H. G. Wells and His Enduring Weapons of Mass Instruction
Actor Rod Taylor starring in George Pal’s 1960 version of The Time Machine
No writer of the 20th century has had, and still has, more influence on the public imagination than Herbert George (always ‘H.. G.’) Wells (1866 –1946). But while becoming a world-renowned travelling public figure as well, no enthusiast for science as a new religion, and for a utopian and socialist reconstruction of all human society, had such an absence of practical effect, including on political leaders who often gave him public praise. He lived long enough to see the Second World War conclude with the two atomic bombings on Japan, and when he died a few months later, was an embittered man. His last and little-remembered small work was called Mind at the End of its Tether, in which he declared his disillusionment with the human race.
This bleak conclusion followed his last two decades of voluminous but hastily-written and instantly-forgotten books, pamphlets, and newspaper articles. The exception was his widely-read 1934 Experiment in Autobiography, delighting readers almost as much as his early and brilliant science fiction tales, and bringing him a gushing letter of praise from Franklin Roosevelt, which exulted ‘…our [sic] biggest success is in making people think.’ FDR was then creating his New Deal ‘brains trust’, which did somewhat resemble one of Wells’s many calls for the establishment of such expert cabals. But the need for ‘scientific planners’ was a popular commonplace in the 1930s anyway: American New Dealers and Soviet Communists could alike look back to such proposals from the French Enlightenment’s Henri de Saint-Simon, and even to Plato.
It has not been unusual for writers to long outlive their times of triumph, combining broadening superficial fame with declining real impact, but Wells experienced this irony in its most acute form. His at first poorly-paying ‘scientific romances’ that he wrote almost entirely before the end of the 19th century, like The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau, were in many ways the best things he ever wrote, winning the permanent admiration of literary giants like Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, despite their disappointment with his later books. They are still being redone as enjoyable theatre and TV films every few years, and countless other science fiction books and films are just slight variations on Wellsian original ideas. He also spent another fifteen years publishing less memorable but still highly readable novels and ‘anticipations’ of the future. He always needed more money, mainly because his spectacularly promiscuous and often scandalous sex life brought large financial demands with it.
Then, just after the end of the First World War, he published The Outline of History, covering both recent anthropological discoveries and ranging over the history of the whole world, and drawing on a wide range of good secondary sources. It mostly got a cool reception from the professional academics, but was a huge hit with general publics everywhere, eventually selling millions of copies worldwide, and at last making Wells a rich man. From then on, he became a world-travelling visionary visitor and preacher to the great of the earth, irritating much as Thomas L. Friedman is now. Home in England, he quarrelled with the Webbs, Shaw, and other Fabians, managing to keep the friendship with Shaw, but with his sexual conquests having long permanently appalled Beatrice Webb for their ‘sordid intrigues’, and taking vengeance with a lampoon of the couple in one of his novels. He eventually met and conversed with all the large public figures of the interwar years, from Charlie Chaplin to Hitler, Lenin at the start of the 1920s. Stalin fourteen years later. Back in England, he was also now welcomed at grand English country houses like the one where his mother had worked as a lady’s maid. or had employed his unsuccessful shopkeeper father as a part-time professional cricketer. While unimpressive in physical appearance, he was now also able to practice his remarkable talent for seducing attractive young women of a higher social milieu than in the past.
But it was only the seductions that really went well. Trotsky claimed that Lenin had not only thought Wells ‘petit bourgeois’, but had marvelled, “What a philistine!’ He had not gone over any better with Stalin, especially after trying to tell that monster of paranoid political ruthlessness that he, Wells, was ‘more left-wing’ than the Russian dictator. His reception in the country houses was mixed as well. The ultra-conservative Frederick Lindemann, Director of Oxford’s Clarendon Physics Laboratory, who met Wells in the 1920s just as he was in the process of becoming Winston Churchill’s own scientific guru, was not impressed, writing to his father, about a dinner and dance at Blenheim Palace, “They had got H. G. Wells of all people, and the Duchess made him dance, a most comic business. He is very second rate as regards brains…” Cruel and snobbish, but Wells brought this kind of assessment on himself, as he did in trying to instruct Bolsheviks on a program of self-improvement.
Undoubtedly intelligent, scientifically adept, and always a fine storyteller, Wells was without guile or much deep understanding of other men, better with women. He never really ceased to be a late Victorian, at once entranced and depressed by Darwinian biology, which he had learned at the feet of Thomas Henry Huxley himself, and by the speculations of physicists like Lord Kelvin about the eventual heat death of the sun and the whole universe, amazed at the potentialities of the ‘Second Industrial Revolution’ of chemistry and electricity changing the world around him. He had started out in life as a schoolteacher and extramural university student, and largely educating himself through voracious library reading, and never stopped being a kind and sometimes silly schoolmaster. As well, with a ‘freethinker’ father in regular conflict with his religiously devout mother, he was a late Victorian in entirely rejecting traditional Christianity (keeping a lifetime detestation of Roman Catholicism especially), while retaining an abiding hunger for some kind of ‘rationalist’substitute.
In some respects, he resembled such fellow distinguished late Victorians as Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill, both born less than a decade after he was, and fascinated in their own way by advancing natural science. But unlike those two supremely confident aristocrats, Wells did not have a privileged childhood, a rapid entry into the kind of post-secondary education and career he wanted, or entrance from an early age into the English elite of social status. He had been born into an only minimally genteel poverty, and served three miserable years as an unsuccessful draper shop apprentice. His wonderful early stories did not express the utopian hopes that came later, as much preparing the way for the pessimistic ‘dystopias’ of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. He wrote them primarily to make money, ironically finding in himself a mythic and symbolic talent that made him an immortal, but of a different kind than the one he treid to become in the last four decades of his life.
He was the subject of a fine biography by Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie in 1973, not only fascinating about him, but about the many women who loved him, from the beautiful and brilliant bluestocking Rebecca West to the birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger. His heritage is partly just one of giving reading and viewing innocent pleasures but is not entirely benign. He left behind fascinating symbolic dualities – we may have versions of The Time Machine‘s Eloi and Morlocks with us forever – but he surely helped launch something of a widening infantilization of taste as well. Rather than being an accurate prophet of utopia or apocalyptic doom, he proved the harbinger of endless filmings of comic book heroes struggling with ever re-imagined Morlocks. But good stories do not necessarily teach good political lessons.
Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian.