- Page 2The Writer Who Tried to Save the World
Some authors have great expectations for their books. But who in their right mind expects their book to be able to save the world?
The one hundredth anniversary of one such book is quickly approaching. Its author is well known as are many of his books, some of which have been adapted into movies. But not this one, that is, unless you want to count a Mel Brooks movie with a similar title.
While some today might have read this author's most ambitious book, they probably number far fewer than a century ago. And though you might have seen it in on a dusty shelf in a used bookstore, you probably did not know the high expectations under which it was composed and published.
The author is H. G. Wells—and the book is Outline of History (1919-1920).
While often remembered today as a science fiction writer, upon his death in 1946, the New York Times concluded his obituary with the claim that he was the greatest public teacher of his time.
The author of over one hundred books, Herbert George Wells, lived through both the First World War and the Second World War, and died at nearly eighty years of age. He was a committed socialist, who wrote in many different genres, including novel, politics, history, textbook, and social commentary. Widely-known and admired for his fiction, particularly early science fiction works such as The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), and The First Men in the Moon (1901), Wells saw his novels as a way to further his political views.
However, for Wells, this was not enough. He needed to reach, or better yet, teach more people. "The novels were useful," writes David Smith, one of his biographers, "at least for Wells as a means of working out his ideas, but they did not reach a wide enough audience."
Also, while one of the early advocates of a League of Nations with whom he helped pen a draft covenant during the First World War, he became, notes Arthur Salter, one of his commentators, "profoundly disappointed in the actual League, which was based upon the inter-state principle and recognized and preserved national sovereignty."
Though Wells followed the birth of the League of Nations closely, he turned and rent on it, continues Salter, "as he had so often turned and rent other institutions which had first roused his hopes and then disappointed him." Still, in spite of his misgivings about the League itself, his political writings have been highly influential, most explicitly on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations, the post-war successor to the League of Nations. A distinction that puts in him in the company of the great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, whose work was also instrumental in the development of the United Nations.
The need to teach the public, particularly in the wake of the First World War, became a priority for Wells. Earlier in his career, he had been a teacher and in fact his first books were textbooks, one on biology and another co-authored one on physiography, both in 1893. Critic David Smith even claims, "Wells never stopped thinking of himself as a teacher." "His earliest work [as a teacher], and his formal training [as a teacher] continued to manifest itself in all of his writing."
The need though to become a public educator and to espouse a philosophy of education became acute after Wells stepped away from the League of Nations. In short, he wanted to produce textbooks as way to prevent war—or more directly, to save the world. Writes Smith,
He and his friends on the League of Nations committee had discussed textbooks and methods of education, as a way of preventing further wars, but time did not permit them to produce their own. Wells apparently asked members of the committee, especially Alfred Zimmern, Gilbert Murray, and Ernest Barker, to work on a new world history to replace the...