'Invisible Man' reveals Wells' warts

August 05, 1993|By Ron Grossman | Ron Grossman,Chicago Tribune

According to his latest biographer, H. G. Wells ought to have been a prophet without honor in his own land -- or any other.

Michael Coren has little good to say of Wells, who dominated British letters in the early decades of this century with novelistic visions of a brave new tomorrow. The title of this book, "The Invisible Man" (borrowed from one of Wells' novels), is meant to suggest that Mr. Coren has gotten the goods on a subject who hitherto managed to hide his sins.

In fact, no one else left such a paper trail of his faults as did Wells, who died in 1946 just short of his 80th birthday. He constructed plots for his novels out of the shambles of his personal life. In his autobiography, Wells confessed to a kind of anti-Semitism that others had learned to disguise for the sake of intellectual respectability.

"I have always refused to be enlightened and sympathetic about the Jewish question," Wells wrote.

Yet warts and all, Wells enjoyed a hold over his readers as few authors ever have. In 1919 he wrote an "Outline of History," a thick review of human experience since the days of the cave man. It sold 2 million copies and fascinated alike shop clerks and statesmen, such as Kemal Ataturk, who was busy building a new Turkey.

"The Turkish leader was so delighted with the 'Outline,' " Mr. Coren reports, "that he attempted to read it in one sitting, keeping himself awake over a 40-hour stretch with copious amounts of black coffee and regular hot baths."

In a novel of 1914, "The World Set Free," Wells forecast an atomic bomb, a weapon physicists hadn't yet dreamt of. Wells' description of nuclear warfare was so frightening that in 1933, when Leo Szilard discovered chain reaction, he decided the formula was too dangerous to share with the scientific community, lest it fall into the wrong hands.

"Knowing what this would mean," said Szilard, who afterward worked on the Manhattan Project, "and I knew it because I had read H. G. Wells, I did not want this patent to become public."

Herbert George Wells was perennially fascinated by the future because he had such a miserable past. In the 1880s, when he started writing, authors came from the leisure class that inhabited England's stately country homes. Wells' parents were house servants. As a child he was apprenticed as a draper.

By sheer force of will, Wells steered himself toward a life of the mind, winning a scholarship to London's Normal School of Science. There he encountered T. H. Huxley, who had been a friend of Charles Darwin's. From Huxley, Wells imbibed a philosophy that human affairs, like the biological world, are governed by an evolutionary process.

Wells became a convert to science, preaching in his novels that mankind had the power to shape its destiny. But he was hardly a naive believer in the inevitability of progress. His books forecast a horrible future for a human race that hadn't kept its wits about it.

Hoping to head that off, Wells was a socialist for a while. He moved on to proselytizing a form of social engineering in which an enlightened elite would save its fellow men. Mr. Coren correctly observes how unattractive this philosophy now seems in the wake of Stalin's and Hitler's experiments.

Yet curiously, the more Mr. Coren tries to indict his subject, the more fascinating H. G. Wells becomes for readers.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Invisible Man"

Author: Michael Coren

Publisher: Atheneum

Length, price: 240 pages, $22.50

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