Telling “the widest story”: A Review of Inventing Tomorrow
Diana Rose Newby
British modernism, as with other movements of its kind, defined itself as much by what it wasn’t as by what it was. Take Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay-cum-manifesto “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” (1924), which heralded a new class of writing attentive to the real “depths” of character over and against the flatness of Edwardian fiction, with its casts of “soulless bodies … cumbering our tables and clogging our minds.” Among the writers she charged with the crime of vitiating literature’s “character-making power” was H. G. Wells. For Woolf and her peers, Wells’s work was superficial, trivial, journalistic, embarrassingly on-the-nose. Too didactic, too prolific, and far too popular to be taken seriously, Wells seemed to embody the antithesis of modernist tradition and technique, his very name a metonym for the aesthetic maladies that Woolf diagnosed and presumed to cure.
The long-perceived disjuncture between modernism and Wells is precisely one of the axioms of literary history that Sarah Cole, in her magisterial new book, interrogates and dispels. Inventing Tomorrow: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century (Columbia UP, 2019) is in many ways a retelling of the story that literary critics have repeatedly told about Wells and his relationship with modernism full stop—and, more particularly, with individual writers like Woolf, Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. Cole suggests that the “academy has rather blindly followed modernism’s lead in underrating Wells, dismissing him on grounds of his very success” as well as “his willingness to experiment with forms traditionally viewed as nonserious.” Inventing Tomorrow presents itself as remedy for these persistent misreadings, pursuing both an improved understanding of Wells’s place in relation to modernism and a “more capacious” vision of modernism itself: one that eschews “Woolf’s club making” in favor of Wells’s “open invitation” to his massive readership, making room in critical definitions of modernism “for alternative strategies and beliefs.”
At a glance, this premise might look like an effort to recast Wells not as modernism’s outcast but in fact its unsung hero. Yet Cole takes a more complicated and hence a more convincing tack, positioning Wells and modernism in a dialectic characterized not only by confluence and reciprocity but also, and equally, by friction and difference. On the treatment of character interiority, for example, Cole maintains that Wells and modernism shared the belief that “what defines any living being” is largely “found inside, invisible,” likening Wells’s fascination with “the interior body in its fully organic, biological aspect” to James Joyce’s rapturous dissections, throughout Ulysses, of organs, sex, and shit. But if for modernists like Joyce the function of these literary anatomies was to derive some fundamental truth about individual life, for Wells the individual holds interest only in the context of what Cole calls “the long evolutionary scheme.” Wellsian character, she suggests, is best understood as a staging ground for explorations of large-scale biological and historical dynamics: “vast processes” which “are not so much irrespective of individual life as arrows shooting through it.” On the whole, this a deeply persuasive reading, and one that does a critical service to Wells’s representational praxes, recuperating his so-called “soulless bodies” as vehicles for bios in its most expansive sense.
The vastness of Wells’s epistemological scales finds close companions in both the content and the form of Inventing Tomorrow. The book’s considerable length (320 pages before the bibliography) makes manifest the Wellsian scope of Cole’s interpretive reach, which starts at the comparatively small scale of the sentence, with a chapter-length study of Wells’s writerly “Voice,” and swells outward—from an installment titled “Civilian” and a two-part chapter on “Time” to a chapter on “Biology” and the book’s conclusion, “The World.” Much like the author at its center, Inventing Tomorrow aims to tell “the widest story,” reading Wells “at large” in order to constellate a prodigious spread of social, political and historical forces around his sizable body of work.
Importantly, Cole’s analytic arrangements are rarely permanent; once convinced, for instance, that Wells is a theorist of unifying temporal and biological totalities—a familiar take on Wells—we are then urged to appreciate his grasp on the minute, the multiple, and the irreconcilable. Indeed, Wells is attributed a conspicuous number of miscellaneous and often contrasting “hallmarks”: a “penchant for literalization” and a fondness for “specialized language”; a narratorial “combination of drama and didacticism”; bright-eyed optimism and crushing pessimism alike. To adopt a visual metaphor (yet another Wellsian “signature”), the cumulative impression becomes kaleidoscopic, with every turn reconfiguring our composite image of Wells like so many pieces of colored glass. For the reader, the result can be dizzying: one sometimes finds it difficult to pin this portrait down. Such indeterminacy, however, is the crux of Cole’s representation of Wells. Rallying against a critical tendency to flatten the nuances of his craggy, controversial oeuvre, Cole productively explores the gaps, conflicts and inconsistencies that make Wells a figure of enduring and well-deserved notoriety.
Among these contradictions, one of the subtler and more provocative emerges from Cole’s attention, across Wells’s corpus, to the recurring motif of “shared vulnerability.” In the book’s second chapter, Cole demonstrates how the affective and material precarities associated with the civilian noncombatant—a figure, she claims, that Wells single-handedly cemented in the cultural imaginary—come to stand in for the shared vulnerability that defines modern life. But it is not simply through the helpless observer of war that precarious affect expresses itself; as Cole goes on to show, the “question of people versus forces” is recrudescent throughout Wells’s work, and a sense of ontological insecurity also attends his “clashing temporalities,” extinction plots, and neo-Malthusian musings on waste. What makes this pattern especially fascinating is the way Cole frames it as conversant with contemporary feminist theories of shared vulnerability. In Wells’s repeated emphases on collective precarity, Cole finds antecedents for Judith Butler’s formulation of political “injurability” and Marianne Hirsch’s call for “an acknowledgment of vulnerability” as a way to “open a space for interconnection as well as a platform for responsiveness and for resistance” to common political threats.
An unexpected yet cogent intervention into scholarship on Wells, this feminist reading also stands at odds with certain anti-feminist strains in Wells’s writing (strains, it’s worth noting, that Cole herself confronts readily and, for the most part, successfully). More to the point, any attempt to appreciate shared vulnerability as an ethical refrain for Wells must inevitably contend with the discordant fact of his biopolitical investments: Wells, as is well known, was an advocate of eugenics as a tool in the hypothetical, utopian project of species betterment. Such a project would have required the elimination of individuals whose mental or physical traits were seen as detriments to Wells’s progressivist narrative of human life—people, in short, who were among the most politically and materially vulnerable. In this light, Wells’s efforts to imagine collective precarity take on chiaroscuro hues, and his subordination of character to “the long evolutionary scheme” becomes charged with ethical quandaries. Can we reconcile the affordances and the hazards of Wells’s totalizing thought? Moreover, and more importantly, would we even want to try?
Cole’s answer to these questions, of course, is an explicit and emphatic no. Laying out the very worst of Wells alongside his incongruous best—his pacifism, socialism, antinationalism, and support for women’s rights—Cole prompts us to read the full spectrum of Wells’s views as a kind of litmus test for “the nature of progressivism” in the twentieth century’s first half, when even liberal figures like Woolf were by no means innocent of exclusionist thinking of their own. At the same time, we can extend Cole’s appraisal beyond the temporal boundaries of modernism to our own contemporary moment: one marked at once by a keen awareness of shared vulnerability as an affective and a political reality, and by a collective complicity in the political and economic structures that produce what Butler has called “precarious life.”
In this sense, Inventing Tomorrow does a great deal more than tell a new story about modernism and Wells, and so in true Wellsian fashion will appeal to an audience much broader than modernist critics alone. A meditation on what it means to think, feel, and write at scales that exceed the single human self, Cole’s book finds common ground with a variety of current interdisciplinary trends. And these resonances aren’t incidental: just as Cole ambitiously tackles the copious whole of Wells’s career, she also directly engages with a wide-ranging chorus of interlocutors, placing Wells in dialogue with everything from critical feminism, affect theory and cosmopolitanism to Big History, posthumanism and the environmental humanities. Although “the view of Wells as inviting” is one that not all of Cole’s readers may ultimately share, the word nonetheless holds as an apt descriptor for Cole’s inclusive, capacious, infectiously energetic work itself, and Inventing Tomorrow is an invitation well worth taking up.
Diana Rose Newby is a PhD candidate in English & Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where her research and teaching interests include Victorian literature, affect theory, the history of science, and gender and sexuality. She has also taught literature and writing classes at Mills College and Barnard College, and her work has been featured in Texas Studies in Literature and Language and Synapsis: A Health Humanities Journal.