H.G. Wells: Prophet without Honor

By Timko, Michael | The World and I, May 2006 | Go to article overview

H.G. Wells: Prophet without Honor


Timko, Michael, The World and I


The great popularity of the Harry Potter books brings into focus one puzzling phenomenon of our times: What makes one author successful and another fail to attract and hold our attention? Even more puzzling is why so many authors who wrote in that period known as the Edwardian Age (1901-1910) seemingly have no interest for today's readers, especially since the list is so long and impressive: Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett, George Gissing, Virginia Woolf, Israel Zangwill, Rudyard Kipling, E.M. Forster, G.K. Cherston, W.H. Hudson, Henry James, Samuel Butler, and lastly H.G. Wells, judged by many in our time as "the father of modern science fiction" and a "modern myth-maker." James, Forster, and Woolf have had recent revivals because of several movies and TV series made from their novels, but most of the others remain unread and unknown.

Of all of these, Wells deserves to be better known. His case is especially interesting because his life and career illustrate remarkably well the fickleness of literary fame. His career was long and varied; not only was he a novelist, he was also a teacher, scientist, journalist, sociologist, and historian. During his long and distinguished life he wrote over a hundred works, most of which were novels, but also included nonfiction, essays, plays, textbooks, and scientific treatises and articles. In his lifetime (1866-1946) he was both rich and famous, especially in America. One biography reports, for instance, that during the depression his taxable income in America was $21,000 in 1933, $45,000 in 1934, and $29,000 in 1935, a lot of money at the time. He was also prominent on the world scene, being very active in the Fabian Society, serving as international president of the organization of PEN clubs, and being an adviser to several committees of the British government. He was also warmly received as a favored visitor in countries around the world, on one occasion conducting a long interview with Josef Stalin. Today, of course, little is heard of Wells, and most of his fifty novels gather dust on shelves in private libraries and used bookstores. Perhaps he knew what would happen, for on one occasion he composed his own epitaph, which read, in part: "I told you so."

Herbert George Wells was born September 15, 1866. His mother, Sarah, was a deeply religious woman. She had, according to one writer, an "ingrained evangelical view of the world," and her influence on Wells' view of things was to last all of his life. His father was what we would call a ne'er-do-well, ostensibly a shopkeeper, but interested chiefly in cricket and spending far more time playing that game than keeping shop. Wells' early life had certain parallels to that of Charles Dickens, whose work Wells greatly admired. Dickens was sent to work in a blacking warehouse when he was a child; Wells' mother wanted him to become a draper and forced him to serve, against his will, as a draper's assistant. Wells was reported to have said that her belief in "Our Savior" and "Our Father" was almost as unquestioning as was her belief in drapers. Wells, also like Dickens, was largely self-taught and at the beginning of his career earned his living as a journalist and freelance writer.

Unlike Dickens, however, Wells did have some formal education. At the age of seventeen he earned a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London and spent three years there studying science. Part of the time he actually attended a class taught by Thomas Henry Huxley, the famous naturalist whose strong defense of Darwin's evolutionary ideas caused him to become known as "Darwin's Bulldog." It was here too that Wells gained the scientific knowledge he used in writing the science-fiction novels that earned him his worldwide reputation, one that deserves to be revived. During these three years at the Normal School of Science Wells, chiefly because of the great impact of Huxley himself, especially his ideas on evolution and nature, formulated the chief themes that would constitute the core of his most memorable novels: "The Time Machine" (1895); "The Island of Dr. …

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