Sarah Cole on H.G. Wells

Sarah Cole transforms our view of H. G. Wells, not only seeing him as a pivotal figure in his own world but also, with subtlety and conviction, connecting him with his modernist contemporaries.” 

~ Colm Tóibín, author of Brooklyn: A Novel

Sarah Cole author of, Inventing Tomorrow: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century, recently published an essay in Airmail. Below, Senior Editor Philip Leventhal discusses her piece.

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As Sarah Cole points out in her recent essay in Airmail, H. G. Wells’s work has pretty much disappeared from academia. However, his relative obscurity among modernist and literary studies scholars stands in stark contrast with the recognition he received during his own lifetime when he was a best-selling author and sought out (and read) by world leaders, including none other than, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin.

In her Airmail essay, “Wells of the World,” Cole reveals how she was inspired to read Wells’s work again and how it changed her view of twentieth-century literature. Needless to say, reading Wells is not without its challenges as he wrote on many subjects ranging from war and politics to science and gender politics. Moreover, in addition to science-fiction for which he is most famous, Wells wrote in a variety of genres. Cole writes:

“Wells … seemed to attack the world all at once. His goals for literature were soaring, world-scaled. He believed that writing could and should change the course of history, to set humankind on a path toward unity, peace, and planetary prosperity. There was no experiment he was unwilling to make in the interest of the future, whether this meant writing huge books in the popular disciplines (history, science, economics), realist novels alongside comic ones, films, manifestos, a declaration of human rights, books of forecast, and, of course, the science fiction for which today he is most famous. More, all of these were avidly consumed by readers around the world. Reading Wells is an experience of going back to the first half of the 20th century and seeing it afresh.”

Cole not only cites the importance and breadth of Wells’s work but also the enjoyment his writing produces:

But, above all, the surprise of reading Wells is that his books are so brilliant, such fun to discover. Take The World of William Clissold (1926), just as one example: who had heard of this book? But it is fabulous, a meditation on life, war, and the future, nearly 1,000 pages, an updating of Montaigne, and Wells’s version of the great interwar modernist novel. Or The Croquet Player (1936), an explosive little tale that takes Wells back to his science-fiction roots but with the political urgency of the 1930s. Or The Outline of History (1920), Wells’s monumental attempt to end war by creating a common past for all mankind, one of the most fascinating and widely read history books of the 20th century. I could go on and on with these prompts. This is the true surprise in reading Wells today: that there is, in his tremendous oeuvre, an infinite trove of new books, new ideas, new experiments. Who knew?

For more, you can read Sarah Cole’s full essay on Airmail.

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