1 NOVEMBER 1930, Page 24

Among the Prophets

H. G. Wells. By Geoffrey West. (Gerald Howe. 10s. 6d.)

Two contrasted scenes : (1) In 1896 I was publishing with Messrs. Dent a series of stories upon life in the mines and iron- works of south Staffordshire. While I was consulting with Mr. J. M. Dent, the founder of the firm, he was called away, and in leaving said to me : " I wish you would just look at this manuscript I have had sent me for approval by an unknown writer, and tell me what you think of it." I read for about ten minutes and found the story was about the shooting of an angel in a rectory garden. When Mr. Dent returned I said : " You must publish this whatever happens." It was The Wonderful Visit.

(2) In November, 1921, I was standing at the back of the great amphitheatre facing the classic marble stage in the military cemetery at Arlington overlooking Washington. Enormous crowds had assembled to.witness the State ceremony of interring the poor and dubious bones of America's " Un• known Warrior." There was President Harding and ex- President Wilson (poor man !) and a large group of Ambassa- dors, Generals, and high officials, making broadcast speeches in honour of the " Unknown." But standing next to me, heavily muffled up, was a stoutish, shortish figure, incon- spicuous and unnoticed, and I thought to myself : " Here is the greatest intellect and the most celebrated personality of all the lot." It was H. G. Wells.

What was it that, within twenty-five years, had so changed the position and reputation of the " unknown writer ? First of all I should put the man's amazing energy. Knowing nothing of mechanics, I am not sure how an " internal-com- bustion engine " works, but I am told it is a very powerful machine, and whenever I see H. G. Wells I am reminded of an internal-combustion engine. Or I have sometimes com- pared him with another powerful implement as one possessing the devastating and fertilizing force of a steam plough, grinding and cleaving its way through stones and roots and wild flowers, remorselessly turning up the fallow, destroying the slow and sometimes beautiful growth of ages, and indus- triously fertilizing the ground for a future fertility that in time may possibly reveal some element of beauty too. Read the overwhelming list of his works—the volumes of imaginative science, of creative imagination, of educational suggestion, of religious and philosophic speculation, of historic and biological collaboration. Think of the mental energy which at the age of fifty-four, without special knowledge, set about co-ordinating the history of the whole earth, and made a splehdid success of it !

The author of the present excellent biography (whose real name of Wells was changed to " West " because he has no relationship with his subject) tells us how all this incalculable labour was accomplished in the face of lower-middle class birth, indifferent education, depressing work as shop assistant and teacher, bitter controversy, bitter scandal, the opposition of intimate enemies, and all the distracting temptations of wealth so hardly won.

Part of all this energy, the cause or result of it, was enviable courage. Mr. Wells is a born assailant, and he has followed the first maxim of war that to attack is better than to defend. Let me quote a judgment of Henry James, de- livered in his characteristic style :- " I am lost in amazement at the diversity of your genius. As in everything you do, it is the quality of your intellect that primarily (in the Utopia) obsesses and reduces me—to that degree that even the colossal dimensions- of your Cheek (pardon the term that I dont in the least invidiously apply) fails to break the spell. Indeed your Cheek is positively the very sign and stamp of your genius."

By Cheek Henry James meant much the same as I mean by courage, for there is a certain amount of impudence in any attack upon established and venerated tradition. But it wasthis Cheek or courage that enrolled Mr. Wells among the prophets. In all his works he has belonged to the unapostolic succession of British prophets. As a prophet he was happy in the opportunity of his birth. Carlyle, Dickens, Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, William Morris and the rest had all done noble service as last century's prophets, but we were a little tired of their eloquent denunciations of the present, and their eulogies of the romantic past. And here came the new prophet Wells, encouraging the present, denouncing the mouldering old past, welcoming every change, defying tradition, no matter how beautiful and venerated, exuberant with optimism, looking forward to marvellous evolutions of an earthly paradise yet to be revealed. Forward ! was his prophetic cry, and let the iridescent visions of romance, the mumbled formulae of historians, and the mediaeval fantasies of tradition vanish like ghosts !

Mr. Wells has not cared much in what form he uttered his prophecies. Through the method of veiled science, or the novel, or the essay, or history, it has been all much the same to him. Mr. West feels a loss when the definite prophecy intrudes upon the art of the imaginative novel so as to become discussion or even propaganda. Instances are obvious, and one often feels that Mr. Wells has taken the novel form because the novel's art is the art of the age, and people would not read his prophecies except in novel form. As to propaganda, many of the greatest novelists—Dickens, Tolstoy, Galsworthy —have practised it with hardly a veil. Mr. Wells has always called himself a journalist, anticipating the attack by admit- ting the charge, which is always a safe defence. And the duty of a journalist is always to be quick and to be plain. Many have complained of Mr.Wells's style as wanting in beauty of exquisite form in word and sentence. That is no great matter. It has always been the habit of prophets to speak in their haste, and when the fire kindled. Journalists, who have no time to keep chewing the cud till they taste the exactly proper word, must slam down what they have to say. And yet some journalists have been known to write quite fairly well.

I admit that the prophet has sometimes been strangely mistaken. Some of his criticisms of living people and living movements have been as wrong as bitter. His misjudgment of the origin, the progress, and the result of " the War to end war " (as apparently he was the first to call it) was almost incredible, and his estimate of President Harding as " the one saving figure " of the Naval Conference in 1921 would be quite incredible if not recorded. There, again, we come upon his cheering optimism, distinguishing him from other great prophets, as in all his most fantastic works we come upon his seriousness, distinguishing him from the ruck of ordinary novelists. In nearly all his work he has been searching for the something," the unity of purpose that may sum up the passing events of the universe, much as the Self sums up the passing moods and experiences of a human being. Perhaps he gives us most definite expression of the something sought in the end of Tono Rungay : "I see it always," he writes, " as austerity, as beauty. This thing we make clear is the heart of life. It is the one enduring thing." Yet austerity and beauty are not the first qualities that most people connect with his name. So thick with contradictions is a rich