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121 H. G. Wells, Mr. Polly, and the Uses of Art By Lawrence Jay Dessner (University of Toledo) H. G. Wells made, insofar as his academic reputation has been concerned, the strategic errors of twitting Henry James and refusing to compete with him or anyone else for the title of artist.1 "I have a natural horror," he told James, "of dignity, finish and perfection, a horror a little enhanced by theory."2 "I was disposed," he wrote years later, "to regard a novel as about as much an art form as a market place or a boulevard."3 After that, the deluge. That Wells was, at any time, a careful craftsman, concerned enough with the "shape" of his work to revise and rewrite extensively , has not been a widely remembered fact. "I'm having awful times with my beggar fVJhen the Sleeper Wakes"]," he wrote to Gissing in I898. "I've just had the typewritten copy home again, and I have been tearing out chapters, inserting chapters, marking chapters to be reshaped and rewritten."4 Professor Ray has shown us a bit of manuscript which displays WeLIs at similar work and has even unearthed Wells proclaiming himself an early and typically democratic New Critic, one who sought "to understand the bearing of structural expedients upon design, to get at an author through his workmanship, to analyse a work as though it stood alone in the world."5 And one might add to Wells's credit, his friendship with Gissing, his admiration for Joyce's Portrait," and his early enthusiasm for Conrad.7 But Wells denied the primacy and is said to have foresaken the practice of art. That such denial can be a strategy of aesthetic as well as social radicalism, is, at least nowadays, a commonplace, but even to have seen Wells, in his own prime, in such a light, would not have lessened the affront. Wells was, and is, a radical beyond and antagonistic to respectable, even proudly advanced liberalism . And so we have had criticisms of Wells with a distinct if often deliciously subtle edge to them. E. M. Forster misdates the Wells novel from which he quotes, finds him - and Dickens without "much taste," and suggests as cause the social disadvantages common to both." Virginia Woolf's so, now, terribly selfassured essay, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," may, as has lately been suggested, "be printed on vellum and given away. . . to anybody whose mind is already made up. . . ."9 Joseph Warren Beach praises the attempt "to keep going a 'current of true and fresh ideas,'" but "fancies" that Matthew Arnold "would not relish this application of his phrase."1° The delicacies of that diction make the message clear to Arnold's heirs. Wells found refinement suspect and refinement immediately struck back, welcoming The History of Mr. Polly with this: "He thinks his socialist propaganda best served by filling us with contempt for man as he is actually shaped by the existing social pressure. Mr. Polly is perhaps the meanest of all his creations."Ir And 122 sixty years later, "you've only to read the introduction to their exchanges [Wells and James] - a modern introduction, by critical minds set firmly on one side of this argument, a set that goes almost too deep to be noticed - you've oil y to notice the tones, the terms,. . . to see" how Wells's challenge to "the idea of literature" is being met.12 Some English schoolchildren today are being told that the style of Mr. Poll y "is often careless and happy-go-lucky - Wells did not take the trouble to revise. He has but a slight ear for words R.nd little regard for the finer points of sentence construction." He usos "slang expressions one does not expect to eorr.e across in an author of repute." "Wells's worst habit is to comment on his story,"I3 the having of bad habits itself the decisive judgment. This will do nicely for children. For adults, who know with Pelham Edgar what a "fellow" is, there is: "Mr. Wells is a monstrously clever fellow." And for those whose veneration for Henry James and that highest of cultures...


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pp. 121-134
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