10-1 literary

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

10.1 (Winter 2010)




courtesy of artrenewal.org


We Just Run Ourselves”: H. G. Wells on Modernity, Order, and Disorder

Thomas F. Bertonneau

    Plato’s Republic became the keystone of Wells’ spiritual universe.  The book, which he had read for the first time at Up Park, in the meadow where stood the little ruined tower, one of those artificial ruins of the eighteenth century, was to be his companion for the rest of his life.  ~ Antonina Vallentin [i]

To Herbert George Wells (1866 – 1946), while remembering him “always with respect,” the namesake-persona of Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1969) applies the off-putting but not entirely untrue description of “a horny man of labyrinthine extraordinary sensuality,”[ii] perpetually on the prowl for liaison.  By his ubiquity in the text, which he haunts like a specter, Wells nearly qualifies as a character in Bellow’s tale.  The eponymous Sammler, who combines features of Leo Strauss and Isaiah Berlin, occupies himself during the playing-out of novelistic events in the contemplation, if never quite in the execution, of a biographical memoir about Wells, whom the fiction contrives that he once knew.  At key points in Bellow’s story, Sammler engages in extended meditations on Wells as a formative influence on, and as a mirror of, the Twentieth Century.  These souvenirs differ markedly from, but never contradict, one another.  Sammler, who appears to speak for his author, can thus conjure what possesses all the ire of a damning impression:

As a biologist, as a social thinker concerned with power and world projects, the molding of world order, as a furnisher of interpretation and opinion to the educated masses – as all of these [Wells] appeared to need a great amount of copulation.  Nowadays, Sammler would recall him as a little lower-class Limey, and as an aging man of declining ability and appeal.  And in the agony of parting with the breasts, the mouths, and the precious sexual fluids of women, poor Wells, the natural teacher, the sex emancipator, the explainer, the humane blesser of mankind, could only in the end blast and curse everyone.  Of course, he wrote such things in his final sickness, horribly depressed by World War II.[iii]

Wells’ actual biographers affirm his descent in 1945 and 46 into symptoms of aged weariness, exacerbated by terrific despondency related to the war, the violence of which validated the worst fears while it also blasted the best hopes of the prophet.[iv]  If, as Bellow-Sammler says from his late-1960s perspective, “it is in the air now that things are falling apart,”[v] perhaps Wells anticipated the collapse, not merely through his explicit diagnosis of social dissolution, but also in subtler ways.  Wells would have been, as Bellow hints, one of those confused souls of a derailed modernity who experienced difficulty in distinguishing edification from destruction or liberation from enthrallment, but who was sensitive to, just as he was involved in, the disintegration.  Wells’ philandering would itself have constituted a foretaste of more dire things to come of a perversely sexual or even Dionysiac cast.  A Cockney Wells remained all his life, with Cockney resentments and a poor undergraduate’s itch for women, but may one justly reduce him to “a little lower-class Limey”?

One hardly excuses the bad behavior by saying that such a reduction would transgress beyond the frontier of admissible parody, on account of which therefore Bellow-Sammler must elsewhere in fairness concede to a positive value in Wells.  In surveying a gaggle of sexually undifferentiated youths of the 1960s flower-child variety, Sammler struggles to find a fitting description of them.  An image from Wells’ earliest literary success, The Time Machine (1895), occurs to him.  The young social dropouts, easy prey for New York City hustlers and assaulters, resemble none other than Wells’ “Eloi,” the far-futural decadents of his scientific romance.  The Bohemians become for Sammler in Wellsian terms “lovely young human cattle herded by the cannibalistic Morlocks who lived a subterranean life and feared light and fire.”[vi]  The conceit forces Sammler to conclude that, “yes, that tough brave little fellow Wells had had prophetic visions after all.”[vii]

While Sammler, in one moment, lumps Wells with “people like Marx, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marat, [and] Saint-Just,” he just as swiftly recalls that, unlike those others, the author of The Time Machine, The Open Conspiracy, and so much else “did not demand the sacrifice of civilization.”[viii]  Nor did Wells “become a cult-figure, a royal personality, a grand art-hero or activist leader.”[ix]  Sammler, a skeptic, “would not swear that mankind is governable.”[x]  Wells thought with enduring conviction that:

The minority civilization could be transmitted to the great masses, and that orderly conditions for this transmission were possible.  [He was] decent, British, Victorian-Edwardian, nonoutcast, nonlunatic…  But in World War Two he despaired.  He compared humankind to rats in a sack, desperately struggling and biting.  Indeed it was ratlike and sacklike, indeed so.[xi]

Bellow puts Wells somewhere between the two extremes of “a little lower-class Limey,” with the sexual mores of a spiv, and a genuine vates, a self-made “tough brave little fellow,” who experienced “prophetic visions after all.”  Bellow also praises Wells for his critical attitude to Marxism, contrasting him in this matter with George Bernard Shaw.

In his Experiment in Autobiography (1934), Wells himself, while arguing for what he calls socialism, stresses his antipathy for Marx, whom he describes significantly as “an uninventive man with… a subconscious knowledge of his own uninventiveness.”[xii]  Wells’ case against Marx turns on the latter’s deficiency of intuition, a correlate of his pedantic empiricism: “He lacked the imaginative power necessary to synthesize a project” and, by “his pose of scientific necessitarianism,” at last “he fostered among his associates a real jealousy of the creative imagination.”[xiii]  Opposed to Marx in Wells’ account of how his own utopian leanings emerged, one discovers Plato, whom he had read in his teens in the manor-library at Up Park, where his mother kept scullery for a largely absentee aristocratic family alarmingly into its decline.  A son of late-Victorian poverty and disadvantage, Wells might readily have cleaved to the urgency and rebuke of The Communist Manifesto.  Many did.  Yet Wells early identified and decisively rejected the underlying resentment and crudity in the Communist appeal:  “Marx offered to the cheapest and basest impulses the poses of a pretentious philosophy” while being “in no sense creative.”[xiv]  The student of Socrates, on the other hand, “was like the hand of a strong brother taking hold of me and raising me up.”[xv]

Plato fired young George’s imagination and taught him the discipline of putting received notions under the severest critical interrogation; the ideal city-state of The Republic, that great first project of speculative civics, stands prototype to the dozen or so of imaginary societies in Wells’ fiction.  As Jorge Luis Borges has written in his essay of the early 1940s on “The First Wells,” the man who wrote A Modern Utopia (1905) “bestowed sociological parables with a lavish hand.”[xvi]  In the utopias invoked by these parables, as one notes, failure occurs at least as commonly as success.  The sealed city of When the Sleeper Wakes (1898), while technically dazzling, has degenerated into a totalitarian nightmare; the technocratic-Puritan regime in both The Shape of Things to Come (1933) and its cinematic adaptation, Things to Come (1935), is–fully under Wells’ control–grim and ambiguous.  This realism about the prospect of civilizational reform affirms that Wells had assimilated the Socratic insight of both The Republic and The Laws that all things in the mortal realm fall subject to perversion and deliquescence.  Wells grasped that a vigilant conservation belongs quite as essentially to any healthy polity as does periodic review with an eye to adaptation.  Whatever men might build up or whatever they have built up, they would need perpetually to cherish and renew, as Bellow hints when he calls Wells (conjuring up Plato’s image of Socrates) a “teacher.”


    The discussion having so far dealt in generalities, the moment has come to turn to cases.  The War in the Air (1908) has attracted less interest from Wells’ critics than its precursor-texts in the first phase of his literary activity, possibly because they exceed it in pure fantasy.  The War of the Worlds brings to earth rampaging aliens from Mars; First Men in the Moon takes an absent-minded professor and his creditor-dodging chance-companion to the terrestrial satellite, where they confront the ant-like Selenites in the setting of their formicary civilization.  These unprecedented literary inventions always imply a human meaning, but they do so by means of imagery at once exotic and alluring.[xvii]  In The War in the Air, by contrast, the action remains entirely earth-bound; in it humanity faces a nemesis in none other than itself.  Yet The War operates on a larger scale and draws its animation from a greater prophetic urgency than those earlier items from Wells’ pen.  It also trumps James Joyce by more than a decade in being the first modern Anglophone novel to borrow its plot and its political-anthropological analysis from Homer’s Odyssey, a noteworthy literary-historical fact rather unappreciated by its readers hitherto.

Like Homer’s Odyssey, where the background is the deliquescence of the heroic order, Wells’ War in the Air concerns a universal conflict, sprung from an inapposite complaint, which destroys the existing political and economic arrangements and precipitates the world into a dark age.  “The world passed at a stride,” says the narrator of The War from his futuristic perspective, “from a unity and simplicity broader than that of the Roman Empire at its best, to a social fragmentation as complete as the robber-baron period of the Middle Ages.”[xviii]  The novel’s climax, a real paroxysm, consists in the destruction of New York City in a terror-bombing raid by the Imperial German Air Fleet.  Much of the long but meritorious denouement occurs subsequently in Upstate New York, in and around Niagara Falls.  The novel indeed makes a definite particular appeal to North American readers.  On the basis of Wells’ own explicit analogy, Patrick Parrinder plausibly invokes Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) as The War’s master-pattern; but the ultimate model remains the Homeric one, seen through the glass of Platonic political realism and incorporating a motif or two from The Republic‘s “Parable of the Cave.”  Wells supplies his unlikely Odysseus in the form of young Albert Peter Smallways (“Bert”) of Bun Hill, once a medieval estate in Kentshire but now in the first decade of the Twentieth Century a disorganized and rather seedy suburb of London that is slowly merging with the formless expanse of the metropolis.  Smallways, a bicycle mechanic and latterly a traveling comedian, boasts the virtues of vivacity and robustness, but suffers from the intellectual parochialism that Wells knew at first hand from his own “downstairs” origins and which he regularly deplored in his social commentary.

Wells paints Smallways as the representative “very image of the democratic mind confronted with the problems too complicated for its apprehension.”[xix] In the novel’s global milieu, Wells supposes this “democratic”–or rather demotic–mentality to be repeated by the million-fold and ubiquitously deformed by chauvinism and superstition.  The common assumption about existence amounts to “a web of wisdom and error” that engenders a “hallucination of security.”[xx]

Emancipated from traditional hierarchy, badly educated, but decent in his vestigial chivalry, Smallways possesses a “strain of poetry in his nature.”[xxi]  Like his author-creator, if in his limited way, Smallways enjoys the gift of imagination and can thus adapt himself, within boundaries, to the disaster in which he participates, as others fatally cannot.  The theme qualifies less as Darwinian or biological than as Platonic or epistemological.  Smallways can and does experience something on the order of Plato’s periagogé, or “turning around,” when once, after having been pitched, as Wells puts it, “into the hot focus of Weltpolitik”[xxii] on the eve of the war, he can no longer conduct himself by his quaint assumptions or refer to the static opinions of others as authoritative.  The exclamations “Cor!” and “Crikey!” mark vocally his confrontations with and passages through the ordeals of his adaptability.  To position his protagonist in the observational center of events, Wells must call on the deus ex machine of a stray balloon, which carries Smallways from Brighton Beach and his career as a strand-side vaudevillian to the Franconian aerodrome where the Imperial air fleet prepares for action.[xxiii]  Yet Wells recounts his story so skillfully that no one, in reading the book, will balk too much at the contrivance.  Aerial viewpoints function importantly in The War‘s symbolic structure; they do so initially by the literalism of abruptly lifting the intellectually restricted Smallways up and out of his familiar surroundings, and starting him on his Odysseus-like itinerary-cum-learning curve.

In describing Bun Hill in The War’s opening chapters, Wells confronts his “idyllic Kentish village” with the onset of “progress and petrol,” the encroachments of “the Brennan monorail system” whose towers and lines mar the diminishing countryside, and “the flood of novel things [that] had poured over its devoted rusticity.”[xxiv]  From Bun Hill, the locals can see the Crystal Palace, that image of a capital Progress, in the distance; they witness the developments in aerial navigation, especially in heavier-than-air flight, that take place in the vicinity of the Palace and are demonstrated for the public using the Palace grounds for a runway.  Grandfather Smallways, once the deferential coachman of the local squire, says of it all with a naivety nevertheless instinct with prescience: “The dratted country sims [sic] flying to pieces.”[xxv]

In The War, as elsewhere in his early and middle authorship, Wells keenly feels the passing of the pastoral landscape and intact life of the Seventeenth Century.  His positive utopias all entail a restoration of the countryside, as in Men Like Gods.  The traditional social-environmental dispensation appropriately fitted its own pre-technical conditions of a people “rooted in the soil.”[xxvi]  The prevailing character of turn-of-the-century civilization, Wells implies, is one of general deracination and of shocks so powerful that they afflict the victims with a stultified obliviousness of their own damaged health.  Old expectations no longer apply.  Life baffles and mocks, as when anonymous balloonists passing over Bun Hill drop loads of gravel-ballast into the Smallways vegetable garden.  Smallways himself shocks his rather staid elder brother when he buys a motorcycle to zoom about on the new macadamized roads and when he wears outrageous neckties of new artificial colors.  In the upsurge of industry and innovation following the Eighteenth Century, as Wells writes, “all the faiths” of the Smallways ancestry “had been taken by surprise, and startled into the strangest forms and reactions.”[xxvii]  In an analysis that remains valid whatever ex post facto interpretation one puts on it, Wells remarks: “The development of science had altered the scale of human affairs.”[xxviii]  Science-based industry has meanwhile conjured a “flimsy fabric of credit that had grown with no man foreseeing,” which grips the mass of humanity “in an economic interdependence that no man clearly understood.”[xxix]  The spark waiting to spring the powder-mixture and shatter the daydream of security is “the fine old tradition of patriotism,” now “distorted in the rush of new times.”[xxx]

If Smallways served his author for a Cockney-fashion Odysseus, then the Agamemnon, but also the Paris and then again the Polyphemus, of The War in the Air would take the person of Prince Karl Albert, the strutting Hohenzollern Feldmarschal whose egomania unleashes the tempest and so initiates the great collapse.[xxxi]  In Experiment in Autobiography, looking back on the great conflict of 1914 – 1918, which The War anticipates by six years, Wells would put it this way: “People forget nowadays how the personal imperialism of the Hohenzollerns dominated the opening phase of the war.”[xxxii]  In the novel, Wells reports how Karl Albert, the hale image of the actual Wilhelm II, first impressed public awareness by “his abduction of the Princess Helena of Norway and his blunt refusal to marry her,” a transgression that “almost brought about a new Trojan War.”[xxxiii]  In The War erotic imbroglios kick the situation along in its disastrous course at several key points, just as they do in The Odyssey, where Homer makes it clear that the supremely destructive Greek-Asian conflict cannot be derived rationally from its ostensible cause.  Labeling Karl Albert “the ideal of the new aristocratic feeling,” journalism compares him “to the Black Prince, to Alcibiades, to the young Caesar,” and in a spasm of ideological jargon to “Nietzsche’s Overman revealed.”[xxxiv]  Like the vulgar misapprehension of the Zarathustra-author’s Übermensch, Karl Albert “dominate[s] minds” by incessant propaganda including a much-reproduced full portrait that depicts him as a “war god” complete with “Viking helmet.”[xxxv]

The Prince gives form to the dehumanized animus of technological combat conducted from remote heights against noncombatants.  His descent from Napoleonic to Cyclopean status reveals his essentially savage nature.  Smallways, marooned with the Prince on Goat Island just above the American side of the falls, finally does to him what Odysseus does to Polyphemus: he dispatches the monster with perfect justice.[xxxvi]  His verdict, muttered to himself, is “Dem that Prince.”[xxxvii]  To the charge that Karl Albert represents an anti-German stereotype, one might reply that Wells’ novel of the Great War, Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1918), shows no vindictiveness and even mourns the death of its sample German, who has been studying literature at Oxford before the outbreak of hostilities and is markedly Anglophile.

The heart of The War is the prose-theater of enormous destruction in the program of Napoleonic world-conquest launched by the Prince.  Wells works on two themes in executing the panorama of a catastrophe entirely manmade: the theme of the automatic character of technical warfare; and the theme of distancing, or of how remote destruction gradually alienates the combatant from the moral precept that however warranted his cause his enemies remain human beings.  In the first of these Wells anticipates by fifty years what Herman Kahn called escalation and what Richard Weaver, in Visions of Order (1957), called “The Dialectic of Total War.”  Weaver argues that war in the Twentieth Century “has lost its character,” such that it has ceased to operate as an “institution,” as once it did, and has thus devolved to “pure and ultimate unreason.”[xxxviii]  Weaver points to the Allied aerial attacks on German cities that, despite various arguments, look not at all different from earlier German aerial attacks on Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, or Coventry.  In Experiment in Autobiography, Wells reminisces about The War: “I had reasoned that air warfare, by making warfare three dimensional, would abolish the war front and with that the possibility of distinguishing between civilian and combatant or of bringing a war to a conclusive end.”[xxxix]

In The War itself, Wells appropriately shrinks the internal logic of such conflict to a bare logarithm:

A having outnumbered and overwhelmed B, hovers, a thousand airships strong, over his capital, threatening to bombard it unless B submits.  B replies by wireless telegraphy that he is now in the act of bombarding the chief manufacturing city of A by means of three raider airships.  A denounces B’s raiders as pirates and so forth, bombards B’s capital and sets off to hunt down B’s airships, while B in a state of passionate emotion and heroic unconquerableness, sets to work amidst his ruins, making fresh airships and explosives for the benefit of A.[xl]

As for the theme of distancing, the spectacle that Smallways witnesses during his quasi-captivity on the German airship Vaterland furnishes its serial illustration.  The enormity of that to which Smallways can testify constitutes his brutal periagogé, reminding readers that Wells deftly weaves his Homer with his Plato.  After a naval battle in the North Atlantic, during which the Prince’s airships rescue the German dreadnoughts by obliterating the American dreadnoughts from high above, Smallways sees, from the Vaterland’s observation gallery, the floating hulk of the Susquehanna looking like “a mere metal-worker’s fantasy of frozen metal writhing.”[xli]  In the wake of the burning Theodore Roosevelt, “a number of minute, convulsively active animalculae” become visible, “scorched and struggling” in the fatal waters.[xlii]  The onlooker wonders momentarily whether these could be men, but they are, of course, and the sight of them, as Wells says, “tore… with clutching fingers at Bert’s soul.”[xliii]  Lieutenant Kurt, who has befriended Smallways as best as circumstances allow, says to his companion, in response to the mayhem, “We’re tame, civilized men [who have] got to get blooded.”[xliv]  They must overcome the fact, says Kurt, of their being the “nice, quiet, law-abiding Germans that they’ve been so far.”[xlv]

The ruddy opportunity offers itself when the fleet arrives over New York City.  By the time the wanton onslaught has burnt itself out, Smallways has recorded the memory of “great buildings, suddenly red-lit amidst the shadows, crumpling at the smashing impact of bombs… the grotesque, swift onset of insatiable conflagration.”[xlvi]  The massacre is “the logical outcome… of the application of science to warfare.”[xlvii]  As a providential storm blows the invaders towards Canada, a German officer tells Smallways, “All the vorlt is at vor.”[xlviii]

The Chinese and Japanese have entered the lists and even the Arab world has risen up in “Jehad.”[xlix]  Precipitously, the fabric of civilization unravels; finance vanishes overnight and along with it money.  With major cities smashed and burnt, life has reverted to the countryside and to the poverty of salvage and subsistence.  When Smallways at long last contrives his return to England by unscheduled sail rather than by scheduled steam, for that is no more, he returns to a recrudescence of Eighth Century Dane-law brigandage.  He must, like Odysseus coming home to Ithaca, deal decisively with the squatters who have beset Bun Hill gangster-fashion and by so doing ransom his patient fiancée from her subjugation.  Smallways’ heroism is genuine, but it is also pathetic given the circumstances in which it occurs: “Everywhere there are ruins and unburied dead, and shrunken, yellow-faced survivors in a mortal apathy…  The fine order and welfare of the earth have crumpled like an exploded bladder.”[l]  While Wells spoke truly when he declared “a disposition to believe in… spontaneous bouts of sanity may be one of my besetting weaknesses,” The War shows him less so disposed.  The narrator, writing from a future some centuries after the “universal social collapse,” seems to live in a time of recovered and even of perfected civilization, but his treatment of the war as something in the deep past implies a long interregnum of “civilization borne down.”[li]

Wells would rewrite The War more than once.  In The World Set Free (1914), he marries efficient airplanes with the application of atomic research to explosive weaponry.  Despite the destruction once war gets loose, vividly and terrifically described, one of those “spontaneous bouts of sanity” manages to prevail; Men Like Gods (1921) deals less with the war itself, remembered by the future humanity only as the long-ago “time of troubles” in reaction to which the utopian new order came into being, than in the details of that new order.  In The Shape of Things to Come (1933), however, Wells returns in a comprehensive manner to representing the pattern of convulsive total war leading to a new dark age; a global polity does gradually emerge, but for the first time since When the Sleeper Awakes Wells endows his world state with a coercive and puritanical character, so that its status in the reader’s moral reception is ambiguous.  All of these books, as West says of them, have “the character of… the awful warning that my father was fond of producing.”[lii]  One might add: fond of producing with great good cause–as the two world wars and the nuclear-armed Cold War proved, and as the current war against the Jihad sadly proves yet again.


The year before he turned his hand to The War, Wells wrote the social novel that most commentary nominates for his best contribution to Twentieth Century letters, Tono-Bungay (1907).  Norman and Jeanne McKenzie remark typically, “With Tono-Bungay Wells reached the peak of his career as a novelist.  All the earlier books led up to it and the later ones away from it.”[liii]  The War and Tono-Bungay overlap one another in peculiar ways, just as Tono-Bungay itself shows surprising affiliations with the odd but characteristic early-modernist critique of emergent modernity.  It would not be farfetched therefore to triangulate the vision of Tono-Bungay with, say, that of Joseph Conrad in the mood that yielded Heart of Darkness (1901) and with, say, that of T. S. Eliot in the mood that yielded The Waste Land (1920).  Book Three of Tono-Bungay indeed concerns the narrator’s Conrad-like expedition to the West African coast for a nefarious murder-tainted end; Wells’ entire story exhibits everywhere what one can only call anticipatory Eliot-like “Waste Land” imagery.  There is the Waste Land afflicted on Mordet Island by the radioactive mineral that Wells names “Quap.”  The protagonist-narrator proposes to ship Quap back to England to use as electric light-bulb filaments or perhaps as an added ingredient in the patent medicine–on whose manufacture and distribution has arisen the entrepreneurial fortune in which he shares.  The all-purpose potable tonic, the resonantly named “Tono-Bungay” itself, affects most of its users innocuously, but Quap, a deadly poison, imparts its toxic nature to everything in its propinquity by direct disintegrative metastasis.  The concern with radioactivity, unprecedented in Tono-Bungay, would reappear in The World Set Free.  Yet in Tono-Bungay, radioactivity is profoundly metaphorical, not merely denotative or extrapolative.  As the central carcinogenic symbol of the tale, the phenomenon of radiant decay charges the novel with much of its considerable esthetic coherency.

Metastatic, too, and harmful to the spiritual rather than to the bodily part of civilization, is (as West writes) “the wild growth and proliferation of the new super-businesses and conglomerates” of the Edwardian Age, abetted as they are by “the general acceptance,” among a gullible and avaricious people, “of the principle doctrine of market-place capital that profit justified all things.”[liv]  This type of Waste Land stands distinguished from the chemically polluted one, but it presents a vista just as dolorous; from the insipidity of it, indeed, the Western world has not yet extricated itself.  The apostle of super-business and the counterpart in Tono-Bungay of The War’s Prince is the narrator’s uncle, Edward Ponderevo, a fellow whom on the face of things one instinctively likes as much as he reflexively despises Karl Albert; Uncle Ponderevo enters the story, after all, as the narrator’s providential savior from a probable life of soul-killing drudgery.  In Platonic fashion, however, Tono-Bungay consistently differentiates between appearance and reality: beneath the affable exterior, Ponderevo qualifies as a force for destruction quite as obnoxious as Quap.

Now young George Ponderevo, for his part, resembles Wells, despite the author’s irate denial that Tono-Bungay sprang in any way from autobiography.  Like Wells, Ponderevo grows up with a mother in service and spends part of his childhood in the precincts of etiolated aristocracy consisting mostly of title-bearing widows with a few spoiled nieces and nephews now and then on visit.  For Wells it was the actual Up Park and for Ponderevo it is the fictional Bladesover House and the adjunct villages of Ashborough and Ropedean.  The young Wells exploited his access to an Eighteenth Century library; so does Ponderevo, for whom Plutarch replaces the Wellsian-autobiographical Plato.  “It seems queer to me,” George says, “that I acquired pride and self-respect, the idea of the state and the germ of public spirit [from] an old Greek, dead these eighteen hundred years.”[lv]

On the basis of Plutarch’s republican ethos, George can evaluate, not only “the British social organism” in “cross-section,”[lvi] but also his own complicity in the rise and debacle of the Tono-Bungay enterprise, when his uncle “flashed athwart the empty heavens… and overawed investors spoke of his star.”[lvii]  From the crash of Edward Ponderevo, who thought of himself as a “Napoleon,” George records that he himself has emerged as “the sole scorched survivor.”[lviii]  In this first-person tale, Wells puts readers in another of his meticulous scenarios of disaster, vivid precisely for being so intimate, yet related to and anticipatory of the bellicose disaster of The War in the Air.  Uncle Edward’s chafing ambition, his “dinginess,”[lix] and his “constant, violent motion,”[lx] have a relation in the novel’s cataclysmic scheme all at once to the breakdown of those social principles represented by “the seventeenth-century system of Bladesover”[lxi] and to the “cancerous” nature of Quap, which “creeps and lives as a disease lives by destroying” and which, as the text puts it, “spreads.”[lxii]  Quap, says the narrator, “is in matter exactly what the decay of our old culture is in society, a loss of traditions and distinctions and assured reactions”[lxiii] to “great new forces, blind forces of invasion, of growth.”[lxiv]

As its library suggests, Bladesover House once represented an intact system in which knowledge and truth had an honored place; on the shelves one still finds Plutarch and Xenophon but also Rasselas, Candide, Vathek and books of anatomy and astronomy.  The old ladies Drew and Somerville of George’s youth take interest only in a peerage and a clerical directory.  The appearance remains but, “just as in that sort of lantern show that used to be known in the village as ‘Dissolving Views,’ the scene that is going remains upon the mind, traceable and evident,” while “the newer picture is yet enigmatical.”[lxv]

Bladesover in its corruption offers to George “the clue to almost all that is distinctively British and perplexing to the foreign inquirer in England and the English-speaking peoples.”[lxvi]  He sees Bladesover in London when he goes there in his late teens to study science, as Wells himself did.  London strikes George as full of “vast irrelevant movement”; it comprises “a chaos of streets and people and buildings and reasonless going to and fro.”[lxvii]  He believes that he detects “lines of an ordered structure out of which [the disorder] has grown [in] a process that is something more than a confusion of casual accidents, although it may be no more than a process of disease.”[lxviii]  If “the fine gentry have gone,” then nevertheless “the shape is still Bladesover.”[lxix]  Readers will note the relation of the fickle temporal appearance to the fixed trans-temporal idea, one of those threads leading back to Wells’ encounter with Plato’s Republic; reason entails the perpetual struggle to sustain ideas of order against their decay.  The metaphors of illness, hypertrophy, rot, and wasting thus permeate Tono-Bungay’s prose, as they do Eliot’s much later poem.  The name of Tono-Bungay–redolent of advertising and significative of the huckster’s corruption of language–spills itself into the story for the first time when George finds his way to the avuncular Ponderevo’s raggedly unimpressive premises in Raggett Street, where he manufactures the liquid commodity.

Here too, Wells offers up his anticipatory Waste Land imagery: the shop-floor “was covered by street mud that had been brought in on dirty boots, and three energetic young men of the hooligan type, in neck-wraps and caps, were packing wooden cases with… papered-up bottles, amidst much straw and confusion.”[lxx]  As the Tono-Bungay enterprise grows–and grow it does into “a swelling, thinning bubble of assurances”[lxxi]–what spreads from the Raggett Street “nucleus”[lxxii] through incessant advertising and hooligan-like high-pressure hawking is finally that selfsame street mud that resembles the cancerous and radioactive Quap-rich slag of Mordet Island.  Uncle Edward’s health-restorer, already capitally touted in many hoardings or billboards across London, is, as George instantly grasps, nothing but “a damned swindle.”[lxxiii]  The effusively entrepreneurial Ponderevo responds that it is merely “fair trading” and “giving people confidence.”[lxxiv]  Justifying hyperbolic promotion as “the modern way,” he argues that the sloganeering style of selling stimulates a kind of faith,” against which by such a name none could argue, and he compares his plans to increase the market for Tono-Bungay to “Christian Science.”[lxxv]

Finally–the arbitrariness of his rationalizations being characteristic–he invokes economic utilitarianism.  If, as George says, useless stuff ought not to be the product of a sound business arrangement, then, counters Edward:

‘Mong other things, all our people would be out of work.  Unemployed!  I grant you Tono-Bungay may be – not quite so good a find for the world as Peruvian bark, but the point is, George, it makes trade!   And the world lives on trade.  Commerce!  A romantic exchange of commodities and property.[lxxvi]

The industrial pornographers of Southern California no doubt employ a similar forensic style.  Once George allows himself be drawn in, his Uncle reverts to his true type with the exclamatory expectation of “Argosies! Venice! Empire!”[lxxvii]  As does the Prince in The War in the Air, Edward will see himself reflected in the “Overman Idee” of Nietzsche.[lxxviii]  Both are cases of psychopathological inflation; but criticism must find Edward the more serious one as his cigar-smoking congeniality so readily seduces the tolerant and unwary to his side.

Advertising distinguishes itself only a little from political demagoguery.  Soon, in a Caesarian campaign of “conquest… province by province,” the uncle and his nephew have “subjugated England and Wales… rolled over the Cheviots” and have begun the expansive habit of “taking subsidiary specialties into action.”[lxxix]  Agglomerating cheap businesses in a horizontal trust leads to the establishment of fronts or “general trading companies,” with echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which yearly conclude the business-calendar “by selling great holdings of shares to one or the other of [their] sisters [and] paying a dividend out of the proceeds…  That was the method of our equilibrium at the iridescent climax of the bubble.”[lxxx]  Uncle Edward tries to sweeten a nasty reality by his formula, “we mint faith,” but George grasps in hindsight that “‘coining’ would have been a better word.”[lxxxi]  In The War in the Air, annihilation rains down from above in the form of airships and their armaments in deadly earnestness.  In Tono-Bungay, destruction works its malice from within, Quap-like, under the guise of economic productivity and the increase of the common weal.

Both The War in the Air and Tono-Bungay feature an island-sequence.  The pelagic detour permits Wells to present a microcosm of the global mess that proliferates in the story-at-large.  In The War, borrowing from the Cyclops-interlude of Homer’s Odyssey, Wells helps his readers to understand that the worldwide conflict stems from the regress rather than the progress of civilization.  Technology is not a necessary correlate of morality or of rationality.  The Prince, marooned, reverts to his basic Vandal self and Smallways must put him paid at last.  In Tono-Bungay, Ponderevo proposes the Mordet-Island expedition to his nephew when it dawns on him that he has spread himself too thin and that his financial house of cards has commenced its tumble; he dreams that Quap will give him one of those corners, or monopolies, on an item for which advertising can make a demand.  The sally itself, in a half-seaworthy hulk with a fully dubious crew, is a piratical raid.  Mordet Island belongs to a foreign government, which forbids admittance.  Anthony West has described Mordet Island as “one of those pieces of expository writing that bring something new forward from the realm of the recondite and into that of general consciousness… mark[ing] the opening of a new horizon.”[lxxxii]

Coming in Book Four of Tono-Bungay, the portrait of the blighted landscape, the ultimate Waste Land, asks to be superimposed on earlier scenes, in Wells’ own manner of one lantern-slide projected over another in a “Dissolving View.”  Thus George sees “a lifeless beach–lifeless as I could have imagined no tropical mud could ever be, and all the dead branches and leaves and rotting fish and so forth that drifted ashore became presently shriveled and white.”[lxxxiii]

In this morass, with only the barest existential justification, George kills a man, in fear that the fellow will give away his snatch-and-grab to the colonial authorities.  It is doubly vain.  Quap disintegrates the brig on its return voyage, annulling the whole foray.  The financial collapse follows; Ponderevo flees his creditors and dies ignominiously in exile in a shabby French pension.  Earlier, pondering the madness of Tono-Bungay, George has addressed to readers this eloquent soliloquy:

The whole of this modern mercantile investing civilization is indeed such stuff as dreams are made of.  A mass of people swelters and toils, great railway systems grow, cities arise to the skies and spread wide and far, mines are opened, factories hum, foundries roar, ships plough the seas, countries are settled; about this busy striving world the rich owners go, controlling all, enjoying all, confident and creating the confidence that draws us all together into a reluctant, nearly unconscious brotherhood….  It seems to me indeed at times that all this present commercial civilization is no more than my poor uncle’s career writ large…  that all drifts on perhaps to some tremendous parallel to his individual disaster.[lxxxiv]

There is no “Science” in the scramble for bigger, better, more profitable, George argues, using science in its root-sense of knowledge about the structure of reality, physical, moral, or economic.  Such a consciousness he sees “as austerity, as beauty,” and of it he says, “It is the one enduring thing.”[lxxxv]


    The Wellsian view is a Platonism of “beauty” as “the one enduring thing,” whose manifestations in the social realm must be guarded against the forces of disintegration and decay.  It hardly comes as a surprise then that the collision of barbarism with civilization supplies the repeated story in Wells’ copious oeuvre, just as it supplies the repeated motif of the recently closed century.  A dramatic instance springs from the screen in Things to Come, the 1936 Alexander Korda film for which Wells supplied the screenplay and in whose production he collaborated actively with Korda and director William Cameron Menzies.  A world war having knocked the mid-century civilization flat, fifty years later Vandal-style warlord districts have shot up like mushrooms in the ruins.  Actor Ralph Richardson is the Boss or Chief of one such cantonment, to whose petty domain comes the black-garbed airman, John Cabal (actor Raymond Massey).  Cabal represents a revival of industry and order based in Basra and calling itself “Wings over the World.”  He proposes to reconnoiter conditions in the northwest of Europe.  Placing Cabal under arrest, the Richardson character, who bears no little resemblance to the German Prince of The War in the Air, interrogates him.  “Who do you represent,” demands the Boss in his gruffest, most Napoleonic voice.  “I represent law and sanity,” replies Cabal.  The Boss thumps his fist on the table behind which he sits, as it were enthroned.  “I’m the law here,” he dictates.  “I said, law and sanity,” Cabal replies with cool emphasis.  The Boss, taken aback by Cabal’s serenity, wants to know what this “Wings over the World” is.  “Who runs you,” he asks, on the crude assumption that everyone is footman to someone.  Says Cabal, with infinite calmness: “We just run ourselves.”

Cabal, as his name indicates, embodies a much-circulated Wellsian idea, that of the “Open Conspiracy,” which first appears as the brainchild of the businessman-protagonist of Wells’ most ambitious social novel, The World of William Clissold (1926).  The Open Conspiracy is open in two ways at least: first, as Clissold puts it in Volume Two of his first-person narrative, it aims not at a Hegelian crystallization that would bring history to a stop but rather at alterations in the existing order “provisional” and “experimental”[lxxxvi] and therefore also themselves amenable to falsification and new adjustment; second, as Wells says directly in the book that bears the title The Open Conspiracy (1928), the movement, “unlike conspiracies in general… would, by its very nature, go on in daylight.”[lxxxvii]  The Open Conspiracy also incorporates a religious element in the sense it aims at a “happiness of magnanimity” through “disentangle[ment] of the will from egotistical preoccupations.”[lxxxviii]  In fairness one should note that other features of the Open Conspiracy are moderately alarming to people of a thematically conservative temperament, especially those who maintain their ancestral faith.  As in the related God the Invisible King (1923), Wells recreates Ludwig Feuerbach’s thesis of the 1840s that divinity is a mere projection of human possibility.  The religiosity invoked by Wells might have its roots, as some critics suggest, in the childhood Methodism that he had already renounced in his early teens but which shaped him formidably; but while the peculiar Wellsian religiosity shares some traits of Biblical religion, it is not quite Christianity.

Yet in equal fairness, students of Wells, especially the ones who bring an initial hostile bias to their dialogue with him, should never forget the provocation behind his hortatory style: his having sensed the cataclysms of two world wars before either began and his more-than-a-little-justified disgruntlement over the character of the democratic century, with its dissolution of structure, its profiteering, its disfigurement of the landscape, and its debasement of genuine values.  Bringing order to a disordered society

… must lead us inevitably to face such problems as the hypertrophy of the motive for Profit into a social ideal, the distinction between the use of natural resources and their exploitation, the advantages unfairly accruing to the trader in contrast to the primary producer, the misdirection of the financial machine, the iniquity of usury, and other features of a commercialized society.

We are being made aware that the organization of society on the principle of private profit, as well as public destruction, is leading both to the deformation of humanity by unregulated industrialism, and to the exhaustion of natural resources, and that a good deal of our material progress is a progress for which succeeding generations may have to pay dearly.[lxxxix]

A host of authors and thinkers in the sixty years since Wells’ death have made the identical argument in nearly the identical terms.  Some of them, like Wells, lean in the direction of socialism and the political left, but many of them identify themselves as traditionalists or conservatives.  I speak not of Party conservatives of a narrowly Tory or Republican sort, but of republicans with a small r, of the Platonic or Plutarchic variety.  The critique of “Profit” as a primary or a sole motive might have been quoted from any number of British Laborite MPs or American Democratic congressmen, or from one of the European advocates of the Kyoto Protocols for dealing with so-called global warming.  But the same words could just as easily be drawn from an essay by Wendell Berry (a Democrat) or from any of his precursors among the Southern Agrarians, who belonged as he does to the conservative trend in modern American politics; one might find congruent formulations in the essays of Russell Kirk or Thomas Fleming or Roger Scruton.  This is a peculiar feature of Wellsian liberalism-progressivism not much commented on by the generality of his liberal-progressive admirers.

Now I have, in fact, pulled a small prank, which I hereby confess.  The words set forth en bloc directly above (the “problems of hypertrophy” passage) come not from Wells, as the context deliberately but misleadingly implies; they come rather from T. S. Eliot, writing in The Idea of a Christian Society (1939).  If one slipped them into a discursive sequence in The War in the Air or Tono-Bungay, however, no one would take them amiss; they would seem quite proper to the text.  I would guess indeed that readers of this essay will take them naturally and casually as Wells, not thinking of Eliot until my words of confession.  How complicated these issues are!  Eliot, the modern man of faith, shares a theme with Wells, the modern materialist, the one so vehemently chastised by Hillaire Belloc in a not-quite-forgotten journalistic debate over Darwinism.  Marxist and other leftwing critics meanwhile habitually discount Wells because of his supposed fascist tendencies or his naïve utopianism.  Feminists denounce him for his philandering and bourgeois types for his commitment to that quaint and rather Fabian idea of Free Love.  This ability of Wells to make both Left and Right averse to him suggests something basically healthy and independent in his outlook.  As for the Eliotic Christian Society, so oddly similar to the Wellsian utopia in its basic aversions, it would, like Plato’s ideal polis, quite simply run itself; it would not permit itself to be run by inhuman autonomous processes or institutionalized egomania, nor could it possibly stem from the Marxist class-warfare–that eruption of nihilistic resentment which Wells, for his part, never ceased to denounce even in his least irate moments.  I hope that my prank, my having introduced Eliot as though he were Wells, has made a valid point and that the point mitigates its mischievousness.

Wells could fulminate about organized religion (especially about Catholicism: hence Belloc’s animosity), but he always envisioned his utopias as emerging from something akin to religious revival.  In The World Set Free, the narrator says: “It would have seemed a strange thing to the men of the former time that it should be an open question, as it is today, whether the world is wholly Christian or not Christian at all.  The common sense of Mankind has toiled through two thousand years of chastening experience, to find at last how sound a meaning attaches to the familiar phrases of the Christian faith.”[xc] As all honest people, conservative or liberal, need partners in dialogue, and not merely cheerleaders who agree with them a priori; as those who emerge from the Twentieth Century require desperately to understand it, both at its best and at its worst; as the small-town landscape of the United States is swallowed up by the hypermarkets of the mega-chains, with their spreading acres of blacktopped parking; and as what remains of Western Civilization–or even of Christendom–needs to be reminded of itself while it faces the resurgence of barbarism in the form of a soon-to-be nuclear-armed Jihad: as these things happen, clear-sighted people need H. G. Wells, himself mainly clear-sighted and a colossus of Twentieth-Century letters in danger of being forgotten today because he belongs to sixty years ago, while contemporary people are stubbornly immersed in the obsessions of their all-too-Philistine, cell-phone-dominated presentism.

Irascible Wells might be.  A socialist, of a kind, he might be.  A little lower-class Limey he might be.  Even an advocate of Realpolitik not averse to the use of force in the cause of civilized order he might sometimes be.  Yet he is in many ways one of the most incisive, most insistent critics of modernity.  As such, he is a necessary figure for the understanding of the great social and political deformations, not only of the just-completed century, but also of the daunting near future that looms as the new century enters its neurotic teens.


[i] Antonina Vallentin (translated by D. Woodward).  H. G. Wells: Prophet of Our Day.  New York: The John Day Company, 1950.  42.

[ii] Saul Bellow.  Mr. Sammler’s Planet.  New York: Penguin, 1983.  29.

[iii] 29 – 30.

[iv] “That autumn [of 1944] Wells was in a state of deep pessimism.  It was as if he had once again carried himself forward to the ultimate dark prospect of The Time Machine in which all life, not only that of the human species, tends to darkness and extinction.”  (Norman and Jean Mackenzie, in H. G. Wells: A Biography, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973, 444.)  Wells’ son by Rebecca West, Anthony West, reports in his biography of his father how the rigors of an Australian trip and a lecture-tour in America in 1939 and 40 badly damaged the septuagenarian’s health, accelerating his diabetes and bringing on the cancer, from which he died a bit more than five years later: “He was worn and emaciated, and his hands had become those of a very old man.  He no longer filled his clothes, which hung on him like reach-me-downs.  He had undergone an abrupt diminishing and no longer had the physical presence of an important man.”  (In Aspects of a Life, New York: Random House, 1984, 151.)

[v] 277.

[vi] 99.

[vii] 99.

[viii] 193 & 194.

[ix] 194.

[x] 195.

[xi] 195.

[xii] Herbert George Wells.  Experiment in Autobiography.  New York: The Macmillan Company, 1934.  214. West.  Aspects of a Life.  316.

[xiii] 214.

[xiv] 143.

[xv] 141.

[xvi] Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Simms and Irby).  Other Inquisitions 1937 – 1952.  Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1864.  88.

[xvii] Thus the Martians, with their disproportion of brain to body, their encasement in their fighting and handling machines, represent a possible destination of human biological and technical development, one from which Wells would warn us; and the Selenites, fantastically physiologically specialized and governed by a hive-mentality, likewise foreshadow a tendency in modern political and technical activity, into which, paying no critical heed to ourselves, we are ever in danger of bringing about – which, in the dictatorships, Twentieth Century humanity did bring about.  These conceits of Wells’ stories function as prognosticative metaphors.  Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, E. M. Forster in The Machine Stops, and George Orwell in 1984 are all followers and imitators of Wells, borrowing generic innovations that are his.

[xviii] H. G. Wells.  The War in the Air, in Three Science Fiction Novels by H. G. Wells, New York: Dover, 1963.  226.

[xix] 126.

[xx] 220.

[xxi] 8.

[xxii] 60.

[xxiii] The balloon belongs to one Arthur Butteridge, inventor of a fully controllable heavier-than-air vehicle of much interest both to the British and German governments.  Butteridge, who refers to himself as an “Imperial Englishman” (25), is actually an egoist and publicity-hound whose umbrage at English social disapproval of his love affair with a lady has inclined him to betray his country by offering his engineering secrets for sale to the Kaiser.  Smallways for a time masquerades – or attempts to masquerade – as Butteridge; his German hosts soon discover the imposture.  But Smallways has copied Butteridge’s blueprints and, after his tribulations, succeeds in actually influencing the war by putting them in the hands of the American government.

[xxiv] 6, 7, & 65.

[xxv] 9.

[xxvi] 65.

[xxvii] 65.

[xxviii] 66.

[xxix] 160.

[xxx] 65.

[xxxi] It seems worth noting that in the novel’s nomenclature, Peter Albert Smallways and Prince Karl Albert appear to be Doppelgängers, as though the Prince were the primitive nature that Smallways at last, and always with qualifications, out-competes.

[xxxii] Experiment, 569.

[xxxiii] The War in the Air, 71.

[xxxiv] 71.

[xxxv] 94.

[xxxvi] In The Odyssey, Homer associates the Island of the Cyclopes with goats, which Polyphemus and his brethren herd: Homer says of the Cyclopes, who live in caves, that they neither meet in assemblies nor sow nor plant nor build ships to make commerce on the sea.  Their contrast with civilized people could not be more emphatic, although of course they are also cannibals who flout that litmus of decency, the all-important Zeus-guaranteed laws of guest-host relations.

[xxxvii] 132.

[xxxviii] Richard Weaver.  Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Times.  Washington, Delaware: ISI, 1995.  101.

[xxxix] Wells.  Experiment, 569.

[xl] The War, 159.

[xli] 100.

[xlii] 107.

[xliii] 107.

[xliv] 113.

[xlv] 113.

[xlvi] 125 – 126.

[xlvii] 133.

[xlviii] 150.

[xlix] 224.

[l] 226.

[li] 226.

[lii] West, Aspects of a Life, 150.

[liii] Norman and Jeanne McKenzie.  H. G. Wells: A Biography.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.  243.

[liv] West, Aspects of a Life, 328 & 327.

[lv] H. G. Wells.  Tono-Bungay.  New York: Penguin, 2005.  28.

[lvi] 10.

[lvii] 10 – 11.

[lviii] 12.

[lix] 93.

[lx] 219

[lxi] 101.

[lxii] 329.

[lxiii] 329.

[lxiv] 102.

[lxv] 15 – 16.

[lxvi] 20.

[lxvii] 99.

[lxviii] 100.

[lxix] 100.

[lxx] 128.

[lxxi] 220.

[lxxii] 135.

[lxxiii] 135.

[lxxiv] 135.

[lxxv] 135.

[lxxvi] 135.

[lxxvii] 136.

[lxxviii] 264.

[lxxix] 149.

[lxxx] 221.

[lxxxi] 221.

[lxxxii] West, 326.

[lxxxiii] Tono-Bungay, 330.

[lxxxiv] 222.

[lxxxv] 388.

[lxxxvi] H. G. Wells.  The World of William Clissold.  New York: George H. Doran Company, 1926.  Two Volumes.  Vol. II.  562.

[lxxxvii] H. G. Wells, edited by Warren Wagar.  The Open Conspiracy: H. G. Wells on World Revolution.  Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2002.  54.

[lxxxviii] 62.

[lxxxix] T. S. Eliot.  Christianity and Culture.  New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1988.  26 & 49.

[xc] H. G. Wells.  The World Set Free.  New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1914.  264.

 Dr. Thomas Bertonneau teaches English at SUNY-Oswego.  He received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California at Berkeley in 1990.