A hundred years ago, the British author H. G. Wells was a prominent social prognosticator. Today his theoretical views are largely neglected. This is the lament of a new biography by Sarah Cole, discussed in the Wall Street Journal. Cole’s new volume is described as “a spirited attempt to rescue” Wells from obscurity by highlighting his “universalism, his monumental output, his omnipresence in the intellectual debates of his time.” Reviewer D. J. Taylor notes the author’s “saying power… that sets him apart from his descendants.” This is true of his works of fiction; less so, his works of political and cultural commentary. It is ironic that Wells “was a polymath in a world that was rapidly succumbing to specialist expertise.” He actually belonged to an older humanist tradition that gave way to the very technocracy that he helped to propagandize.
The biographer also compares Wells’ writing style with contemporaries like Joseph Conrad. Apparently when relaxing on the beach he was asked by the famous sea-faring novelist how he would describe a certain boat they were looking at. Wells replied that he would “just let the boat be there in the commonest phrases possible.” He would generalize. This is very different from the meticulous (one might almost say maddeningly intricate) prose of Conrad. The Polish-born author was a great artist. And he had interesting stories to tell. But in my opinion he was not as successful a storyteller as Wells in his early years. On the other hand, Wells’ later novels were suffused with dull theorizing and stereotypical characters acting as mouthpieces for his own points of view.
According to Taylor, Cole’s biography does not ignore Wells’ “untenable views about race and eugenics” (which is putting it rather gingerly). The English novelist was also an early champion of “free love.” In that respect, his outlook was an accurate predictor of things to come. Yet as time passed he was not always pleased with the course of “progress.” It took another English socialist, George Orwell, to articulate the shortcomings of Wells’ rationalism. The more skeptical Orwell remarked on the failure of a proposed “world state” to generate popular enthusiasm. “All sensible men for decades past have been substantially in agreement with what Mr. Wells says; but the sensible men have no power and, in too many cases, no disposition to sacrifice themselves.”
Still, we are indebted to Wells for enduring works of imaginative fiction, not only in such well known novels as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds but even some of his short stories like “The Door in the Wall,” which I recently read in an old anthology of that same title. It’s a wistful fantasy about a man’s search for paradise. As such, it can be also be taken as a parable for Wells’ own idealism struggling amidst the harsh facts and disappointments of the world.