The Visions of H.G. Wells

H. G. Wells: Journalism and Prophecy 1893-1946

compiled and edited by W. Warren Wagar
Houghton Mifflin, 447 pp., $6.95

H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells; drawing by David Levine

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,”…

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