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  • H. G. Wells as a Modernist
  • William J. Scheick
Sarah Cole. Inventing Tomorrow: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. xiii + 374 pp. $35.00

IN INVENTING TOMORROW, Sarah Cole aims "to place Wells within and among known modernists, as one of the period's great literary innovators, and … to show how his writing also clashes with modernist values as they have been enshrined by literary critics over the last seventy years." She pursues this goal with considerable conviction, aided and abetted by a host of acclamatory adjectives: powerful, surging, exceptional, prodigious, unflinching, formidable, forceful, inspired, exuberant, inexhaustible, unique, irrepressible, bold, among others gaveling the verdict for "Wells [as] one of the greatest and most innovative writers of the century."

Her case opens with a dicey gambit: several pages touting Wells's literary genius based on the popularity of the man and his books during his lifetime. Cole maintains that his literary talent accounted for the wide audience for his work—a readership that transcended class, political, and national differences. Such a claim, of course, advances a dubious measure of actual literary achievement, given the frequent mounds of hack writing that, over the decades, have topped the bestseller lists. But let's concede, at least, that some of Wells's bestsellers have exhibited an unusual durability over time.

Wells's high expectations for literature, especially his faith in its ability to produce historic change, impress Cole. So does the remarkable range of his interests: war, violence, class, economics, gender sex, history, science, technology, ecology, education, and government. Wells "challenged his readers ferociously—with his ideas, his aggressive presence, his unflinching discussion of topics that push against convention or that terrify a reader, his wild generic twists, and his constant, nagging insistence that we can do better."

Although Cole admits that all of these features do not quite amount to a coherent outcome, she defends Wells's contradictions as examples of an open-ended modernist sensibility. Read in their entirety, his writings "almost always function dialectically, with contradictory voices, visions, perspectives, and moods in constant interplay, resolved, if at [End Page 452] all, through an imperfect and unreliable synthesis." For Cole, this modernistic dynamic is particularly evident whenever Wells's "violent, destructive visions are countered by an essential optimism."

Time likewise operates as a dialectical force in Wells's writings. He "embrac[es] the fragile, sensorially rich nature of each moment as it is lived." Yet, oppositely, he also represents each "nowhen" or "somewhen" moment as "layered and infiltrated with other spots on the spectrum of time." The present, in other words, comprises a continuous intersection of imagined past and anticipated future. Consequently, the present "in some sense … cannot be experienced at all."

The protagonist of Ann Veronica inhabits this sort of elusive present. Past and future, culture and biology—multiple worlds, as it were—compromise her life. While pondering a display at the British Museum, she perceives that "the mummy, after all, epitomizes the 'wrappered' condition … [of] harsh patriarchal constraints." Even so, any ideational independence stemming from such an insight about the past cannot save her from the forward thrust of biology—"a force pressing through and quickly beyond the individual." On a still larger scale, intersecting forces (past, present, future) likewise inform The Outline of History, which Cole reads as Wells's "most quintessential work," his "greatest work because it captures the world but also multiple worlds."

Inventing Tomorrow rewards least in a lengthy chapter acclaiming specific Wellsian literary accomplishments, such as his "complex and pervasive habit for placing himself in his writings," his "powerful visual imagination," and his "idiosyncratic use of specialized language." Equally underwhelming: "his development of a mode of fiction-as-argument that stretches his themes across multiple texts." And there is unconvincing praise for how Wells's "essayistic principle of argumentation" resulted in literary figuration that ingeniously both shows in a modern way and tells in a traditional way. More specifically, Wells's "simultaneous using and explaining of figurative language has a kind of tutorial function for his readers, a way of ensuring that all readers might gain access to the great pleasure and power of literary figuration."



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pp. 452-454
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