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December 7 2019
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H. G. Wells, photographed by Edward Steichen for Vanity Fair in the early 1930s. Virginia Woolf later said he was the most famous living English novelist.

Setting out to write a book about H. G. Wells was a strange and counter-intuitive thing for an academic, schooled in the high canon of literary modernism, to undertake. After all, Wells is barely recognized or taught in the academy; the works that are appreciated today all stem from the first 10 years of his 50-year writing career, and all are science fiction, itself a marginalized genre among literary scholars.

But my decision to write a book about him came not really as a decision at all but as a kind of inspiration. I knew almost nothing about his writings—I had spent two decades writing and teaching the canonical figures of his era (Woolf, Conrad, Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence, Yeats)—and, yet, it came to me with the force of conviction that Wells belonged, that we needed him in our understanding of the 20th century. Something was missing from the standard account of this period in literary history; here was someone with whom all of those modernists (and many other writers) were mildly obsessed; and, more to the point, it seemed that his ideas ranged far and wide, a genius whose imagination had found its way to us in the 21st century despite a 50-year neglect of his work in academia. This was Wells.

Magnum Opuses

Meanwhile, to write comprehensively about Wells would be no small task. The author of nearly 100 books, with a full corpus of some 6,000 items, Wells was immensely prolific. One of the first things I discovered, in fact, was that Wells was world famous and intricately involved with many aspects of the culture of England, Europe, and America. No major topic in this period was without its Wellsian trace, whether the subject was war, science, fantasy, gender politics, education, technology, history, or, above all, the fate of humanity into the future. For me, however—and for modernist studies as an academic field—this was all new territory.

A young H. G. Wells in the mid-1880s, probably while studying biology in London under Thomas Henry Huxley, who championed Darwin’s theories.

I had, at that time, read only a tiny handful of his books—The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, Tono-Bungay, and a few others—and had found them to be startling in their imaginative reach: funny, haunting, and seriously shaking the ground of modernism. That seemed certain, but what would follow when I explored his rich, diverse corpus? What would it look like to view the world through this new prism, given how completely it had been eclipsed in the cultural memory of his writing era, about 1895–1945?

No major topic in this period was without its Wellsian trace.

The answer is that just about everything changed in my estimation of this half-century in literary and cultural history, of what literature was doing and why. I found that I needed to recalibrate the literary goals of this era, the meaning and legacy of its innovations. I knew what Wells’s peers had left us, how Ulysses and “The Waste Land” and Mrs. Dalloway had brought a lyrical and metaphysical depth to literature that also required a particular kind of work from the reader; I could recognize the intricate and personal nature of their accomplishments.

Wells, by contrast, seemed to attack the world all at once. His goals for literature were soaring, world-scaled. He believed that writing could and should change the course of history, to set humankind on a path toward unity, peace, and planetary prosperity. There was no experiment he was unwilling to make in the interest of the future, whether this meant writing huge books in the popular disciplines (history, science, economics), realist novels alongside comic ones, films, manifestos, a declaration of human rights, books of forecast, and, of course, the science fiction for which today he is most famous. More, all of these were avidly consumed by readers around the world. Reading Wells is an experience of going back to the first half of the 20th century and seeing it afresh.

He believed that writing could and should change the course of history.

It is also startlingly contemporary. Just about every work of scientific fantasy today has ties to Wells, the genre’s primary originator, and many of our own problems, from environmental catastrophe to warfare to global injustice, open themselves to the solutions offered by Wells. One essential discovery, then, was of Wells’s virtuosity, world orientation, and relevance.

Raymond Massey and H. G. Wells on the set of Things to Come, 1936.

Another was how much of a force he was within his society. When Virginia Woolf described him in 1938 as England’s most famous living novelist, or when George Orwell credited Wells with inventing an entire generation, they were not wrong. Everyone read Wells, and not only in England (also in France, Russia, and the U.S., and well beyond). Winston Churchill, Henry Ford, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin: all met with Wells, knew him, listened to him—or flatly rejected his views. What other writer today, or 100 years ago, has had such a public role?

But, above all, the surprise of reading Wells is that his books are so brilliant, such fun to discover. Take The World of William Clissold (1926), just as one example: who had heard of this book? But it is fabulous, a meditation on life, war, and the future, nearly 1,000 pages, an updating of Montaigne, and Wells’s version of the great interwar modernist novel. Or The Croquet Player (1936), an explosive little tale that takes Wells back to his science-fiction roots but with the political urgency of the 1930s. Or The Outline of History (1920), Wells’s monumental attempt to end war by creating a common past for all mankind, one of the most fascinating and widely read history books of the 20th century. I could go on and on with these prompts. This is the true surprise in reading Wells today: that there is, in his tremendous oeuvre, an infinite trove of new books, new ideas, new experiments. Who knew?

Sarah Cole’s Inventing Tomorrow: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century is out now from Columbia University Press

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