H. G. Wells: Journalism and Prophecy 1893-1946
Sir Isaiah Berlin, in his little book on Tolstoy, makes a useful distinction between two kinds of thinker: the Hedgehog, who knows a great deal about one thing, and the Fox, who knows a certain amount about many things. H. G. Wells can be regarded as the possibly unique representative of a third category—the hedgehog disguised as a fox. Wells published over a hundred books during the eighty years of his life, plus a vast amount of uncollected journalism, and at first glance his output is bewildering in its variety, comprising as it does, comic and fantastic fiction, utopian speculations, and large incursions into politics, history, popular science, sociology, and education. Nor was he troubled by considerations of superficial consistency; ideas and intellectual positions would be eagerly picked up, held for a while, and then abruptly dropped. Nevertheless, from the early 1900s until shortly before his death in 1946, Wells was concerned with a single goal; his manifold writings, in so many different forms, were all approaches to it, and his apparent inconsistencies were no more than tactical manoeuverings that didn’t affect his overall strategy. He was dominated, occasionally obsessed, by the ideal of a global community, rationally and scientifically organized, in which war, poverty, and disease would be things of the past. This ideal was first presented in imaginative detail in Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) and subsequently revised from time to time to take in the latest advances of technology; it was most fully restated in The Shape of Things to Come (1935), which showed space-travel as the ultimate achievement of an emancipated mankind. This book was also made into a memorable British film, whose glowing images of futurity have dimmed into period-piece reminders of the brave functionalism of the Thirties.
Mr. Wagar’s anthology gives a good idea of the scope of Wells’s writings, ranging from an ebulliently cynical essay published in 1893, called “The Man of the Year Million,” which discusses the future evolutionary development of humanity, through to the bitter pessimism of his last book, Mind at the End of Its Tether. There are some good extracts from an excellent, long out-of-print work, The Future in America (1906), which describes Wells’s first visit to the United States; Mr. Wagar also draws effectively on the Experiment in Autobiography and gives a selection from Wells’s uncollected articles. He has performed a most diligent work of compilation, of which he remarks in his Preface, “I hope this anthology, which contains less than 2 per cent of his incredibly vast and varied work, will assist in hurrying along the inevitable revival.” Yet Mr. Wagar’s evident admiration for Wells has, I think, led him to take a somewhat one-sided view of his subject; he accepts Wells rather too much on the latter’s own terms. If Wells described himself, in his celebrated debate with Henry James, as “a journalist, not an artist,” then that is sufficient reason for Mr. Wagar to concentrate on Wells the super-journalist, and to exclude from his anthology any hint that in the years before 1914 Wells was, at intervals, very definitely an artist. The only extracts he gives from Wells’s fiction are from those novels which are no more than vehicles for intelectual discussion, such as The World of William Clissold. Mr. Wagar austerely keeps possibly interested readers from discovering that in The Time Machine Wells wrote one of the imaginative masterpieces of late nineteenth-century fiction, or that Tono-Bungay is both a magnificently entertaining realistic novel, and a brilliant dissection of Edwardian society. In the face of such exclusions, Mr. Wagar’s resurrected newspaper articles on various fairly ephemeral topics seem insufficient compensation. The Wells that Mr. Wagar wishes to see revived is not, in many ways, the most interesting aspect of his genius.
This anthology does, however, give a good idea of Well’s temperament and cast of mind, if not of his literary achievement. If Mr. Wagar’s stress on Wells’s output as “journalism” is somewhat distorting, his presentation of Wells’s “prophecy”—the other half of his title—is more balanced. He says some sensible things in his Introduction about Wells’s limitations in predicting physical inventions; many of his guesses were wildly wrong, though in 1903 he foresaw the tank, which he called the “land ironclad,” and in his novel, The World Set Free, published in 1914, he describes the use in war of atomic bombs, though these were, admittedly, only two feet in diameter and were dropped from aeroplanes by hand. About the aeroplane itself Wells was extraordinarily cautious: in 1902, the year before the Wright Brothers’ flight, he suggested that “long before the year A.D. 2000, and very probably before 1950, a successful aeroplane will have soared and come home safe and sound.” This guarded speculation comes from Anticipations, the first of Wells’s works of systematic prophecy, which does, in fact, contain some very accurate guesses, Mr. Wagar quotes a remarkable chapter called “The Triumph of Suburbia,” which looks ahead to the sprawling low density suburban development of recent years, wholly dependent on the private car and a good road system, though the results in practice have been less agreeable than Wells anticipated.
Where he was most inclined to go wrong was in his hasty predictions about future political or military events. Here, undoubtedly, his judgment was often deflected by wishful thinking, as when he confidently asserted in August 1914—not long before the Battle of Tannenburg—“a Russian raid is far more likely to threaten Berlin than a German to reach Paris”; or when in a venomous attack on General de Gaulle, written in 1943, he remarked, “His day is passing and the road to obscurity opens wide and imperative before him.” In fact, Wells’s more imaginative prophesies may have been self-fulfilling; how much does the current program for reaching the moon owe in its basic inspiration to the mythopoeic activities of writers like Wells and Jules Verne? Doubtless, if Wells had lived to see the successes of the more spectacular forms of contemporary technology he would have been excited and satisfied. One wonders, however, what he would have made of those organizations that resemble his own schemes for international collaboration and which may also be indebted to Wells for some of their underlying ideals. UNESCO, for instance, recalls his ambitious projects for international educational effort, though it has had far less success than Wells would have wished for in spreading universal enlightenment and a change of heart. Again, the peace-keeping activities of the UN should, in theory, have been close to Wells’s heart: but there is an immediate, and irresistibly ironic, contrast between the stern but dashing International Air Police of The Shape of Things to Come, energetically putting down war, and the pitiful inadequacies of, say, the UN operations in the Congo or Cyprus. Wells would probably have agreed that the machinery is useless without the will to make it work; but he would have added that one can change the will by improved educational facilities, which are merely another form of machinery. Chesterton once remarked that the trouble with all utopias, including Wells’s is that they assume the really taxing problems have already been solved and then go on to give a vivid account of how the lesser ones were disposed of: “they assume that no-one will want more than his share, and then show us whether it was delivered by balloon or motorcar.”
The principal impression one takes from Mr. Wagar’s anthology is of the extreme rapidity of Wells’s mind, which was the reverse of contemplative; he would move briskly from point to point, hastily outlining a solution, brushing aside difficulties as the products of uneducated or malevolent minds. This characteristic is very apparent, almost comically so, in the barrage of advice on military matters that Wells—who had once invented a children’s game called “Little Wars”—directed at the appropriate authorities during both World Wars. The fact that it was, mostly, not taken gave him ample evidence of the crassness of the military mind. This rapidity of Wells’s mental processes, and his corresponding impatience with difficulties, produced, at best, an exhilaration that could be very inspiring, as thousands of his young admirers found in the years before 1914; but at most, it could also be grossly superficial. And this superficiality, I think, is the dominant effect, particularly in the hurried journalistic pieces that Mr. Wagar has been so assiduous in collecting. In the early scientific romances, Wells had shown a somber though bizarre awareness of the deeper preoccupations of his age, notably in The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The War of the Worlds, that makes it not absurd to compare him with Nietzsche—as Mr. Wagar perceptively does at one point. And in the best of his realistic fiction—Kipps and Mr. Polly as well as Tono-Bungay—Wells has an intermittent grasp of the complexity as well as the pathos and the humor of the ordinary plights of depressed humanity. He felt and understood them, but he turned away to the streamlined social engineering of his utopias, where the purity of line was undisturbed by actual human problems. Admittedly, Wells was never quite honest with himself; by 1915, when his early creative phase was exhausted, and he claimed to James that he was “a journalist, not an artist,” he was prepared to argue that he had never been anything else, and that all his earlier fiction, whether the scientific romances of the Nineties or the Edwardian realistic comedies, were simply illustrations of his theses about the need for improved social organization. Intellectually, it is true, these theses had been dommating him since the turn of the century, but his artistic imagination retained its autonomy for several more years. Thereafter, he became increasingly hard on art and artists and could find little place for them in his explanations of society and his projected utopias.
Wells lived through the Second World War, somewhat disturbed in mind, as his son Anthony West has recorded, but prolifically writing polemical books and articles. After Hiroshima he lost faith in everything he had believed in and worked for; the extracts from Mind at the End of Its Tether that Mr. Wagar gives provide the most moving pages in the collection. Wells died feeling that the universe had betrayed him; there was no hint of order, no certainty of progress, no assurance for man in its alien aspect. He finally reached, after such a long and active career, the negation and despair that are the starting point for the practitioners of Existentialism. It would be neat, but too facile, to see in the collopse of Wells’s final months the symbolic defeat of late-Victorian scientific optimism. In fact, as Anthony West has shown, Wells had, if anything, returned to the haunted skepticism of his youth which had produced The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau. On this view, Wells’s active life as publicist, educator, and designer of utopias, which Mr. Wagar’s book so amply illustrates, was little more than a prolonged parenthesis.