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

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In a nutshell

Inventing Tomorrow sets out to tell a story of 20th century literary culture that follows an entirely different path from the one that has dominated academia for the last fifty years. Rather than taking modernism as its starting point (whether to analyze, critique, or expand), it asks how the first half of the 20th century would look if we begin, instead, with the most widely read English writer of this period, and one whom modernism itself saw as fundamentally its other, H. G. Wells. Wells, I argue, delivers a profoundly different 20th century from the one bequeathed by modernism, yet resonating with contemporary concerns and popular culture. Palpitating with the technology and encompassing the world trends that in many ways defined this historical period, Wells’s work claims its own place as a driver of political and cultural change. Over a half-century (1895-1946) of nonstop writing, which comprised an array of genres and styles, Wells hoped that his work would help to coax the world into the shape he ardently believed to be its destiny: a single world state, free of war and injustice. An avowed utopian, Wells offered his contemporaries a voice they deeply sought. His enormous body of writing produced a powerful sense of literature as a force for social change and proffered itself as an incubator to propel ones dreams and to sculpt ideals into imaginative shape. At the same time, his imagination was drawn into the dark and terrifying; his visions were—and remain—often disturbing.

My argument, in short, is that Wells transforms the view of a literary period that was rich in innovation, yet whose breadth of experiment opens much more widely, and changes its character, when we consider what he offered. Wells bursts into the scene with an unfamiliar and generative set of principles and accomplishments. At the same time, that unfamiliarity is perhaps only an academic one, since his ideas were so influential in the popular imagination that they seem to tap directly into our cultural unconscious, having provided the germ for a huge swath of contemporary popular forms and fantasies. Formally, Wells’s approach to literature as a force in the world and his writing styles provide a bracing new set of cues for a literary culture formed in modernism’s image. To give just several examples: Wells felt no need to banish the pedagogic voice from his fiction. On the contrary, he saw literature as deeply embedded in the cause of education, and his books regularly both show and tell (a distinct taboo in modernism and its legacies). Another significant writerly contribution was his freedom with genre and form, where he radically innovated, melded, and mixed, as needed to push forward his vision of the world’s ills and its potential for salvation (as he saw it). Wells declared himself a journalist, facing off against modernism with its rarefied aesthetics and its narrowing of audience. Such a principle comes to look distinctly compelling for us today, when global and environmental forces once again threaten essential features of human well-being and where the democratization of knowledge and ideas is an essential value.

Thematically, Wells’s writings covered a huge breadth of topics, from time, to war, to science, to government, to gender, to the nature and fate of humanity. I consider the range and complexity of his presentations in each of these broad areas. One key feature of my book is that it engages Wells’s full body of writing (whereas the vast majority of Wells critics limit themselves to a few titles from the first 10-15 years of his 50-year writing career) and considers how his work entered the cauldron of cultural and literary politics. My most salient message is that when we take account of Wells, we discover crucial features of this period’s literary ambitions and achievements, and, more, that we encounter some of the most compelling imaginative formations of the 20th century, and our own time as well.

February 26, 2020

The wide angle

One of the biggest questions that has animated modernist studies in the last two decades has been, what were others (not just Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Yeats, Conrad…) saying: who, where, how, and why? Inventing Tomorrow goes further, attempting to change the conversation altogether, and to revivify this period in literary history by taking seriously its own readers’ predilections, exploring a genuinely alternative literary and imaginative project. The book was born out of modernist studies—my own field—and yet, I hope it may speak to readers beyond this area, and for several reasons. Wells himself is a figure who roams and ranges across a huge multitude of issues and ideas. Popular culture cannot do without him (new Time Machine, Invisible Man, and War of the Worlds adaptations are being aired and/or produced even as I write). He is, of course, one of the originators of science fiction. Technology and Wells belong together, and his creative envisioning of all manner of devices (some of which have become normal parts of our lives, others of which remain prime figures of fantasy) brings his works into essential dialogue with contemporary issues around technology, especially since the key point for Wells was never simply, what can or will we invent, but rather, what can and should we do with our inventions? Wells was world famous as a predictor and futurist, and such a style of thought touches a chord today, when climate change has brought a new urgency to the idea of futurist thinking. During Wells’s life, he went way beyond these topics, and readers interested in more or less anything from the first fifty years of the 20th century—such as war, education, science, history, sex, economics, or the authority of the layperson to speak on any or all of these—will find Wells in the fray, a voice being heard by his contemporaries, in many media and over many decades.

Yet the potential interest of this story goes beyond Wells: ultimately, it is about rethinking the way literature can interact with its world(s), and about how received convention—here the absolute dominance of modernist aesthetic values—can obscure all kinds of rich and fascinating imaginative and cultural achievements. As one example of how this works in the book, I argue that in order to read Wells to best effect (in such a way that the particular accomplishment of his body of writing can be assessed, and to align ourselves with his contemporary readers) one must jettison essential habits of literary reading, such as assuming that each work stands alone. Wells’s writing lived as a moving, changing sea of texts and ideas, rather than as a list of discrete works complete in themselves, and this amorphous formation, in turn, existed in constant contact with its interlocutors. The reading scale for Wells simply differs from received literary norms.

Or, we might consider another way that Wells can provide a jolt of recognition for other texts and periods: despite decades of expansion in modernist studies, certain criteria remain stubbornly at the center, and these continue to dominate literary appraisal, such as the doctrine that a writer must never explain himself. Yet Wells’s construction of a style in which he makes and then explains his own figures enabled him to reach a mass readership; and there are other aspects of his writing, shunned by academics, that also worked to invite, and in a sense guide, his audience. Another commonplace that Wells challenges is that the most important element in a novel is character, and especially depth of character; Wells was after something different in the human relation to her worlds. The important point is to be able to recognize that these are strategies and priorities, with their own rich outcomes, rather than failings.

Or what about the future? Attempting actually to envision what will come, at a variety of points in time, is out of tune with most of the writers esteemed from the first half of the 20th century, whose meandering in time almost always involved backward travel, but it suggests a certain trans-historical cast of mind, aligning with others at different historical moments who operated along a creative, flexible time scale, oriented as much to the future as the past. Or, again, in the case of scale, a big topic in current literary studies, Wells was one of the most innovative and provocative figures of this period, drawn to huge spans of space and time.

In short, Inventing Tomorrow is a book about Wells, but it also a book about the rich and pulsating sphere of ideas and experiments that constellates around this most polymathic of writers.

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.

February 26, 2020


Writing this book has been the most exciting intellectual undertaking of my career so far, and also the most difficult. It was challenging for a few reasons— the need to construct my own methodology for reading and assessing Wells, as one example, and the sheer scale of his oeuvre as another— but the most pressing issue is that Wells can be as nasty as he is marvelous, as distressing as he is invigorating. Such is life, such is he: not only a flawed person, but a reminder of how motivating and progressive ideals can live in partnership with much that is ugly or misguided. Yet it was (and is) not my primary goal to judge Wells for his faults or critique him for failing to meet my own ethical standards. Rather I find myself profoundly energized by the imaginative universe that was Wells’s work, and I seek to follow those aspects of his thought that speak to my own ideals— of peace, say, or the need to protect the earth, or the ongoing b­elief that we can do better­. I have never sought heroes or saints in those I study, and Wells is by any measure an unlikely entrant into sainthood. But it is my firm conviction that what Wells offers us in his enormous and stimulating body of work outweighs his shortcomings, opening up avenues for thought that, in some uncanny (indeed perhaps Wellsian) way, have been here all along, if one only knew to look for them. Reading his work has changed my view of just about everything I read; this is a great gift and I hope my own readers will be able to partake of this transformative energy.

If nothing else, I hope my book will send people to Wells, where they will think and judge for themselves about the meaning and value of his works. This is really an infinite trove, with works of every sort (see a brief list on the next page): from the explosive, brief science fiction of his early career, which remains famous and influential today; to his brilliant short stories; to his biting, often very funny social comedy; to the realist or social issue novels of the early century that combatively entered the debates of the moment; to the meditative essay novels of the 20s; to the big books in popular history and science that represented the height of Wells’s ambition to unite the world with concepts of a shared past and future; to his many genres of war and peace writing; to his own personal storytelling, which in a way encompasses all of these myriad works and culminates in his actual autobiography, another bestseller; and of course to film, those written by Wells himself, and the endless adaptations of his works that continue to emerge each year and to influence so many other productions.

Ultimately, it is the pleasure of discovery that stands out in reading Wells, how startling, jarring, interesting and reorienting these works can be.

February 26, 2020

A few Wells books by genre

Science Fiction: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The War of the Worlds (1898), The Invisible Man (1897), The First Men in the Moon (1901), The Croquet Player (1936)

Short Stories: The Country of the Blind (1904), The Door in the Wall (1906)

Social Comedy: Kipps (1905), The History of Mr. Polly (1910)

Novels around Social Issues: Ann Veronica (1910), The War in the Air (1908), Tono-Bungay (1909)

Utopias: A Modern Utopia (1905), The Shape of Things to Come (1934)

Essay Novels: The World of William Clissold (1926)

Popular Disciplines: The Outline of History (1920)

War Writings: The World Set Free (1914), The War that will End War (1914), Mr. Britling Sees it Through (1916), The Rights of Man (1940)

Autobiography: Experiment in Autobiography (1934)

Film: Things to Come (1936)

Sarah Cole Inventing Tomorrow: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century Columbia University Press 392 pages, 6.5 x 9.5 inches ISBN 978 0231193122

Sarah Cole is Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Dean of Humanities at Columbia University. A specialist in literary modernism, she is the co-founder of the NYNJ Modernism Seminar and director of the Humanities War and Peace Initiative at Columbia. She is the author of three books, Inventing Tomorrow: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century (Columbia, 2019), At the Violet Hour: Modernism and Violence in England and Ireland (Oxford, Modernist Literature and Culture series, 2012) and Modernism, Male Friendship, and the First World War (Cambridge, 2003), and has published articles in journals such as PMLA, Modernism/modernity, Modernist Cultures, Modern Fiction Studies, and ELH, and in edited collections. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.

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February 26, 2020