Wells left for America aboard the RMS Carmania on 27th March 1906 armed with letters of introduction to various eminent Americans. He toured New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington, giving lectures and meeting, among others, Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T Washington and Maxim Gorki (who happened to be visiting the country at the same time). He didn't stay long, coming back on the TSS Cambria in May. It was Wells's first time in America. He didn't return to the country until 1921.
The book he wrote about his travels was first published in instalments in Harper's Weekly, July 14-October 6, 1906. Volume publication was by Chapman and Hall in London (above) and Harper Brothers in New York:
Chapter 1. The Prophetic Habit Of MindIt's a strange text; not uninteresting and full of energetic writing, but rather inert for all that, without obvious focus beyond its geographical one, and evasive of conclusion. ‘I went over there to find whatever consciousness or vague consciousness of a common purpose there may be, what is their Vision, their American Utopia,’ Wells announces at the get-go; ‘how much will there is shaping to attain it, how much capacity goes with the will—what, in short, there is in America, over and above the mere mechanical consequences of scattering multitudes of energetic Europeans athwart a vast healthy, productive and practically empty continent in the temperate zone.’ [1:5] So it's the Vision: the Vision thing, he's trying to discover. The problem is, having read the book, I'm not sure what the Vision looks like, exactly.
Chapter 2. Material Progress
Chapter 3. New York
Chapter 4. Growth Invincible
Chapter 5. The Economic Process
Chapter 6. Some Aspects Of American Wealth
Chapter 7. Certain Workers
Chapter 8. Corruption
Chapter 9. The Immigrant
Chapter 10. State-Blindness
Chapter 11. Two Studies In Disappointment
Chapter 12. The Tragedy Of Color
Chapter 13. The Mind Of A Modern State
Chapter 14. Culture
Chapter 15. At Washington
Wells's starting point is straightforward enough: America is actually big as well as metaphorically big. Size is the keynote. So, chapter 1 is largely given over to Wells's reminiscences as to how he used to imagine the future in terms of its impending bigness:
One made fantastic exaggerations ... If the maximum velocity of land travel in 1800 was twelve miles an hour and in 1900 (let us say) sixty miles an hour, then one concludes that in 2000 A.D. it will be three hundred miles an hour. If the population of America in 1800—but I refrain from this second instance. In that fashion one got out a sort of gigantesque caricature of the existing world, everything swollen to vast proportions and massive beyond measure. [Future in America, 1.1]300 mph! Imagine that! This looks like it is disavowing such crude speculative grandiosity: but the first half, pretty much, of The Future in America is given over to a series of goggle-eyed panegyrics to size as such, the echt American sublime. Chapter 2 contrasts the ‘little cockle-shells of Columbus’ and the tiny steamship in which Dickens crossed the Atlantic in the 1840s with Wells' transport, ‘the Carmania with its unparalleled steadfastness, its racing, tireless great turbines, its vast population of 3244 souls!’ This craft is presented as a metaphor for Progress itself:
It has on the whole a tremendous effect of having come by fate and its own forces. One forgets that any one planned it, much of it indeed has so much the quality of moving, as the planets move, in the very nature of things. You go aft and see the wake tailing away across the blue ridges, you go forward and see the cleft water, lift protestingly, roll back in an indignant crest, own itself beaten and go pouring by in great foaming waves on either hand ... Equally so does it seem this great, gleaming, confident thing of power and metal came inevitably out of the past and will lead on to still more shining, still swifter and securer monsters in the future. [Future in America, 2.2]When he gets to New York Wells is so struck by the scale of Brooklyn Bridge he inserts what amounts to a prose-poem in praise of its enormousness:
Its greatness is not in its design, but in the quality of necessity one perceives in its inanimate immensity. One sees parts of Cyclopean stone arches, one gets suggestive glimpses through the jungle growth of business now of the back, now of the flanks, of the monster; then, as one comes out on the river, one discovers far up in one's sky the long sweep of the bridge itself, foreshortened and with a maximum of perspective effect; the streams of pedestrians and the long line of carts and vans, quaintly microscopic against the blue, the creeping progress of the little cars on the lower edge of the long chain of netting; all these things dwindling indistinguishably before Brooklyn is reached. Thence, if it is late afternoon, one may walk back to City Hall Park and encounter and experience the convergent stream of clerks and workers making for the bridge, mark it grow denser and denser, until at last they come near choking even the broad approaches of the giant duct, until the congested multitudes jostle and fight for a way. They arrive marching afoot by every street in endless procession; crammed trolley-cars disgorge them; the Subway pours them out. The individuals count for nothing, they are clerks and stenographers, shopmen, shop-girls, workers of innumerable types, black-coated men, hat-and-blouse girls, shabby and cheaply clad persons, such as one sees in London, in Berlin, anywhere. Perhaps they hurry more, perhaps they seem more eager. But the distinctive effect is the mass, the black torrent, rippled with unmeaning faces, the great, the unprecedented multitudinousness of the thing, the inhuman force of it all. [Future in America, 3:1]Years before Hart Crane, this.
Promenading New York fills him with a sense of ‘an immeasurably powerful forward movement of rapid eager advance, a process of enlargement and increment in every material sense’ [3:2]. He visits Ellis Island and finds it ‘quietly immense’, boggling at the huge crowds of people patiently waiting:
This year the [immigrant] total will be 1,200,000 souls, pouring in, finding work at once, producing no fall in wages. They start digging and building and making. Just think of the dimensions of it! [Future in America, 3:3]Boston he finds ‘more impressive, even, than the crowded largeness of New York’, on account of the rational way its expansion is being planned, contrasting it with London to the latter's disadvantage: ‘London, that like a bowl of viscid human fluid, boils sullenly over the rim of its encircling hills and slops messily and uglily into the home counties’ [4:1]. And may I, as someone born and raised in London, just interject here to say: cheers, Bertie. Thanks for that savoury image.
When Wells visits Niagara he is less struck by the natural sublime than the technological one: ‘[the] dynamos and turbines of the Niagara Falls Power Company impressed me far more profoundly’ [4:2]. Chicago is ‘a wilderness of sky-scrapers’, where ‘growth forced itself upon me again as the dominant American fact, but this time a dark disorder of growth’ [4:3].
Chapter 6 sketches some of the very rich people he met, and how their mode of conspicuous wealth exceeds the rich Europeans Wells knows:
In that splendid and luminous bubble, the Prince Amerigo and Maggie Verver, Mr. Verver, that assiduous collector, and the adventurous Charlotte Stant float far above a world of toil and anxiety, spending with a large refinement, with a perfected assurance and precision. They spend as flowers open. But this is the quintessence, the sublimation, the idealization of the rich American. [Future in America, 6:1].Chapter 7, on workers, notes ‘still no general effect of impoverishment’ [7:1]. We're almost half-way through, and it's starting to seem as though Wells's America will be all gush and hugeness. The book does make a few concessions to the other side of the case: Wells deplores the fact of the country's lumpenproletariat (‘that teeming abyss where children have no chance, where men and women dream neither of leisure nor of self-respect’ [8:1]) and declares corruption to be widespread: ‘what is called corruption in America is a thing not confined to politics; it is a defect of moral method found in every department of American life’ [8:2]. That's unfettered Capitalism for you I suppose. But the tenor of the book as a whole is starry-eyed wonder at the sheer scale of the place.
This bigness is partly a matter of topography and engineering, and partly a matter of raw populousness. And it is this latter that dominates the second half of the book, what chapter 9 calls the country's ‘indigestion of immigrants’, a circumstances that tempts Wells into Jeremiah-style prophecies of gloom:
In the “colored” population America has already ten million descendants of unassimilated and perhaps inassimilable labor immigrants. These people are not only half civilized and ignorant, but they have infected the white population about them with a kindred ignorance ... And I have a foreboding that in this mixed flood of workers that pours into America by the million to-day, in this torrent of ignorance, against which that heroic being, the schoolmarm, battles at present all unaided by men, there is to be found the possibility of another dreadful separation of class and kind. One sees the possibility of a rich industrial and mercantile aristocracy of western European origin, dominating a darker-haired, darker-eyed, uneducated proletariat from central and eastern Europe. [Future in America, 9:3]‘The immigrants are being given votes, I know,’ Wells says, but he adds, rather worryingly: ‘but that does not free them, it only enslaves the country.’ Democracy? Pff!
This leads into Chapter 12, on ‘color’, which is mostly given over to Wells's meeting with Booker T. Washington. It's perhaps the trickiest portion of the whole book to evaluate: a repudiation of integral racism that can't quite give up racism as such. On the one hand Wells rehearses racial libels (‘the uncontrollable violence of a black man's evil passions’; ‘stupidity’; ‘physical offensiveness, [and] peculiar smell’) precisely in order to dismiss them for the lies that they are. And he's clear on the extent to which environment shapes being. So he praises the higher levels of civilisation and culture amongst West Indian Blacks, but concedes Washington's retort concerning the greater degradation and violence of South African Blacks: ‘Think,’ Wells exhorts his readers, ‘of all that must have happened in wrongful practice and wrongful law and neglected educational possibilities before our Zulus in Natal were goaded to face massacre, spear against rifle!’ [12:1]. Other portions of the chapter though strike a much less progressive tone.
Indeed, my sense is that this chapter manifests, in a number of ways, an subconscious anxiety about race itself as destabilising the clear-line Bigness Wells otherwise wants to locate as the distinctiveness of America. He is, for instance, pointedly struck by Washington's paleness. Before their meeting he'd assumed he would be ‘black as ink’ when actually he had ‘a face rather Irish in type’, ‘a man certainly as white in appearance as our Admiral Fisher, who is, as a matter of fact, quite white’ [12:3]. Those last nine words, easily missed, are pregnant with significance: Fisher, Admiral of the Fleet, First Sea Lord and Britain's highest ranked sailor, was born in Ceylon (as it used to be called) and his career was dogged by insinuations that the yellow-brown colour of his skin and the arrangement of his facial features showed him ‘tainted’ by Chinese or Malay blood. He insisted both his parents were white and put his skin-colour down to a youthful bout of dysentery and malaria. What's interesting in this is the way so prominent a public figure could serve as the focus for broader anxieties about ‘passing’—for, that is, non-White people pretending to be White. After all, it can be hard to tell. So: here's a picture of Fisher. After what I've just said, be honest with me: are you perusing his photo to see whether you reckon he looks, just a little, mixed-race White/Sri-Lankan?
Here for comparison (as if you didn't already know what he looked like) is Booker T. Washington:
So, according to someone who met both gentlemen: their skin-tone was the same.
‘Passing’ was a significant anxiety at the time, especially in the States (a whole sub-discipline of sociology studies it), and it speaks to a wider problematic. On the one hand, as many critics and historians note, it embodies in a fairly straightforward way the contradiction at the heart of racism itself: race is either innate inequality occasioned by ‘natural’ differences or it is an arbitrary signifier determined merely by social convention and performance. If it's the latter then racial prejudice has no natural ground; but if it's the former then how is it that so many people are able to pass? Amy Robinson puts it this way: ‘the “problem” of identity, a problem to which passing owes the very possibility of its practice, is predicated on the false promise of the visible as epistemological guarantee’ . Elaine K. Ginsberg [in Passing and the Fictions of Identity (1994), 9] notes that ‘little is documented about the actual extent of race passing by blacks in the United States’, but goes on:
The spectre of passing derives its power not from the number of instances of passing but as a signification that embodies the anxieties and contradictions of a racially stratified society … threaten[ing] the security of white identity, on both individual and societal level‘When race is no longer visible, it is no longer intelligible’ is her conclusion. Vision, again; under a different aegis. Wells himself includes this example:
“Let me tell you a little story just to illustrate,” said one deponent to me in an impressive undertone—“just to illustrate, you know. A few years ago a young fellow came to Boston from New Orleans. Looked all right. Dark—but he explained that by an Italian grandmother. Touch of French in him, too. Popular. Well, he made advances to a Boston girl—good family. Gave a fairly straight account of himself. Married.”Washington argues for a mode of enlightened Segregation: ‘that black and white might live without mingling and without injustice, side by side.’ Wells does not concur: ‘That I do not believe. Racial differences seem to me always to exasperate intercourse unless people have been elaborately trained to ignore them. The most miserable and disorderly countries of the world are the countries where two races, two inadequate cultures, keep a jarring, continuous separation. “You must repudiate separation,” I said.’ And though the meeting ends with what reads like a heartfelt Wellsian peroration to ‘the quality of the resolve, the steadfast effort hundreds of black and colored men are making to-day to live blamelessly, honorably, and patiently’, this chapter also contains passages like this:
He paused. “Course of time—offspring. Little son.”
His eye made me feel what was coming.
“Was it by any chance very, very black?” I whispered.
“Yes, sir. Black! Black as your hat. Absolutely negroid. Projecting jaw, thick lips, frizzy hair, flat nose—everything. But consider the mother's feelings, sir, consider that! A pure-minded, pure white woman!” [Future in America, 12:2]
It is to the tainted whites my sympathies go out. The black or mainly black people seem to be fairly content with their inferiority; one sees them all about the States as waiters, cab-drivers, railway porters, car attendants, laborers of various sorts, a pleasant, smiling, acquiescent folk. But consider the case of a man with a broader brain than such small uses need, conscious, perhaps, of exceptional gifts, capable of wide interests and sustained attempts, who is perhaps as English as you or I, with just a touch of color in his eyes, in his lips, in his fingernails, and in his imagination. Think of the accumulating sense of injustice he must bear with him through life, the perpetual slight and insult he must undergo from all that is vulgar and brutal among the whites! Something of that one may read in the sorrowful pages of Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk. They would have made Alexandre Dumas travel in the Jim Crow car if he had come to Virginia. [Future in America, 12:2]Hard to know how to take this, except as a hostage to racist fortune. I mean, doesn't it imply that a degraded existence is fine for ‘true’ Blacks, but would become an existential outrage once degrees of Whiteness are admitted? A pleasant, smiling, narrow-brained, acquiescent folk—dear lord!
The last few chapters look to the future, framing the question in terms of ‘accelerating the reaction upon the people of America of the best and least mercenary of their national thought?' [13:4]. He visits Princeton and Harvard and meets professors; he explores American culture (a Boston orchestra does a very passable Beethoven's Fifth, which he considers a good sign). He chats with President Roosevelt: ‘he assimilates contemporary thought, delocalizes and reverberates it. He is America for the first time vocal to itself.’ [15:2] They discuss the state of America, and Wells, despite being hugely impressed by the Presidential energy and intelligence, nonetheless starts to lose faith in the country: ‘it is a curious thing that as I talked with President Roosevelt in the garden of the White House there came back to me quite forcibly that undertone of doubt that has haunted me throughout this journey.’
After all, does this magnificent appearance of beginnings which is America, convey any clear and certain promise of permanence and fulfilment whatever? Much makes for construction, a great wave of reform is going on, but will it drive on to anything more than a breaking impact upon even more gigantic uncertainties and dangers. Is America a giant childhood or a gigantic futility? [Future in America, 15:5]Roosevelt himself makes reference to Wells's own Time Machine:
He mentioned a little book of mine, an early book full of the deliberate pessimism of youth, in which I drew a picture of a future of decadence, of a time when constructive effort had fought its fight and failed, when the inevitable segregations of an individualistic system had worked themselves out and all the hope and vigor of humanity had gone forever. The descendants of the workers had become etiolated, sinister, and subterranean monsters, the property-owners had degenerated into a hectic and feebly self-indulgent race, living fitfully amid the ruins of the present time. He became gesticulatory, and his straining voice a note higher in denying this as a credible interpretation of destiny. With one of those sudden movements of his, he knelt forward in a garden chair—we were standing before our parting beneath the colonnade—and addressed me very earnestly over the back, clutching it, and then thrusting out his familiar gesture, a hand first partly open and then closed.Terminal ellipses Wells's own. Butterflies and Morlocks is either a Rooseveltian misremembering of the novel's specifics, or else a pretty good midrash, actually, on the Wellsian original text. After all: who breaks a butterfly upon a Wells?
“Suppose after all,” he said, slowly, “that should prove to be right, and it all ends in your butterflies and morlocks. That doesn't matter now. The effort's real. It's worth going on with. It's worth it. It's worth it—even then....” [Future in America, 15:5]
The Future in America was respectfully greeted by actual Americans (for instance by Joseph Auerbach and Garrett Droppers), although it has been almost wholly neglected by subsequent scholars and critics of Wells. Which fact is interesting, in its way. Reading it straight through, I was struck by the things it doesn't mention. Granted that Wells's stay was short, and limited to the Eastern seaboard plus Chicago, still: there's no mention of the Civil War and its aftermath; nothing on the ‘Gilded Age’ battles over unionisation and worker's rights, strike busting and the Pinkertons, anything like that, save a rather breezy declaration that ‘I came away with the clear impression that neither President Roosevelt nor America will ever, as some people prophesy, “declare for socialism”’ [15:5]. But the most striking omission in the book is women. Hardly any are mentioned, beyond the odd name here and there and a tendency to picture ‘the immigrant and his womankind’ [9:1]; the focus is on specific men, and on manliness in a larger sense.
The journalist in Wells had good reasons for copestone-ing the book with Roosevelt. He's the most famous contemporary name, clearly, by some way. But there are thematic reasons too, for ending with him. Like him or not, one has to concede that manliness was central to Roosevelt as a politician and a human being. Erik Loomis thinks that ‘no president captures the American imagination like Theodore Roosevelt. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives all find something to love about the man’, but adds:
Roosevelt was obsessed with his own manhood ... Roosevelt’s writing make this clear enough. He constantly talked about the need to make the boy a man by taking him hunting and training him for war. Roosevelt loved hunting himself, as well as boxing, football.This was all recreation for him, but it had a much larger purpose: to train a new generation of boys, growing up in enervating and polluted cities, how to become good soldiers ready to defend the republic. [Loomis, ‘Book Review: Lewis L. Gould, Theodore Roosevelt’, Lawyers Guns and Money, 28 March 2012]He's not wrong: Roosevelt's speeches and articles, all the stuff collected in The Strenuous Life: Essays and Addresses (1910), are absolutely steeped in this: manliness as direct correlative to good (‘"Good," in the largest sense, should include whatever is fine, straightforward, clean, brave, and manly’; ‘anything that relaxes the manly fiber and lowers self-respect, is an unmixed evil’). The word ‘manly’ chimes through the Roosevelt's book like a bell. A manly bell. He applies it to individuals (‘the effect that a thoroughly manly, thoroughly straight and upright boy can have upon the companions of his own age, and upon those who are younger, is incalculable. If he is not thoroughly manly, then they will not respect him, and his good qualities will count for but little’) and also to nations, as with his theory that China's international decline was a consequence of a deficiency of, yes indeed, manliness, and that the US should learn from their example. If not
we should find, beyond a shadow of question, what China has already found, that in this world the nation that has trained itself to a career of unwarlike and isolated ease is bound, in the end, to go down before other nations which have not lost the manly and adventurous qualities. [Roosevelt, The Strenuous Life (1910); this chapter was originally a speech before the Hamilton Club, Chicago, April 10, 1899]Roosevelt, of course, walked the walk as well as talking this talk, wrestling bears and punching coyotes and so on, exploring the South American wilderness and getting shot in the chest by an assassin but still delivering the 45 minute stump-speech he had come to make rather than going to hospital. It's harder to picture under-height, sickly Wells as any such avatar of hyper-masculinity. Yet immanent throughout The Future in America is a sense that the American, and so the global, future is to be characterised by a hyperbolic masculinized forcefulness.
This, I think, explains the book's rather over-earnest, sometimes over-excited, fetish of sublimity as the tenor of the West. Take the concept of the Sublime back its roots in European aesthetic discourse—back, that is, to Kant and Burke—and it's absolutely unambiguously gendered: in Terry Eagleton's words ‘the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime is that between woman and man’ [Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 54-55]. Barbara Claire Freeman goes into greater detail:
Burke's distinction between the sublime and the beautiful rests upon an understanding of sexual difference in which the ‘masculine’ passions of self-preservation, which stem from ideas of terror, pain, and danger, are linked to the sublime, while the ‘feminine’ emotions of sympathy, tenderness, affection, and imitation are the preserve of the beautiful. The sublime amalgamates such conventionally masculine qualities as power, size, ambition, awe, and majesty; the beautiful collects the equally conventional feminine traits of softness, smallness, weakness, docility, delicacy, and timidity. The former always includes intimations of power, majesty, and brute male force—a storm at sea, a raging bull, a ruler or sovereign, greatness of dimension—while the latter connotes smallness, delicacy, and serenity. [Freeman, The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women's Fiction (Univ. of California Press), 48]I suspect what makes The Future in America such a wearying read is its commitment to this strenuous, Rooseveltian masculine-sublimity all the way through. Even the flaws in the America visited are sublime—vast and terrible and huge and so on: the prodigious poverty, the brute fact of racial disunity and so on. Almost nowhere is the novelist's trick deployed of individualising, complexifying or otherwise shrinking down the bigly-bigly rhetoric.
To be fair to Wells, that's not wholly true. There are some such moments, and I'm going to end with one. After troping the enormous RMS Carmania as, in effect, Progress and The Future, Wells lands, and takes to the US railways. And when he does so, it is the train that takes on the mantle of the Bigly-Sublime, embodying the future that America represents. This train is nothing like the shonky little trains Wells is used to in England. No, it is ‘large’, ‘fine’ and ‘graceful’:
“Progress, progress,” murmured the wheels, and I began to make this steady, swift, and shiningly equipped train a figure, just as I had made the Carmania a figure of that big onward sweep that is moving us all together. It was not a noisy train, after the English fashion, nor did the cars sway and jump after the habit of our lighter coaches, but the air was full of deep, triumphant rhythms. [The Future in America, 4:5]‘Bigness—that's the word!’ Wells, cries, in a kind of narratorial ecstasy. But then the avatar of Progress suffers a hiccough:
“It goes on,” I said, “invincibly,” and even as the thought was in my head, the brakes set up a droning, a vibration ran through the train and we slowed and stopped. A minute passed, and then we rumbled softly back to a little trestle-bridge and stood there.The Bigly-Sublime rolls towards its inevitable American Future with impressive majesty and force, which is bad news for any actual human individuals that might get in its way. America as Juggernaut. More moments like this, and The Future in America would have been a markedly less inert book. ‘Eyetalian’ is a nice detail too: since Wells has ‘spent most of my daylight time in the fine and graceful open loggia at the end of the observation-car’, engaging in a kind of scopophilic engagement with the expanse of America: ‘in looking out of the windows, looking at hills and valleys, townships and quiet places, sudden busy industrial outbreaks about coalmine or metal, big undisciplined rivers that spread into swamp and lake, new forest growths.’ It's about talian eyes, and looking, and seeing, and the thing about the Sublime is that it is fundamentally too big to be visually apprehended. ‘I want over there to find whatever consciousness or vague consciousness of a common purpose there may be,’ Wells declares at the start of The Future in America: ‘what is their Vision, their American Utopia.’ [1:5] Vision, it seems, in collision with the Sublime, tends to come off the worse.
I got up, looked from the window, and then went to the platform at the end of the train. I found two men, a passenger and a colored parlor-car attendant. The former was on the bottom step of the car, the latter was supplying him with information.
“His head's still in the water,” he remarked.
“Whose head?” said I.
“A man we've killed,” said he. “We caught him in the trestle-bridge.”
I descended a step, craned over my fellow-passenger, and saw a little group standing curiously about the derelict thing that had been a living man three minutes before. It was now a crumpled, dark-stained blue blouse, a limply broken arm with hand askew, trousered legs that sprawled quaintly, and a pair of heavy boots, lying in the sunlit fresh grass by the water below the trestle-bridge.
A man on the line gave inadequate explanations. “He'd have been all right if he hadn't come over this side,” he said.
“Who was he?” said I.
“One of these Eyetalians on the line,” he said, and turned away. The train bristled now with a bunch of curiosity at every car end, and even windows were opened.
Presently it was intimated to us by a whistle and the hasty return of men to the cars that the incident had closed. We began to move forward again, crept up to speed. [The Future in America, 4:5]