Fifty years ago H. G. Wells strode confidently across the English literary landscape. He was coupled in the same breath with Shaw, he was a celebrity who could command with Arnold Bennett the maximum fee for a newspaper article, he was the hero of the new intelligentsia living in garden cities in the south of England and advocating vegetarianism and progressive schools, a Fabian who soared above blue books and did not scorn dreams and visions, the liberator of several generations of schoolboys, an artist whose vitality seemed to be restoring life to the popular Victorian novel, stretching back to Dickens with Mr. Polly and Mr. Lewisham, or surpassing Stevenson’s romances with the Time Machine and Dr. Moreau. Wells appeared to be the sage of modernism, all the more agreeable because he discarded the robes and stage properties of the prophet, a man inspiring the new generation to sweep away the corrupt, effete, and stupid upper-class elite and replace them with rational rulers able to discover the scientific remedies for social disease.
Today he has virtually disappeared. Even the earlier novels have been elbowed out of the way. Those who are interested in the connection between popular success and art find Kipling more engrossing or admire Bennett’s more solid achievement. Those who study the emergence of working-class novelists writing about their class would have to admit that Wells certainly spoke for the little man who cheeks his way into a life of ease and happiness despite the conventions of class and the barrier of money. But who can doubt that Lawrence, the miner’s son, gave their protest a dignity and depth which the draper’s assistant never possessed?
Wells’s contempt for art and his brash proclamation that the novel is justified by its power as propaganda have bored his readers. He has none of Gorki’s integrity nor could he have written a Darkness at Noon. Wells has lost his name with students of literature. Every student who has majored in English since the revolution in criticism knows by heart the noble answer by Henry James to Wells’s caricature of him in Boon:
It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process. If I were Boon I should say that any pretence of such a substitute is helpless and hopeless humbug; but I wouldn’t be Boon for the world, and am only yours faithfully,
Even if by his own wish Wells preferred to be a propagandist rather than a novelist, what did he achieve? He was an impossible political ally and never recovered from his defeat by the Webbs in the Fabian Society. If no cause of the left for thirty years was quite respectable unless Wells backed it, the number who came to regret that he had was quite large. In retrospect his propaganda turns out to …