Portsmouth University senior lecturer Tom Sykes reviews a recent bibliography of the works of HG Wells, who, before he was famous, worked as a draper’s apprentice in Portsmouth in the 1880s.
There’s the aroma of a labour of love about this first ever full-scale Wells bibliography. Its compiler, the late US scholar David C Smith, spent decades toiling away in archives and travelling abroad on the hunt for material. In 1970, he chanced upon a mint-condition copy of Wells’ address to the 1938 World Congress of Freethinkers in a chaotic second-hand bookshop in Saffron Walden. A little later, in a Vancouver store run by the Communist Party of Canada, he found a highly rare printing of All Aboard for Ararat, Wells’s 1940 utopian fantasy. Smith’s wry regret in the introduction about how long this project took is a testament to the mind-blowing breadth of Wells’s output.
The Victorianist critic Simon J James has argued that Wells started writing at the moment when literary production in England became a truly mass industry – and big business. This is evident enough from the briefest flick through The Journalism of HG Wells. Lacking patronage or a private income, Wells had to earn his every penny with his pen and worked in almost every form, from the leading-edge speculative fictions he is now best known for to social realist novels, theatre reviews, political polemics, educational treatises, scientific analyses and interviews with men as multifarious as Rabindranath Tagore, Orson Welles and Joseph Stalin.
Between 1895 and his death in 1946, Wells worked for periodicals from New Statesman to Ladies’ Home Journal, Socialist Review to Science Schools Journal. Smith has catalogued a total of 2,000 individual writing credits, but unlike any ordinary bibliographer, he succinctly summarises each subject, adding trivia and direct quotations where relevant.
His book is so comprehensive that, aside from containing references to all of Wells’s known publications, it features 300 or so unsigned articles that are likely his but cannot be proven so. There are also absorbing chapters discussing the numerous interviews Wells gave throughout his life and 230-odd news items he appeared in (a curiously Steampunk-sounding example being ‘Reactions to Deaths in Aeronautics 1911’).
It’s arguable that Wells’s oeuvre was so wide-ranging that it was bound to throw up the sorts of contradictions that, for over a century, have made him such an enduringly stimulating writer. One week in 1905 he publishes a favourable review of Francis Galton’s Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope and Aims, claiming that ‘it is in the sterilisation of failures … that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies’, and a month later he is defending socialism in the pages of the Fortnightly Review.
Yet, he never agrees with the racialist imperatives of eugenics as is asserted in his 1916 book What is Coming? and indicated by a 1931 New York Times feature on his support of the Scottsboro Boys, the African-American youths wrongly convicted by an all-white jury in Alabama.
Perhaps of most interest to science fiction fans will be this book’s charting of the development of both Wells the science commentator and Wells the science fiction writer. While in many ways he was an idealist about the capacity of the scientific method to deliver a sane, fair and compassionate society, he also warned of the dangers and excesses of the method.
Timely themes that he would allegorise in his fiction – the moral consequences of misusing new technologies in The Invisible Man (1897), anxieties about rationally-planned societies in The First Men in the Moon (1901), skepticism about the positive teleology of Darwinism in The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1897) – he first addressed in his journalism. Indeed, Wells’s 1895 essay on human intervention in nature, ‘The Limits of Individual Plasticity’, was, according to Smith, only slightly re-written before it was inserted into the manuscript of The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896).
In addition to providing an exhaustive overview of a truly singular career, The Journalism of HG Wells shows that its subject – so politically and scientifically ahead of his time – was prepared to change his mind on some matters, but not on others. Even after the military-industrial carnage of World War I, Wells never lost faith in the progressive potential of science and technology.
In 1939, just three months before the outbreak of World War II, he published in the Adelaide Advertiser ‘the most complete version of his general history of utopias … [and urged] returning to Francis Bacon’s ideal of a utopia with science as its driving force’.
A version of this article first appeared in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.