Parting words on Wells

These are my summary remarks about last week’s discussion—scroll quickly past to the three excellent posts below.

Our discussion of the Eloi and the Morlocks got into a bit of a snarl last time, I think mainly because Wells just doesn’t provide a consistent, stable allegory. As we remarked, the Traveller is fallible in his social-biological theorizing and a bit of a brute in general. 802,701 AD is definitely no idyll, but it’s totally unclear whether Wells really means to celebrate struggle and violence as the sources of creativity and change or whether he means to satirize this view. I like Luckhurst’s suggestion that the novel’s incoherence arises from Wells’s investment in the adventure plot over the futurological schema. Notice that the latter builds on Wells’s intellectual-scientific cultural capital, whereas the former only places him on a much more ambiguous spectrum ranging from “mere” entertainment to quasi-serious anti-realism. It’s not the last time these tensions will trouble our discussions.

There’s nothing like the classroom for discovering textual issues. The Time Machine has a complex textual history. We found chapter-numbering discrepancies: it turns out this is because many of you have reprints of the 1924 Atlantic Edition text, for which Wells consolidated the 16 chapters of 1895 into 12. There are more consequential differences among the early versions, including the first two book publications (Holt in New York and Heinemann in London); these are discussed by Bernard Bergonzi in “The Publication of The Time Machine 1894-5,” Review of English Studies n.s. 11, no. 41 (February 1960): 42–51. (The Project Gutenberg text I smugly suggested for quick searching has no bibliographic information, but appears to be based on the 1895 London text—rather curiously, or perhaps indicatively, it is one of the very first Gutenberg books, created in 2004.)

Before beginning his bibliographic discussion, Bergonzi makes this striking remark: “It is generally agreed that H. G. Wells’s first novel, The Time Machine, is a finer artistic and imaginative achievement than any of his later fiction” (42). And he closes the essay by asserting that Wells’s attention to revision testifies to “an artistic scrupulosity almost rivalling that of James himself” (51). You can see how Wells had fallen foul of academic literary-critical standards by 1960, though Bergonzi himself devoted a monograph to him the next year. All this tangle suggests that it is not simply to place Wells as an author in hierarchies of status, especially in the early phase of his career represented by The Time Machine. His appearance in the New Review in particular puts him on the high end of the periodical status-spectrum in British writing in the 1890s; on this spectrum see Peter McDonald, British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice, 1880–1914 (Cambridge, 1997).

It would be twenty-five more years before Woolf would consign him to the artistic rearguard with Arnold Bennett for his “materialism” and putative didacticism. Still, as I was trying to suggest towards the end of seminar with my vague question about technique, the The Time Machine does not self-consciously foreground representation, perspective, and cognition in the way that, say, Conrad’s or James’s writings of the same time do; and it does, very conspicuously, satirize artistic decadence and aestheticism in the mode of Oscar Wilde. And it was these tendencies rather than Wells’s that would come to mark the most advanced literary culture in English in the early decades of the twentieth century. It feels like reading Wells against the grain (doesn’t it?) to talk about his “artistic achievement.” Yet The Time Machine has clearly been available for many kinds of readerly appropriation.

I got a note about a discussion of “The Outline of History at 100” by the H.G. Wells society this Friday 9/25 at 2 p.m. E-mail for videoconference details.

Author: AG

Associate Professor, Department of English, Rutgers University, New Brunswick

Leave a Reply