Sarah Cole

 

On her book Inventing Tomorrow: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century

Cover Interview of February 26, 2020

A close-up

If one were to open Inventing Tomorrow somewhere, where should that be? If you are drawn to the big story and to the argument with modernism, read the Introduction. The conclusion pans out to see Wells as, above all, a writer engaged in his own distinctive form of world writing. But the joy of Wells, as with all creative geniuses, is also in the details. One of my own primary intellectual formations has been as a reader of war literature, and I hope that those interested in war will be energized by the discussion of how Wells, in a life-time of bracing depictions of total war, recalibrated the place of the civilian, and hence adds to the robust rethinking of war’s voices that, boosted by the recent centenary of the First World War, is well underway in current scholarship. I have mentioned time and scale as major scholarly topics today, and my chapter on “Time” addresses these, arguing that Wells stands as one of the great philosophers of time in this period; no small claim given how robust the theorization of time was among modernists.

The history of science, and particularly of biology, animates the chapter “Biology,” as I follow Wells’s ambitious writing of life as a primary principle. Sparring with modernism, engaging with evolution as one of the crucial principles of life and death, moving in and out of science, in and out of fiction, Wells as life writer breaks out of expected categories and offers vivid insights into the place of the human in its many ecosystems. Considering biology, though, we find some of Wells’s least palatable qualities, his penchant for perfecting the polity, his attraction to some of the principles of eugenics. Wells is always both an exemplification and an exaggerator of his culture’s interests, desires, and fears, and when it came to the hothouse of late 19th and early 20th century science, Wells embarced both the beauty and the ugliness like no one else.

But I think my own favorite part of Inventing Tomorrow may be the reading of The Outline of History (1920)—one of the great books of interwar modern writing and a world bestseller. Thinking about The Outline in the context of time, and of Wells’s dramatic recalibrating of the writing of history in the 20th century, these segments open up aspects of literary culture that cut close to the modernist bone— and also depart forcefully. Wells the historian is an entirely unfamiliar character to us, and yet, one of the most recognizable to his contemporaries. We thus find ourselves looking squarely at the major disjunction at the heart of this book: the gulf between contemporary literary studies and the actual reading and imagining habits of one hundred years ago.