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Book Reviews A WELLS BIOGRAPHY David C. Smith. H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986. $29.95 The virtues of an historian's approach to the crowded, and somewhat messy, life of H. G. Wells are here generously displayed. David Smith, Professor of History at the University of Maine, Orono, has devoted the major part of his professional life to the study of an extraordinary fiction-writer, crusader for countless "modern" causes (though Wells never ceased to hold fast to Edwardian values), and public personality. The tidiness of Smith's scholarship shows clearly in several unusual appendices, 121 pages of small-print notes, a lengthy "select" bibliography (regrettably not annotated, and unhelpfuUy arranged by date of publication), and an exemplary index. The title page announces that this is a biography. Even readers of ELT will often be surprised by the information, lucidly set forth, on the first halfcentury of Wells's Ufe. Much of the material is familiar to those among us who take an interest in the history of science fiction, the relationship between the dramatic growth of a literate middle class in the final decades of the Queen's reign and the spiraling prices paid to authors who understood the periodical-fiction market, and Wells's biting commentary on the Getting-Ahead philosophy of the new century's Ponderevos. But there are any number of unusual , and sensible, interpretations of matters that have long seemed to me to need rethinking: the lines of continuity between even the earliest efforts at story-teUing and the later didactic novels; the degree of influence exerted by the Fabian Society on Wells's imagination, and the significance of the countless squabbles between Wells and Shaw; the possibility that Henry James did not emerge the clear victor in the Boon controversy (a point of view which contradicts much received wisdom); and the reasons why Wells, despite handicaps of class, education, occasional irrepressible vulgarities, and a scandalous private Ufe, not to mention a personally unprepossessing appearance and a highpitched voice ill-suited for the lecture platform, emerged so swiftly as the conscience of his generation. This reviewer learned even more about the cacoëthes scribendi of Wells's concluding quarter-century. Professor Smith is very good about how much of what Wells had to say in this period amounted to restatements of what he had already said (though he tends to value many of Wells's productions in terms of the reception they received rather than in terms of what they actually said). He is first-rate in evaluating Wells's contributions to the early history of the BBC, and to the film versions of his stories (there were a dozen of these). He gives fuU credit to the contributions made by England's leading scientists to the popularizing textbooks printed with Wells's name as editor-in-chief, and 457 30:4, Reviews thought of by millions of people as having been written entirely by Wells. He provides us with enough information to enable us to judge how much of a contribution Wells made to graduate education when he wrote his thesis for an extramural degree from London University (accepted in 1942); Wells, so late in life, wanted to become a Fellow of the Royal Society because he wanted to be accepted by an Establishment that always entertained doubts about his intellectual originality. (His D. Sei. thesis, as described here, is not particularly impressive as research.) And he is able to demonstrate that Wells, who never lost his audience of millions, and who wrote with awesome productivity right up until the end of his life (August, 1946), never clearly understood why his proposals for social, economic, and political reform had so little impact on world affairs after the Great War, or why the writing of the dispirited Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945) finally proved inevitable. The book has its limitations. Much of it amounts to lists of names at public occasions and tiny gleanings from a vast harvest of correspondence. Some friends did not leave much in writing; this inadequate documentation leads the biographer to stress the letters that survived (the trackless spoor of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 457-460
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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