New Pictorial Edition of Wells' Outline

AS we look back now we can see that there was a sudden widening and intensification of consciousness throughout all levels of Western society after the World War. The nineteenth century had been one of expansive hopes, and by the light of triumphant science men had come to vision progress as a steadily ascending curve toward some far-off but inevitable consummation of humane desires. The joker that seems to lurk in all human schemes was commonly overlooked; and at a time when a general war between the great civilized nations had come to be regarded by the average man of the crowd as possible only in the fantastic dreams of the crank, the catastrophe came upon us without warning. For awhile we were able to explain it convincingly to ourselves as due to the perfidious designs of a single execrable individual. But long before Armistice day the suspicion that the causes of our woe lay deeper than the greed of any person or class had gotten abroad. In the mood of disillusionment that followed a doubtful peace, men began to question everything that had once seemed good; for there grew up a general conviction that the world tragedy was the logical result of a social scheme in which we had been living. The questioner was the proletarian spirit become intensely self-conscious.

BY their participation in the war, vast numbers, for the first time, had become vividly aware of the wider world, and no longer thought in terms of isolated localities. The mental horizon of the millions had suddenly spread, and a hunger for a practical understanding of the world-muddle was everywhere. Wells’ Outline of History, originally written in 1918-19, was an answer to the question insistent among the multitude: “How did we get where we are, what does it all mean and where do we go from here.” The answer — no less than a narrative of the development of life in our cosmos from nebulous matter to the first meeting of the League of Nations — was a characteristically proletarian answer in keeping with the new spirit that was abroad and growing. The success of the work has been enormous but not more than its significance. In essence it is propaganda — a devastating attack upon the whole structure of bourgeois society, bourgeois values and ideals; and the power that it has exerted and shall yet exert upon the minds of men is incalculable.

WITH H. G. Wells began the twentieth century restatement of all human knowledge in keeping with the new social atmosphere that is now revealed everywhere in our characteristic literature of the day. The body of “Outlines” that have appeared in the last eight years bears the same relation to our present proletarian revolt that the voluminous work of the French Encyclopedists of the eighteenth century bore to the bourgeois revolt against the ancient regime. The “Outline of History” is necessarily a biased representation of the human story in keeping with all the exaggeratedly materialistic persuasions now in vogue. To read it is the duty of everyone who sincerely cares to understand the sort of world we live in now. To swallow it all is to lose sight of the fact, pointed out and emphasized by Wells himself, that other Outlines of History shall yet be written in keeping with radically different world views.

ASTONISHING as were the three earlier versions of this work, the latest one is more so. It seemed scarcely possible that the river-like flow of narrative in the earlier editions could be improved; but that has been done. All footnotes have been eliminated, and the author, evidently grown bolder with the overwhelming popular success of his scheme, has cut loose from his learned advisers whose objections and arguments, as to matter of opinion, were conspicuous in the earlier versions. Errors of fact have been corrected, until even Wells’ bitterest critics concede accuracy in that respect. Much new material has been added, especially on Literature, Art and Music; and the numerous illustrations themselves are like a whole new text, so that even the illiterate may read.

THE new material regarding the literature of various nations and ages is of a nature to reveal in no doubtful way the underlying purpose of the work. The culture of past ages, as represented in certain great works of literature that for so many centuries were considered essential in the education of the master classes, sings very small in this new proletarian chorus. Homer, for instance, is presented, not without a touch of jocularity, as vastly overrated by the highbrows; and Mr. Wells, who apparently has little or no acquaintance with Greek, frankly states that he believes the classical scholars have been “spiffing” both themselves and us. The celebrated music of the Greek language itself sounds to him “like the noises caused by indifferent plumbing in a defective hot-water system.” (Laughter and applause from the many!) Virgil, whose practical influence upon the world was greater and of longer duration than that of any other poet who has ever lived, is set aside with a light remark and the “Aeneid” is mentioned in passing as one of the many “splendid insincerities of the Augustan age.”

CURIOUSLY enough, when we come to Shakspeare, Wells’ opinion suddenly lapses into a suspicious conventionalism; and for a paragraph or two he seems to have written wholly by ear. Shakspeare, we are assured, “turned every sentence into melody” — and of course he didn’t. The Bard of Avon is commended to the reader as being “a man happily with little Latin and less Greek” (like you and me!), and his “richest, subtlest passages are drawn from homely and even vulgar life.” But they aren’t, as anyone who reads may note. Who are Shakspeare’s heroes and heroines; who are his clowns? Why insist upon reading the rabble spirit into a text where it does not appear?

WELLS’ Outlines of History is as a vast mirror in which the emerging and as yet uncultivated millions may view themselves with enthusiastim. By and by this emergent class will develop a characteristic culture and become conservative in defense of it, as all other dominant classes have done. Then some new Outlines will be compelled to reshape the story of mankind to flatter the going whim.