The Outline of History was Wells's single most successful book. It sold a staggering two million copies by the end of the 1920s alone, and, periodically updated, it continued to sell strongly through the century. Translated into every major language (including Braille) it had an immense impact on mid-century culture and education. William Ross's H G Wells’s World Reborn: the Outline of History and Its Companions (Susquehanna University Press 2002) traces the path from Wells's original idea, through two years of research and writing, to the initial 24-part serialisation in its own dedicated magazine (1919-20) and its first two-volume book edition in 1920. There were many subsequent redactions and versions: editions designed for elementary students, large format deluxe editions with many illustrations, some in colour—it was, as it happens, in one of these versions that I read the work:
A cheaper, one-volume condensation, A Short History, was followed in 1925 by an edition further condensed and ‘adapted for school use’, and then another redaction aimed at even younger readers: The Junior Version of the Outline (1932). Wells oversaw all the editions: he went so far as to entertain the Japanese translator in his home to discuss the book and ensure the best rendering. Coolest of all, in 1926 the book was publicly burned in Harlan County, Kentucky, an event at which participants all swore ‘never again to read a book criticizing the Book of Genesis’. Quite the feather in Wells's cap, that. The last revision was published 1971. I'd say it's time for a new new-edition, and recommend, um, me to edit it. Go on publishing! What have you got to lose?
As well as these many editions and versions, Wells also published ancillary volumes: a Teachers Handbook and A Supplement for Practical History, including ideas for art and crafts, plays and other methods pedagogically to integrate the thesis of the work into school-level work. He really wanted the book to go into schools and colleges. Education, the major theme in both Joan and Peter (1918) and The Undying Fire (1919), was Wells's chief motivation for writing the Outline in the first place. David Smith summarises the situation out of which the book emerged:
He and his friends on the League of Nations committee had discussed textbooks and methods of education, as a way of preventing future 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 older nationalistic and narrow treatments. They refused on the grounds of lack of time, lack of formal preparation and unwillingness to give the effort. Wells decided he must do it himself. [David C Smith, Wells: Desperately Mortal (Yale University Press 1986), 249]The idea predated the League, in fact: Wells first signed a contract to work on a non-partisan, properly international World History all the way back in 1907, but the project had fallen through. The difficulty was the sheer scale of the task, and the fact that compiling it and writing it would take years of dedicated work which would, in turn, prevent Wells from earning money in his usual way. In the Experiment in Autobiography he recalls discussing the project with his wife.
It did not occur to me that this Note-Book or Outline of History would be a particularly saleable production. I wanted to sketch out how the job might be done rather than to do it. Before I began it I had a very serious talk with my wife about our financial position. The little parcel of securities we had accumulated before 1914 had been badly damaged by the war. Its value had fallen from about £20,000 to less than half that amount. But the success of Mr. Britling had more than repaired that damage and my position as a journalist had improved. We decided that I could afford a year's hard work on this précis of history, although it might bring in very little and even though I risked dropping for a time below the habitual novel reader's horizon. As a matter of fact I dropped below that horizon for good. I lost touch with the reviewers and the libraries, I never regained it, and if I wrote a novel now it would be dealt with by itself by some special critic, as a singular book, and not go into the ‘fiction’ class. [Wells, Experiment in Autobiography (1934), 613-14]I'm not sure this one project was responsible for eclipsing Wells the Novelist quite so comprehensively as he suggests here, or even that he was so eclipsed (most of his earlier novels remained in print and sold strongly right through to his death; and some of his new fiction did pretty well). But there's no denying that the Outline was, in Smith's phrase, ‘a remarkable gamble’. ‘I set to work,’ Wells says, ‘undeterred by my burning boats.’
His process, he later said, involved ‘“mugging up” the material and writing or rewriting practically all of it myself, and then getting the various parts vetted and revised and, in one part, rewritten by specialists’ [Experiment, 618]. Those experts were legion, but he mostly relied on a team of six: Sir Ray Lankester (director of the Natural History Museum), Sir Harry Johnston (an Africa and Asia expert), Gilbert Murray (the famous classicist—some of Murray's celebrated translations of Aristophanes first appear here), Ernest Barker (political scientist and historian), Sir Denison Ross (Orientalist and sinophile) and the graphic artist Frank Horrabin, who produced for the work hundreds of beautifully-designed maps and charts, models of clarity.
Over and above its extraordinary popular success, the Outline was widely, positively and sometimes dithyrambically reviewed. Not everybody was won over, though. Several people even took the trouble to write book-length rebuttals. Playwright Henry Jones published a string of hostile articles in the London Evening Standard and the New York Sunday Times, attacking Wells as ‘a Hater of England’ and a ‘Bolshevik’, someone ‘seeking to break in pieces the British Empire and to shake the foundations of civil order throughout the world’. He collected these pieces as My Dear Wells in 1921. Given how much Jones relied on misquotation, misrepresentation and active falsehood, it's perhaps surprising that Wells didn't sue (he did write in protest to the New York Times, rebuking them for publishing the work of ‘this poor muddled, and I fear, afflicted mind’, and in a letter to the Morning Post he said: ‘his stuff is too silly for serious attention’. Jones gleefully quoted both letters as blurbs for the second edition of My Dear Wells).*
[*The fact that the book went to a second edition, though, suggests Jones's animadversion to Wells was shared by some. Kipling, replying to a gift of the volume, wrote on 30th November 1920: ‘Ever so many thanks for “My Dear Wells”. It’s very funny and to my mind exceedingly just, for he has done as much harm as he could … Where there was a reasonable possibility of the Hun invading England I remember that he wrote to the Times demanding that he should be allowed a gun (a shot-gun I think) so as to have a shot at the enemy when they came to attack his womenfolk. He wasn’t a bit international then.’ Thomas Pinney (ed), The Letters of Rudyard Kipling: vol 5 1920-30 (University of Iowa Press 2004), 98]
There were more substantive and important critiques, too. Chesterton wrote his own account of human history in explicit rebuttal to Wells's book: The Everlasting Man (1925), a work which attempted to reaffirm the divinity of Christ, something Wells's history denied (no less a person than C S Lewis was very taken with this work, calling it ‘the best popular defence of the full Christian position I know’). Then there was Hilaire Belloc, who published a many many articles in the Catholic journals Universe, Southern Cross and Catholic Bulletin, many many of them through 1925 and 1926, all attacking Wells in very personal terms: calling him ignorant, childish, biased against Catholics, provincialism, guilty of ‘the very grievous fault of being ignorant that he is ignorant’, and possessing ‘the strange cocksuredness of the man who knows only the old conventional textbook of his schooldays and mistakes it for universal knowledge’. Belloc collected these into the book A Companion to Mr. Wells's “Outline of History” (1926). This wasn't a provocation Wells could ignore. He responded to Belloc in a small book entitled Mr. Belloc Objects to “The Outline of History” (1926).
Belloc couldn't let it lie. He responded with Mr. Belloc Still Objects in 1927. ‘At the end of the six-year struggle Belloc claimed to have written over 100,000 words in refutation of the central argument of Wells’s book’ [Joseph Pearce, Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc (HarperCollins 2002), 300]. Ben Lockerd gives a flavour of Belloc's approach:
Belloc attacks many of Wells's specific points—catching him out on a fairly large number of errors such as stating that ... the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Jesus. Belloc accuses Wells of ‘entertaining unreasoning reactions,’ and says that ‘These reactions have a common root. They are all provoked by anything traditional’ [Belloc, Companion 17]. Belloc notes that the aim of establishing the mechanistic theory of natural selection as the sole cause of speciation is to remove any notion of design from the equation, and thus ‘to get rid of the necessity for a Creator’ [Belloc, 31]. He attacks with particular vehemence Wells's treatment of priests, his contention that the Priest came first when man was inferior and was at last ousted, as man advanced, by the King—the innuendo being that the power of the Priest essentially belongs to an earlier time, and therefore to a more degraded period in human History; for to the man who believes in a childishly simple theory of "Progress" (as Mr. Wells believes in it, and as do the great majority of his readers), whatever is earlier must be worse than what comes later’. [Belloc, 114] ... Near the end, Belloc returns with insulting language to what he terms Wells's ‘provincialism’: ‘We are reading in this Outline of History the work of a mind closely confined to a particular place and moment—the late Victorian London suburbs. Such a mind has an apparatus quite inferior to the task of historical writing’ (227). [Ben Lockerd, ‘“Superficial Notions of Evolution”: Eliot's Critique of Evolutionary Historiography’, Religion & Literature, 44:1 (2012), 177-78]‘This,’ Lockerd notes, ‘is ad hominem mud-slinging indeed’.
In his relatively short rebuttal, Wells begins by saying he is ‘the least controversial of men’ and is therefore unskilled in the kind of no-holds-barred debate Belloc loved. He does proceed, however, to point out sharply a few mistakes in Belloc's articles, and he gets around to making some personal attacks of his own, stating that Belloc ‘is rather exceptionally ignorant of modern scientific literature,’ for instance, and calling one of his antagonist's arguments ‘beautifully absurd’ [Wells, Belloc Objects 1, 22]. Having been baited by Belloc, Wells explicitly acknowledges the dogma that guided his writing of history: he accepts a ‘modern conception of life, as a process of progressive change’ and asserts that ‘We can realise now, as no one in the past was ever able to realise it, that man is a creature changing very rapidly from the life of a rare and solitary great ape to the life of a social and economic animal’ (53). Where Belloc insists on a fixed human nature, Wells denies any such fixity. In the process of biological and social evolution, religion has, he acknowledges, played an important role in helping human beings to exercise self-control, but at this point ‘It may be better to admit frankly that if man is not fixed Christianity is, and that mankind is now growing out of Christianity; that indeed mankind is growing out of the idea of Deity’ . [Lockerd, 178].T S Eliot weighed-in, too: another indication of how big a cultural impact Wells's Outline had in the 1920s. His swingeing review appeared in the May 1927 number of The Criterion:
Mr Wells has not an historical mind; he has a prodigious gift of historical imagination, which is comparable to Carlyle’s, but this is quite a different gift from the understanding of history. That requires a degree of culture, civilization and maturity which Mr Wells does not possess.To which we are, I feel, entitled to reply: ‘the fuck?’ Carlyle and Wells share a lack of ‘culture, civilization and maturity’ looks very like code for ‘Carlyle and Wells are both lower-class individuals.’ But let's not get distracted.
2: An Outline of the Outline
The whole is in forty chapters, of varying length (though all long), disposed into eight books; with an extra chapter as coda, bracketed solus as ‘Book IX’: ‘Chapter 41. the Next Stage in History’. The eight books divide, broadly, into three sections. Pre-human, pre-historical and historical. The first two books—165 pages, a tidy volume in its own right—address ‘The Making of our World’ (chapter 1) and ‘the Making of Man’ (chapter 2). The first opens, grandly, with ‘the Earth in Space and Time’, proceeds through geological long-time and the process of evolution by means of natural selection across the first eons of single-celled and simple organisms, through ‘the Age of Reptiles’ and into ‘the Age of Mammals’. The second speculates about the descent of humankind: Wells is upfront about the gappiness of the fossil record, less gullible than one might think—Piltdown Man wasn't exposed as a forgery until 1953, but Wells nonetheless spends two whole pages on how fishy that particular skull-and-jaw is—and consistently interesting. We move through early hominids, Neanderthal Man and through to homo sapiens, and thence through possibilities as to the origin of language, farming, larger-scale social organisation, war and the beginnings of social and cultural civilisation.
The next three books take us into human history as such: Book 3 covers what Wells estimates are ‘the first five thousand years’ of coherent human historical narrative: from ‘Primitive Aryan life’, Sumerians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Egyptians, the early civilisation of India and China, the invention of writing and the coalescence of religious feeling into fixed systems of ‘gods and stars, priests and kings’ [1:232]. Book 4 concerns ‘Judea, Greece and India’ from Saul, David and Solomon through to Alexander the Great; and Book 5 ‘the Rise and Collapse of the Roman Empire’.
Then we're into the Book 6, which covers ‘the beginnings, the rise and the divisions’ of Christianity and Islam. Since he is trying, Wells says, ‘to write as if this book was to be read as much by Hindus or Moslems or Buddhists as by Americans and Western Europeans’ he declares he will ‘hold closely to the apparent facts, and avoid, without any disputation or denial, the theological interpretations that have been imposed upon them’ [1:569]. Book 7 is divided equally between the ‘Great Empire of Jengis Khan’ and the European Renaissance: taken together they rather suggest that nothing else was going on in the world between ADs 400 and 1600 unless it was happening in central Asia or Europe.
And in Book 8, ‘Princes, Parliaments and Powers’ Wells rounds-off his narrative by suggesting that the age of monarchic absolutism began to give way, sometime around 1700, to the modern political logic of ‘new and shapeless forces of freedom in the community’ [2.216], manifesting as an upsurge, or strictly a resurgence, in democratic structures and more integrated polities.
He moves briskly through the rise of ‘the new Democratic Republics of America and France’, is sweepingly dismissive of Napoleon, and brings his narrative up to 1920 with a dash through the nineteenth-century and the First World War. Here, again, there is a palpable thumb-in-the-balance element to his analysis. The whole of the 19th-century (chapter 39) is summarised as ‘the Increase of Knowledge and Clear Thinking: the Nationalist Phase’ which leads directly into chapter 40 ‘the Close of the Great Power Period’. In other words: Wells is arguing that the upsurge in nationalism that, unmistakably, marked this epoch—from German and Italian unification to the myriad nationalist movements in British and French imperialist holdings—was a last gasp of the concept, and that the World State was about to bring this Great Power age to a close. This was the wishfullest of wishful thinking, of course, and posterity has not been kind to him where this prediction is concerned.
It is a remarkably broad-textured narrative, although it does have its blind-spots. So, although Wells goes out of his way to create a more global history, the focus is still overwhelmingly European, Asian and Chinese: Africa is hardly mentioned until it becomes a site for European colonial expansion, and the Americas don't appear at all until white settlement. It's not that these continents are wholly omitted from the earlier sections, but the emphasis is heavily on the Europe-Asia-China axis.
Then again, although I read expecting to come across myriad errors and many ‘facts’ that subsequent scholarship has debunked, a surprisingly high quotient of the Outline still holds up today, I'd say. It depends, of course, on what one counts as error: in The Classical Journal (March 1923) G A Harrer took Wells to task for what he considered multiple errors in his Roman sections, but aside from one obvious typo (‘Pontius’ for ‘Pontus’, 1:504) all of these ‘errors’ are places where Harrer disagrees with Wells's interpretation. So Harrer believes Roman military tactics evolved more thoroughly over the first centuries of the new millennium than does Wells, or he thinks Wells exaggerates when he says that science, literature, and education were entrusted by the Romans ‘to the care of slaves, who were bred and trained and sold like dogs or horses’ [1:541] I'd say that latter is pretty much true, actually; though I might insert a ‘mostly’ between the ‘were’ and the ‘entrusted’. But, see, that's why I wouldn't be so good at writing this particular book as Wells; constant havering and qualification, endless hmm-ing, hah-ing and in-a-certain-sense-ing would be death to a work on this scale and scope. (Also Harrer misses that Justinian is called ‘Justianian’ on 1:618, so boo sucks to him).
In part this is because Wells's approach is so undogmatic. He presents possibilities as possibilities, not probabilities; where scholarly experts disagree he picks a line and mentions alternatives in a footnote. I'm not trying to pretend the work is wholly non-tendentious. On the contrary, indeed, its tendenz is freely acknowledged and on display throughout: that human evolution has been a process of dissemination and diversification that is, through many advances and retreats, working its way towards a global identity and political unity. It is from this thesis that the work's most dubious subjectivities derive. Wells is not shy of judging this or that historical phenomenon ‘a failure’, and when he does so it's because it falls short of this particular aim. So, despite achieving much the Roman Empire ultimately failed, says Wells, in that it did not expand to create the World State (‘Rome kept the peace of the world for a time and failed altogether to secure it ... The clue to all its failure lies in the absence of any free mental activity and any organization for the increase, development, and application of knowledge’ [1:529]). Similarly, Christendom is analysed with a fair degree of historical nuance, but is ultimately brought to this same severe judicial bar: ‘the history of Europe from the fifth century onward to the fifteenth is very largely the history of the failure of this great idea of a divine world government to realize itself in practice’ [1:605].
That strikes me as fair enough, actually. The advantage with a front-and-centre acknowledged bias is that it's easier to discount it, if we want to. And although the vogue today is to dismiss some of the pre-historical assumptions baked into the first quarter of Wells's Outline, the current revisionary logic seems to me precisely as speculative as Wells's own attitudes. Take the status of the Neanderthals. Nowadays the vogue is to see Neanderthals as possessing much of the same sophistication of culture (burial of the dead, tools, flutes) as homo sapiens, and even, as per Golding's Inheritors, to style them as gentle and natural compared to our violent craftiness. For a while it was argued that homo neanderthalis and homo sapiens interbred, and that a good proportion of ‘our’ DNA was Neanderthal. Now, it seems, the scientific consensus runs the other way; we probably didn't interbreed, and speculations as to Neanderthal gentleness etc are exactly as hypothetical as speculations about their brutishness. Wells's position, though it probably strikes a twenty-first century as retrogressive, is as viable as speculation as any other, and has the virtue of imaginative vividness that is the savour of plausibility:
The appearance of these truly human postglacial Palæolithic peoples [ie homo sapiens] was certainly an enormous leap forward in the history of mankind ... They dispossessed homo neanderthalensis from his caverns and his stone quarries. And they agreed with modern ethnologists, it would seem, in regarding him as a different species. Unlike most savage conquerors, who take the women of the defeated side for their own and interbreed with them, it would seem that the true men would have nothing to do with the Neanderthal race, women or men. There is no trace of any intermixture between the races, in spite of the fact that the newcomers, being also flint users, were establishing themselves in the very same spots that their predecessors had occupied. We know nothing of the appearance of the Neanderthal man, but this absence of intermixture seems to suggest an extreme hairiness, an ugliness, or a repulsive strangeness in his appearance over and above his low forehead, his beetle brows, his ape neck, and his inferior stature. Or he—and she—may have been too fierce to tame. Says Sir Harry Johnston, in a survey of the rise of modern man in his Views and Reviews: “The dim racial remembrance of such gorilla-like monsters, with cunning brains, shambling gait, hairy bodies, strong teeth, and possibly cannibalistic tendencies, may be the germ of the ogre in folklore” [Outline of History, 1:91]
I mean: who knows? But Wells's version makes for a better story.
Otherwise: Wells has an unerring sense of when to leaven the drier factual elaboration with an interesting personal anecdote about a historical figure, or an intriguing speculation. After a fairly detailed itinerary of the life and campaigns of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, his expansion of Spanish-speaking dominion to the New World and his opposition to the rise of Protestantism, Wells notes that the monarch eventually retired from rule to a monastery, adding:
Much has been written in a sentimental vein of this retirement, this renunciation of the world by this tired majestic Titan, world-weary, seeking in an austere solitude his peace with God. But his retreat was neither solitary nor austere; he had with him nearly a hundred and fifty attendants; his establishment had all the indulgences without the fatigues of a court, and Philip II was a dutiful son to whom his father’s advice was a command. As for his austerities, let Prescott witness: “In the almost daily correspondence between Quixada, or Gaztelu, and the Secretary of State at Valladolid, there is scarcely a letter that does not turn more or less on the Emperor’s eating or his illness. The one seems naturally to follow, like a running commentary, on the other. It is rare that such topics have formed the burden of communications with the department of state. It must have been no easy matter for the secretary to preserve his gravity in the perusal of despatches in which politics and gastronomy were so strangely mixed together. The courier from Valladolid to Lisbon was ordered to make a detour, so as to take Jarandilla in his route, and bring supplies for the royal table. On Thursdays he was to bring fish to serve for the jour maigre that was to follow. The trout in the neighbourhood Charles thought too small; so others, of a larger size, were to be sent from Valladolid. Fish of every kind was to his taste, as, indeed, was anything that in its nature or habits at all approached to fish. Eels, frogs, oysters, occupied an important place in the royal bill of fare. Potted fish, especially anchovies, found great favour with him; and he regretted that he had not brought a better supply of these from the Low Countries. On an eel-pasty he particularly doted.” [Outline of History, 2:207-08]That eel-pasty is a wonderful touch, and mentioning it is the kind of thing from which other narrative historians could learn a good deal. Another strategy is the disavowal of detail that slyly manages to cram a great deal of tasty detail in, as (for example):
In an outline such as this it is impossible to crowd in the clustering events of history that do not clearly show the main process of human development, however bright and picturesque they may be. We have to record the steady growth of towns and cities, the reviving power of trade and money, the gradual re-establishment of law and custom, the extension of security, the supersession of private warfare that went on in Western Europe in the period between the First Crusade and the sixteenth century. Of much that looms large in our national histories we cannot tell anything. We have no space for the story of the repeated attempts of the English kings to conquer Scotland and set themselves up as kings of France, nor of how the Norman English established themselves insecurely in Ireland (twelfth century), and how Wales was linked to the English crown (1282). All through the Middle Ages the struggle of England with Scotland and France was in progress; there were times when it seemed that Scotland was finally subjugated and when the English king held far more land in France than its titular sovereign. In the English histories this struggle with France is too often represented as a single-handed and almost successful attempt to conquer France. In reality it was a joint enterprise undertaken in concert with the powerful French vassal state of Burgundy to conquer and divide the patrimony of Hugh Capet. Of the English rout by the Scotch at Bannockburn (1314), and of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, the Scottish national heroes, of the battles of Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415) in France, which shine like stars in the English imagination, little battles in which sturdy bowmen through some sunny hours made a great havoc among French knights in armour, of the Black Prince and Henry V of England, and of how a peasant girl, Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, drove the English out of her country again (1429-1430), this history relates nothing. For every country has such cherished national events. They are the ornamental tapestry of history, and no part of the building. [Outline of History, 2:178-79]There are also what it's tempting to think of as personal touches. Of Philip of Macedon we're told that ‘like many energetic and imaginative men, he was prone to impatient love impulses’ [1:373], which sounds like something we can declare with more certainty of Herbert of Wells than Philip of Macedon. Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens are not mentioned, but Plato, Thomas More and Campanella are given respectful mentions, for obvious reasons.
Mostly Wells avoids goodies-and-baddies history, but when he slips into that idiom it's generally because the individual involved falls short of Wells's personal and utopian vision of a unified world state. So it is that he attacks Machiavelli (‘this morally blind man was living in a little world of morally blind men’) because he ‘manifestly had no belief in any ... Utopian visions of world-wide human order, or attempts to realize the City of God’ [2:197]. There's a long account of Napoleon's career, but Wells ends up apologising for its length: ‘Napoleon I bulks disproportionately,’ he concedes, but adds: ‘he was of little significance to the broad onward movement of human affairs; he was an interruption, a reminder of latent evils, a thing like the bacterium of some pestilence’ [2:384]. Ow! The Outline ends with Wells, in 1920, tabulating what he hopes, and to some extent trusts, will be the characteristics of the coming World State:
(i) It will be based upon a common world religion, very much simplified and universalized and better understood. This will not be Christianity nor Islam nor Buddhism nor any such specialized form of religion, but religion itself pure and undefiled; the Eightfold Way, the Kingdom of Heaven, brotherhood, creative service, and self-forgetfulness. Throughout the world men’s thoughts and motives will be turned by education, example, and the circle of ideas about them, from the obsession of self to the cheerful service of human knowledge, human power, and human unity.We can score that: no; no; as if!; pretty much; yes (the internet, Google, Wikipedia et al); to a greater extent than a century ago; no; and absolutely not. Three out of eight, give or take. Not enough of a strike rate to bring Wells's future utopia into being, evidently.
(ii) And this world state will be sustained by a universal education, organized upon a scale and of a penetration and quality beyond all present experience. The whole race, and not simply classes and peoples, will be educated. Most parents will have a technical knowledge of teaching. Quite apart from the duties of parentage, perhaps ten per cent. or more of the adult population will, at some time or other in their lives, be workers in the world’s educational organization. And education, as the new age will conceive it, will go on throughout life; it will not cease at any particular age. Men and women will simply become self-educators and individual students and student teachers as they grow older.
(iii) There will be no armies, no navies, and no classes of unemployed people, wealthy or poor.
(iv) The world-state’s organization of scientific research and record compared with that of to-day will be like an ocean liner beside the dug-out canoe of some early heliolithic wanderer.
(v) There will be a vast free literature of criticism and discussion.
(vi) The world’s political organization will be democratic, that is to say, the government and direction of affairs will be in immediate touch with and responsive to the general thought of the educated whole population.
(vii) Its economic organization will be an exploitation of all natural wealth and every fresh possibility science reveals, by the agents and servants of the common government for the common good. Private enterprise will be the servant—a useful, valued, and well-rewarded servant—and no longer the robber master of the commonweal.
(viii) And this implies two achievements that seem very difficult to us to-day. They are matters of mechanism, but they are as essential to the world’s well-being as it is to a soldier’s, no matter how brave he may be, that his machine gun should not jam, and to an aeronaut’s that his steering-gear should not fail him in mid-air. Political well-being demands that electoral methods shall be used, and economic well-being requires that a currency shall be used, safeguarded or proof against the contrivances and manipulations of clever, dishonest men. [Outline of History, 2:586-87]
3: A Brief Assessment of the Outline
There are various ways in which we might approach the task of writing a total history of the world. I mean: we might approach it biologically, and write a history of the human animal. Or we might approach it anthropologically, or with a focus on emerging structures of social class (like Marx). Or we could focus on the increasing complexity of our use of tools, or on race, or religion or a Hegelian Geist. Conceivably we could even write a strictly chronological world history—let's say, a 1000-page book in which each page covers 200 years, chapter 1 opens on the emergence of homo sapiens, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages cover the round of birth, growth, looking for food, loving or refusing to love, having children, growing old or failing to do so, and dying: extremely repetitively tracing the slow evolution of our species being until, finally, the whole of recorded human history is related in pp 985-1000 at the end. I'm actually quite drawn to the thought of writing such a book, I must say. Ah, but who would publish it?
Anyway, not to get distracted: my point is that Wells's Outline, though it presents itself as a synthetic history of everything, is in fact a political history of humankind. I don't mean that it is a history that limits itself in a narrow way to the political institutions of human beings; but I do mean that the whole, massive book threads a single thesis all the way through. As Wells himself put it in the Experiment in Autobiography (1934), the Outline is ‘an essay on the growth of association since the dawn of animal communities’ [Experiment, 614]; Association, the ways in which and codes by which human beings associate with other human beings, is as good a thumbnail definition of politics as any I can think of.
The whole thing ‘planned itself naturally enough,’ says Wells, ‘as a story of communications and increasing interdependence’. As history goes on, and tracing the general trend rather than attending to every single up-and-down data point, what we see is: better and better communication between wider dispersed populations of humans that in turn creates greater and greater collective identity. Such, at any rate, is Wells's thesis.
It's a perfectly defensible thesis. It may even be true, in the broader sense. But Wells was committed to it before he began assembling the specific data that make up the Outline, and it means that a degree of distortion, and even outright bias, was inevitable. There are various things to be said about this, actually, but for now I want to concentrate on only one: Wells's concept of nationhood, or rather, his refusal clearly to define what he means by nation. The Outline's major argument is that the motion of History As Such is from small tribes to bigger nations and from nations to a World State. That makes this lack of definition a significant hole in the fabric of the case Wells wants to make.
Wells nowhere makes clear whether he considers a nation primarily a familial, racial, linguistic, geographical, ideological unit, or a entity defined by historical contingency. Any of these cases could be argued, some with more credence than others, but Wells doesn't plump for any of them, preferring to bracket the term as a kind of freer-floating signifier. The first sentence of chapter 16 (‘The First Civilizations’) is: ‘when the Aryan way of speech and life was beginning to spread ... breaking up as it spread into a number of languages and nations, considerable communities of much more civilized men were already in existence in Egypt and in Mesopotamia’ [1:183], which leaves it wholly unclear whether we are to take ‘nation’ as equivalent to ‘a considerable community of civilized men’ (what might considerable mean in this context, though?), or as a primarily linguistic entity (‘languages and nations’), or as something else. Elsewhere Wells says ‘the tribe was a big family; the nation a group of tribal families’ [1:178] which suggests, without going into it, a familial or racial model of nationhood. Those are both prehistorical instances. By the time Wells gets into the full swing of his historical grand narrative ‘nationhood’ is being taken for granted, and always as something to be deplored as an obstacle to the kind of über-national agglomerations that will birth the World State. So: ‘China, under the last priest-emperors of the Chow Dynasty, was sinking into a state of great disorder. Each province clung to its separate nationality and traditions, and the Huns spread from province to province.’ [1:253]. Or again: ‘science knows no nationality’ [2:175]. Or:
In the sphere of race or nationality, for example, a “European” will often treat an “Asiatic” almost as if he were a different animal, while he will be disposed to regard another “European” as necessarily as virtuous and charming as himself. He will, as a matter of course, take sides with Europeans against Asiatics. But, as the reader of this history must realize, there is no such difference as the opposition of these names implies. It is a phantom difference created by two names. [Outline of History, 2:169]Identifying with one's nation is ‘selfish’ [2:257]; nationality ‘is really no more than the romantic and emotional exaggeration of the stresses produced by the discord of the natural political map with unsuitable political arrangements’ [2:433]. ‘Gladstone, in pursuit of his idea of nationality, brought political disaster upon himself’ [2:245]. If Outline of History tells a story, then the villain is nationhood.
So, as Captain Fluellen might ask: what, according to the Outline, ish a nation? Ish it a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal? Turns out: pretty much. But none of this helps us understand what a nation actually is, or come even close to explaining why people have proved so invested in the notion.
The problem, here, is not just the judgement of hindsight; although hindsight is not forgiving of Wells's optimism. The problem is that, by refusing to think-through what nationhood is Wells was not in a position to see how tenacious the nation-state was going to be. The notion, developed in the Outline, that the upsurge in 19th-century nationalism was a mere blip was never going to be a very plausible one, and subsequent history has falsified it pretty heartily.
Of course, the temptation to pronounce the end of ‘the nation state’ is one to which plenty of historians have succumbed, and although Wells's 1920 cut-off looks foolish in retrospect, there have been other takers. Michael Howard thought, in 1978, that 1890-1970 was ‘the apotheosis of the nation state’ and that the future would be decreasingly nationalist [Howard, War and the Nation State (Oxford 1978)] The ‘end of history’ hot takes that swarmed around the end of the last century were not just ‘Capitalism has won, there's no other game in town’ arguments, they were also globalisation arguments: no-two-countries-that-both-have-a-McDonalds-have-ever-gone-to-war arguments. Arguments that global trade and neoliberalism, eventuating in ever-larger free-trade areas (the EU, NAFTA and the like) would create a Capitalist mirror-image reality of Wells's socialist prediction. Such pseudo-prophetic blathering proved just as premature as Wells's, a century earlier. What with the fragmentation of the USSR in myriad nation-states, resurgent Islamic-inflected nationhood in the middle and near east, Brexit, Trump—nationhood is suddenly back in the driving seat, alas. Perhaps these ideas will never go away. Historians continue to insist on the transitoriness of nations, despite being so often proved wrong. A couple of years ago David Cannadine quoted Benedict Anderson approvingly, that ‘nations should not be seen as eternal and precisely defined units of territorial sovereignty and collective solidarity’ but should rather be regarded as ‘transient, provisional, ephemeral’ [Cannadine, 87]. Cannadine's own book-length study looks past nationhood to a future human collectivity:
We need to see beyond our differences, our sectional interests, our identity politics, and our parochial concerns to embrace and to celebrate he common humanity that has always bound us together, that still binds us together today, and that will continue to bind us together in the future. [David Cannadine, The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences (Penguin 2103), 264]It shows that Wells's vision is still alive. I don't mean to come over as an apologist for nationalism, which has (of course) been the nursery of uncounted evils in human affairs. But I do mean to suggest that Wells under-thinks the concept, and is blind to the ways it mediates a whole nest of crucial human identities, passions and interests. He does so because he wants to brush it under the carpet of Deep Time. But I tell you what: once I start deploying rug metaphors to describe very long periods of time it's time to draw a discrete veil over the discussion, I think.
This post has already gone on far too long, I know; but I want to conclude with a brief notice of the (I'm going to crack open the scare-quotes I'm afraid) ‘scandal’ that Wells's Outline occasioned. Here's Wells's own account of it:
Here too I must mention, though I need not enter at length into the particulars of it, the Deeks Case which came to an end, after five years of legal proceedings, in 1933. Miss Deeks was a Canadian spinster who conceived the strange idea that she held the copyright in human history. She was permitted and encouraged to sue me, as the author of the Outline of History, for infringement of copyright and to produce a manuscript, which she alleged had existed in the form in which she produced it before the publication of my Outline, in support of her claim for £100,000 and the suppression of my book. No evidence of the prior existence of her manuscript, as produced, was ever exacted from her, and she was allowed to carry this silly case from court to court—each court dismissing it contemptuously with costs against her—up to the Privy Council. When finally that court disposed of her conclusively, with costs, she declared her inability to pay a penny of the £5,000-worth of fees and charges that these tedious and vexatious proceedings had entailed upon me. And there the matter ended. Life is too short and there is too much to do in it for me to spend time and attention in hunting out whatever poor little assets Miss Deeks may have preserved from her own lawyers and expert advisers. She has to go on living somehow and her mischief is done. I hope she is comfortable and that she is still persuaded she is a sort of intellectual heroine. I saw her once in court, when I had to give sworn evidence in my own defence, and I found her rather a sympathetic figure. She impressed me as quite honest but vain and foolish, with an imagination too inflamed with the idea of being a great litigant for her to realize what an unrighteous nuisance she was making of herself; there was something faintly pathetic, something reminiscent of Dickens' Miss Flyte, in the way in which she fussed about with her lawyers, with much whispering and rustling of papers, giving her profound and subtle instructions for the undoing of our dire conspiracy; and it is not against her, but against those who encouraged and egged her on, that I am disposed to be resentful. [Wells, Experiment in Autobiography, 619-20]Now either this account isn't quite accurate, or alse it's a massive lie from start to finish. I incline to the view that it isn't quite accurate. So: Wells implies that Deeks's manuscript was concocted purely for the lawsuit. But the MS was quite real, and predated the publication of Wells's history. Deeks had decided in 1914 to write a history of the world that foregrounded the contribution of women, to be called The Web of the World's Romance. In August 1918 she submitted the complete MS to the Macmillan Company in Canada. They rejected it, returning it to her in April 1919, in a state later described in court ‘well-thumbed and dog-eared’.
Deeks, reading Wells's Outline, became convinced Wells had plagiarised her MS. In 1928 she sued both Wells and his publisher for CDN$500,000 in the Supreme Court of Ontario, claiming that Macmillan had secretly shipped her manuscript to Wells in England, where he had plagiarised it comprehensively in the writing of his Outline before, equally secretly, returning it. Despite the fact that Deeks's book was much shorter, and the differences of focus between the two texts (Wells was hardly writing a ‘history via great women’ after all) Deeks was able to recruit expert witnesses who testified to various similarities in content and phrasing and, more damningly, point to places where Wells made the same mistakes as Deek had done, a sort-of inadvertent Paper Towns defence.
The trial judge, though, dismissed the suit, calling Deek's argument ‘a fantastic hypothesis’, ‘solemn nonsense’ and ‘comparisons without significance.’ She appealed the judgement to the Appellate Division of the Ontario Supreme Court, and when those judges unanimously rejected her she went to what was then the supreme court for (still colonial) Canada: the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. Here she represented herself, since she could no longer afford a lawyer; hence the little pen-sketch of her by Wells quoted above in which he mocks her as Miss Flyte.
This hearing lasted a month. Finally, on the 3rd November 1932, the Judicial Committee dismissed Deek's appeal. The court declared that evidence presented on the basis of literary criticism was not admissible in a court of law, and, absent such testimony, there was no other evidence to support Deeks's claims—it had been sworn on oath at the trial that the MS remained in Toronto the whole time, in the safekeeping of Macmillan, and that Wells had never even been aware it existed. The court decided that ‘similarities were due to the fact that the books had similar nature and both writers had access to the same sources’. That was the end of Deeks's suit.
A recent book by Brian Mckillop, The Spinster and the Prophet: Florence Deeks, H.G. Wells, and the Mystery of the Purloined Past (Random House 2011) argues the case that Deeks was right: that Wells did indeed plagiarise her manuscript but that the structural sexism and misogyny of the 1920s legal system unjustly favoured the famous man over the obscure woman. It makes, to revert to what I said about the Neanderthals above, for a more compelling story that way, certainly; and McKillop's book is a good read. But the case he makes strikes me as very unlikely. It's not that I think Wells incapable of plagiary. Indeed he was perfectly frank that his composition of the Outline was a matter of synthesising the writing of other people. But the practical improbabilities of this particular case tell against it: why would Macmillan send the MS of an entirely unknown woman all the way across the Atlantic to one of their most successful, and busy, authors? To get a reader's report? Such a hypothesis is not compatible with Wells's status, or consistent with their previous or subsequent practice. To offer it to him specifically for plagiary? That seems an improbably presumptuous thing to do, and likely to backfire.
Besides which, even assuming Deeks's MS did end up in Wells study, and that he filleted it for useful things: in those cases where Wells drew on other people's writings, published or unpublished, he was financially very generous. West notes how people were amazed to find themselves paid £100, or more, because Wells was using (and properly citing) their work. It is more likely, and would be more in keeping with Wells's personality, for him to pay Deeks up front, and quite unlike him to reuse her material, secretly return the MS to Canada, and then, alone of all the sources he had drawn on for the project, pretend that he'd never seen it. I mean, why? I've only read those portions of Deeks's MS quoted in McKillops's book—The Web of the World's Romance itself has never been published—but it doesn't seem to me very good.
[Here's a link to the (quite lengthy) blogpost I wrote reviewing and discussing McKillops's book.]