and twinkled, and his usually pale face was flushed and animated.” (The opening of The War of the Worlds offers a similar magic in rational dress: “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own . . . .” That slippery reference, or near-reference, to God—the greater but immortal intelligence in which people would have believed—is a brilliant, off-putting stroke.) And the streamlined Time Machine, unlike many of his later novels, which are often laden with wooden dialogue and weighty didacticism, never relinquishes its magical hold.
The story opens with a dinner party at the home of the Time Traveller. The party includes a doctor, a psychologist, a mayor, and the book’s “I,” who is notable chiefly for the open-mindedness with which he, unlike the other guests, listens to his host. After a leisurely meal, the Time Traveller begins to speculate about the emerging, still unfamiliar notion of Time as a fourth dimension, and raises the possibility of directed travel through the ages. In fact, he reveals to his guests, he has been engaged in a little experimentation, and would like now to provide a modest demonstration. He leads them out to his laboratory and displays a small, puzzling device, “scarcely larger than a small clock, and very delicately made.” When, at the Time Traveller’s bidding, the psychologist turns one of its tiny levers, the device swings around, fades, and disappears—possibly to race for all of eternity into eternity. The guests, naturally skeptical, ask to be let in on the “trick.” But the Time Traveller insists that what they have witnessed is not magic but science. He arranges to have them return in a week, by which time he hopes to advance some more convincing demonstration.
When the guests arrive a week later, their host is nowhere to be found. They decide to dine without him in the hope that he will soon appear—which he does in thunderous fashion, staggering into the party in a ragged and semi-delirious state. His clothes are bloodstained and his hair appears to have whitened. He reports that he has just returned from a sojourn of eight days in the world of the year A.D. 802,701.
The future the Time Traveller paints for his skeptical guests is a ghastly place. The class divisions of industrialized nineteenth-century England have led to a genetic bifurcation: mankind has split into two species. The Eloi are pretty, feckless creatures whose “too-perfect security” has apparently led to a “general dwindling of size, strength, and intelligence.” They inhabit a beautiful garden world in which they spend their childish days eating fruit, picking flowers, and playing games. The wan, disgusting Morlocks inhabit a network of deep tunnels in the earth, where they toil amid clanking machinery. They are the end product of those pent-up colliers and factory workers, who, sunless as ghosts, haunted the humanitarian conscience of Victorian England. To the Time Traveller, the world initially appears to belong to the Eloi—but it turns out that their imparadised days conceal a life of nocturnal terror, of dark raids by the Morlocks, who cannibalize them. (The Eloi will inevitably evoke for the contemporary reader the “flower children” of the Hippies’ heyday, and to see them eventually eaten up by the representatives of industry lends the novel a painful black humor.)
To contemplate being trapped forever, as the Time Traveller apparently is, in the year A.D. 802,701, is to perceive Robinson Crusoe as a man who had merely gone off for a weekend at the seashore.
The book has some wonderfully spooky moments. The Time Traveller’s discovery, at the end of an idyllic day, that his machine has disappeared is one of the bleakest scenes in literature. To contemplate being trapped forever, as the Time Traveller apparently is, in the year A.D. 802,701, is to perceive Robinson Crusoe as a man who had merely gone off for a weekend at the seashore; the book widens our definitions of what exile can be. Later in the novel, the Time Traveller’s fumbling struggle with a match, while the clambering Morlocks attempt to overpower him in the darkness, is almost insupportably claustrophobic. And, even if the idea did originate with Henley, that final journey to the world’s end is a haunting triumph. Like the poet in the Keats sonnet, the Time Traveller stands on “the shore of the wide world,” confronting an image of death before which “love and fame to nothingness do sink.” Indeed, this sonnet may have been in Wells’s mind—he was an avid reader of Romantic poetry—during the composition of the book’s last pages.
And yet for all of Wells’s temperamental ties to the Romantics, the final desolating vision of The Time Machine was one that they, writing in the first half of the nineteenth century, could never have conceived. Death itself had been transformed in the century’s intervening decades. Darwin’s work had altered forever the condition of homo sapiens—had rendered man a changing, transitional animal, to be understood only when viewed across those monumental geological epochs that our Time Traveller had traversed in order to beach up on his dying shore. What Wells had absorbed—so profoundly that it reconstructed his soul—was the notion, apparently simple but finally revolutionary, that many of humankind’s most significant certainties are to be found millions of years away. We cannot begin to say what will happen in Europe next month, but we might speak assuredly about the fate of the earth: the sun will burn out, life as we know it will disappear.
And unlike the Romantics, Wells’s universe could be explained—or so the scientist in him would have it—without recourse to the notion of God. The principle of natural selection provided Wells with a means of explaining not only the birth of mankind but also its probable lines of development. Wells found in Darwinism a method of extrapolation. “I flung myself into futurity,” the Time Traveller at one point announces to his startled guests—and the same could be said of Wells’s adult imagination. “We overrate the darkness of the future,” he wrote in his autobiography—and so he pluckily set forth, hoping in his novels and essays to reveal truths about the near future (which he was to discover chiefly through the study of politics and sociology) and about the distant future (to be discerned through biology, astronomy, and physics).
Truths of this latter, distant sort are often regarded as hidden in the “mists of time,” veiled by numbers so vast they smother the intellect, but it was Wells’s particular virtue to discern determinate shapes in these mists (he prided himself on having a “brain good for outlines”); the death of the sun, for example, was no less real for being far away. And it seemed possible to Wells that he might identify the directions in which evolution was impelling not only the human body but the human brain and its thinking. Wells considered himself lucky to have reached adulthood at a time when a confluence of scientific discoveries—biological, paleontological, astronomical—was working to raze some of the walls by which mankind’s conception of itself had always been bound; and unlike so many of his contemporaries, who seemed to find these new vistas numbing or threatening, Wells peered into the freshly opened expanses and found them exhilarating. He felt that he had been given an opportunity to glean at least some inkling of the future’s possibilities. He made this point quite memorably in 1902, in one of his earliest public lectures: “All this world is heavy with the promise of greater things, and a day will come—one day in the unending succession of days—when beings, beings who are now latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins, will stand upon this earth as one stands upon a footstool, and laugh, and reach out their hands amidst the stars.”
Wells’s grasp of the principle of evolution was in itself a source of great literary verve and originality; but it became something more—became perhaps the distinctive genius of his imagination—when combined with a second historical insight. Far more lucidly than most of his contemporaries, Wells perceived that modern science had recently launched the entire world toward a revolution. He seemed to understand intuitively how far-reaching and irreversible were the transformations that technology was effecting across the globe. While his contemporaries were apt to regard the Wright brothers’ airplane as a delightful curiosity, Wells saw in its brief ascent a confirmation of his suspicions that humanity might eventually master the air—and the airless vacuums of space. Early in his career, he recognized technology’s fundamental force as a “change in the scale of human relationships and human enterprises brought about by increased facilities of communication”—an insight equally applicable to the “information age” of our ongoing computer revolution.
This vision of a rapidly evolving, technology-dominated future enriched and balanced Wells’s other, grander vision of a world millennially shaped by the promptings of evolutionary trial and error. If his Darwinism encouraged in Wells a sense of weary fatalism, the promise of technology kindled urgency and hope; what originated in man presumably might be steered by man, and Wells vowed to do everything possible to see that the new technological age turned out as it should. He became an incurable Utopian, who converted to the “religion” of the scientific world-state even while recognizing technology’s potential dangers. He was, in short, a peculiarly dark Utopian—one whose visions, both short-term and long-term, were colored by glimpses of apocalypse. The apocalyptic held a murky appeal for Wells, who seemed at times impatiently to feel that his awaited heaven-on-earth might most expeditiously be achieved through vaguely fascistic intellectual strong men or through the purging of a “war that will end war”—a phrase, incidentally, of Wells’s own coinage, and one that came back to haunt him in the early months of the First World War, as it became deadeningly apparent that carnage would usher in neither wisdom nor unselfishness.
Wells’s celebrated literary dispute with Henry James, which brewed for a number of years before coming to a head in 1913, is perhaps best understood in relation to his “dark” utopianism. James had seen much to admire in Wells’s early work, particularly the social comedies in which Wells was, in his own words, seeking to create along “Dickens-Thackeray lines.” James had called Kipps, published in 1905, a work of “genius” and of “TRUE truth.” But James had found later books disappointing, and in September of 1913 wrote rather imposingly to Wells to say so. James lamented the shallowness of Wells’s characterizations in the recently published The Passionate Friends, a complaint that struck Wells at a doubly vulnerable point: it forced him to confront not only this particular book’s possible shortcomings but also his larger inability to define his aesthetic ends. Wells had no clear rebuttal to James’s consciously noble belief in the primacy of the artist. (“It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance,” James wrote to Wells.) He had by way of answer only a vague sense that his books were devoted to something larger than art, to the cause of human progress in a confused and imperiled age.
The two men aired their differences in a variety of ways, but chiefly by letter. James is generally perceived as the clear winner of this exchange, so much so that one may be tempted to regard Wells’s replies with condescension. In retrospect, the debate does look hopelessly lopsided, given that James was an exacting, deliberative genius and Wells at best a haphazard, intuitive one. And Wells’s unwillingness to put the debate behind him, to resolve it and let it go, has all the earmarks of the smarting loser; it is a little depressing to see him in his autobiography, two decades later, still carrying on a one-sided debate with James’s formidable ghost.
And yet eventually, as the Time Traveller himself discovered, determinations about who is the victor and who the vanquished can prove tricky; it may well be that in the end Wells comes off respectably. Certainly with each passing decade one must grow more forgiving of the inarticulateness of his literary theorizing; it becomes increasingly apparent to us, as so much of the technology Wells foresaw pervades our lives, that he was attempting to open his fiction to processes and objects that in the end must be allowed to enter our literature.
As an artist, he seems to have felt both pride and a bit of impatient loneliness about his passion for science. He worked hard to convert others to his point of view. He served for a time as a driving force in a group called The Committee on the Neglect of Science, which sought, among other things, to increase the time that students in state-supported institutions spent in the study of science. Wells turned with such eagerness to the young in part because he felt that his own generation, even its intellectuals and artists, was in this matter almost beyond redemption. At one point in his autobiography, Wells lumped together some of his most prepossessing literary contemporaries—Conrad, James, Crane, Shaw —and called them “uneducated.” Shaw, in particular, had “no sustained and constructive mental thinking” and was a “philanderer with facts.” All of these men lacked, according to Wells, a “central philosophy,” and hence they “lapsed—though retaining their distinctive scale and quality—towards the inner arbitrariness and unreality of the untrained common man.” He felt, and the years would appear to bear him out, that in failing to come to grips with the rational powers of modern science they were failing to see things whole.
Wells’s perception of himself as a man with an urgent, and for the most part unappreciated, insight into the revolutionary impact of technology led him rather naturally into didacticism; whether presenting himself as essayist or novelist, he remained a man with a message. Ours is not an age that feels comfortable with didactic fiction (it is hard to feel so, these days, with all of those Soviet attempts to render art “useful” casting so damp a shadow before us), but if we are to be fair to Wells, we must seek to approach freshly the notion of instructive art. It is true that much of his work was an attempt to educate and prepare readers for an “inevitable” social revolution—and yet how lightly the best of his books, especially the scientific romances, wear their purposeful designs! The War of the Worlds, for example, is in part an explicit attack on British colonialism (the heartlessness with which the Martians slaughter mankind is repeatedly analogized to British indifference about “primitive” peoples), but the book never seems a mere political tract. In foregoing character study and the subtleties of emotional interchange in his novels—in foregoing, that is, the range of personal dealings that most of his contemporaries regarded as the proper province of fiction—Wells restricted himself far less than one might have supposed. Anthony West describes his father as a “visualizer,” but it seems appropriate instead to invoke that grander and much overused term, a “visionary.”
all of the scientific romances have their moments of glorious vision, images apt to linger in the mind long after the characters’ names and professions and foibles and difficulties have vanished.
For Wells had an extraordinary eye, both in its venturesomeness (eager to wander off into the future, or out to another planet, or down to the bottom of the sea) and in the keen particularity with which it would abruptly fix upon some singular, telling detail. The Time Machine is probably Wells’s finest visionary achievement, but all of the scientific romances have their moments of glorious vision, images apt to linger in the mind long after the characters’ names and professions and foibles and difficulties have vanished. What reader could-soon forget the picture of an unpeopled London tropically overrun by scarlet Martian plants at the close of The War of the Worlds? Or the night journey by rowboat in The Island of Dr. Moreau, during which a crewman’s eye glints greenly, the reader’s first unignorable hint that here is someone who isn’t quite human? These are images that momentarily require us to revise our world—much as Swift (a writer Wells loved and emulated) made us look anew at the nature of time when he gave us Lilliputians with such finely calibrated eyesight that they could discern the continuous, minuscule creeping of a clock’s hour hand.
As Wells moved into an august middle age, his sense of himself as a messenger and teacher eclipsed what had been most purely artful in his novels, until he reached a point where he claimed that he had never been an artist at all, but merely a “journalist.” In retrospect, this remark looks like a defensive gesture, an attempt to exempt himself altogether from the sort of stinging criticisms James had once directed at him. Wells alternately argued, more persuasively, that his work represented an attempt to expand the novel, to make it a congenial place for, among other things, the “philosophical dialogue”—and if this pursuit required his characters to “indulge in impossibly explicit monologues and duologues,” then he would just have to let the demands of naturalism suffer. Valiant and expansive as his intentions may have been, however, posterity has not regarded the later Wells generously. Nearly everything of his that it has chosen to preserve—the scientific romances, and the “Dickens-Thackeray” comedies like Tono-Bungay and Mr. Polly—were written early in his career, before his literary falling-out with James, before the arrival of the Great War, and before—perhaps most discouraging of all for this impatient Utopian—peace at last returned, only to bring with it a widespread, unthinking conviction that business could again go on as usual.
However harshly one views Wells’s later work, there is something irresistibly bracing in the picture of this vigorous old man who was forever dashing off a new manuscript to his publishers. To have written more than a hundred books and still feel, as Wells did at the age of seventy-five, “intolerable impatience lest some unforeseen obstacle should hold up this most urgent and conclusive work,” bespeaks an unmatchable capacity for hopefulness and ambition. Probably no other author of our century has been so breathtakingly ambitious while managing to make his goals sound rational and perhaps even reachable. When, in 1920, Wells published The Outline of History (a book whose astonishing sweep—it begins with our Paleolithic origins and concludes with projections about our future—was arguably grander than any volume the world had ever seen), he claimed to have provisionally provided “just that general review of reality of which we stood in such manifest need if any permanent political unity was to be sustained in the world.” If this talk sounds bold, Wells certainly had justification for his boldness is the book’s success: The Outline of History was the third greatest seller of its age, surpassed by only the Bible and the Koran. And when this book was supplemented in 1930 by The Science of Life (in which Wells attempted to set out “everything that an educated man—to be an educated man—ought to know about biological science”) and in 1931 by The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (which Wells described as an attempt “to fuse and recast” social, political, and economic science “into one intelligible review of Man upon his planet"”), Wells had accomplished—it might plausibly be argued —one of the most remarkable feats in the history of education. Wells himself, anyway, made an even grander claim for his new series of textbooks: “these three works taken together do, I believe, still give a clearer, fuller and compacter summary of what the normal citizen of the modern state should know, than any other group of books in existence.”
And yet the process by which that modern world-state might actually emerge remained nebulous. Wells watched the years go by with gathering alarm. Neither the rigors of the Great Depression nor the widening destruction of the Second World War appeared to foster among nations any rational recognition of their common aims and needs. Toward the very end of his life, Wells painfully renounced his seemingly unshakeable optimism. In Mind at the End of Its Tether, published the year before he died, he proposed that mankind had no future at all.
Despair had been an intermittent and yet insistent presence in his work all along, but only with the emergence of H. G. Wells in Love could the reader clearly see the degree to which Wells could be privately afflicted by darkness while publicly professing optimism. Liberated by the knowledge that this Postscript would appear only posthumously, he gave in to doubts he had banished from the autobiography; when he speaks in the Postscript of his cherished world-state, he sounds oddly wistful. The Postscript concludes with a chapter called “Shadow of Age: the Suicidal Mood,” which Wells inserted and removed from his manuscript numerous times as it sat unpublished over the years. This short chapter offers a touchingly simple portrayal of a man weighted with difficulties he cannot outwardly admit and with a somewhat surprising capacity for self-dislike: “The most conclusive argument for suicide I find in my mind is the conviction of my own unworthiness. . . . Sometimes I realize something in myself so silly, fitful and entirely inadequate to opportunity, that I feel even by my own standards I am not fit to live.” Wells ultimately decided to delete this chapter from the manuscript, a decision posthumously overturned by his son G. P. Wells, the editor of H. G. Wells in Love, who thought it “too interesting, and too relevant” to conceal forever.
H. G. Wells in Love takes its epigraph from a passing observation in Experiment in Autobiography: “This particular brain . . . has arrived at the establishment of the Socialist World-State as its directive purpose and has made that its religion and end. Other systems of feeling and motive run across or with or against the main theme. . . . I suspect the sexual system should be at least the second theme, when it is not the first, in every autobiography, honestly and fully told.” The Postscript would redress that imbalance through a candid, serial account of sexual triumphs. The result is a colorful, lively, sometimes shocking, often humorous—and in the end pretty depressing—account. Wells prefaces his chronicle with some characteristically modest doubts. Although never “able to discover whether my interest in sex is more than normal,” he is “inclined to think that I have been less obsessed by these desires and imaginations than the average man”—and then plunges into a numbingly long catalogue of seductions and sexual conquests. Wells’s account of his dealings with women purports to be not merely one man’s “particular story” but a “tale of a world of dislocated sexual relations and failure to adjust.” It is subtitled “On Loves and the Lover-Shadow,” and opens with some scattered and not very original reflections about the essence of desire. Unfortunately, Wells wrote much less movingly about his yearnings for love than about his yearnings for death. (His literary treatment of sex and romance had always been notoriously clumsy, and had earlier earned him some merciless ribbing from, among others, Rebecca West.) It is remarkable how little, really, the sexual chronicles of this reflective man rise above the personal to regard passion dispassionately. One comes away from them with a deep sense of muddle; and because Wells proves so unsuccessful in his attempt to go beyond the self’s “particular story,” he inevitably comes across as smug and exhibitionistic—which returns us to the question of Wells’s “inverted arrogance.”
What is one to make, in the end, of Wells’s eagerly modest pronouncements? Can we take them at face value? Would it be unfair to see in the boundless ambition of his books, and in the wayward and gargantuan passions of his life, an underlying arrogance? On the one hand, Wells possessed a largeness of vision, a view of innate human frailty in the face of the universe, which seems to have served as a constant check on his egotism; all human beings in the twentieth century are, he wrote in his autobiography, “like early amphibians . . . struggling out of the waters that have hitherto covered our kind.” On the other hand, Wells came away with a different self-image when he examined himself in relation to his countrymen, whose thinking always struck him as depressingly “narrow.” Wells commonly moved among the most successful people of his age, and to find that their perspectives, too, were narrow—these “uneducated” authors and “blind” political leaders—touched him with a bit of gloating pride.
Wells had good reason to feel proud of his vision. His prophetic powers were often astonishing. When he trained his eye on warfare, he was able to predict the coming of the armored tank, the revolutionary effects of armed aircraft, and, in 1914, a device of “continuous explosives” that he named the “atom bomb.” When he turned his imagination to a world in peace, he foresaw space travel, the supplanting of the book by devices analogous to video cassettes, moving sidewalks, and totalitarian censorship of the news through what he called “Babble Machines.” And when one discovers that Wells in 1924 was writing about the need to preserve the whale, one hardly knows whether to feel primarily respect for his prescience or despair at the way in which his wisdom has been ignored.
And yet for all of Wells’s foresight, and all of his insight, that “inevitable” world-state at the core of his vision seemed to grow more unlikely with time—and seems today to grow still more unlikely, as governments continue to fragment and the number of nations to multiply. Wells’s faith in the power of rationalism looks more naïve each year. His utopianism was grounded in a conviction that there was not only one single, irreducible Truth in regard to the issues which human beings have always argued most passionately about—religion, ethics, history, sex, property—but that it could in time be discerned by everyone. In the end, one comes away from his books with a feeling that in his sweeping, magnificent way H. G. Wells often led himself wildly astray. This grandly didactic man appears unwittingly to have presented us with a life that might serve as a cautionary tale. If even Wells, with all his visionary power, could end up so wrong about the future, what chance do we have today of comprehending where we are headed? Although Wells could not resist occasional boasting, the books he left behind ironically convey another sort of message: they would ask us to be humble.
- Desperately Mortal, by David C. Smith; Yale University Press, 634 pages, $29.95. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 3, on page 13
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