Monday, June 03, 2024

A Short History of the World, by HG Wells

I've somehow got two editions of this little book, originally published as part of the Thinker's Library by CA Watts & Co in 1929. One is the slightly revised third impression of 1934, the other is a fifth edition from 1941 that the (mostly) surviving dust jacket says is "Revised and brought Up to Date ... with a new chapter reviewing the opening phases of the Second World War". The latter belonged to my maternal grandmother, who wrote her name in pencil on the first page.

Earlier this year, I described the effect of time travel in Wells's The Time Machine (1895):

"It’s as if the traveller is perched on a bicycle in front of a cinema screen, working a lever to speed up the film being shown until it passes in a blur."

There, the film starts in the (then) present day and whizzes far into the future. The effect is much the same in A Short History of the World but we start from an estimated 1.6 billion years ago and whizz forward to the present. The intention, Wells says in the Preface, is that it should be read "straightforwardly almost as a novel" (p. iii).

That means we rattle through events and ideas quickly, most chapters just a few pages long. Wells admits that he has little access to histories of China and elsewhere, so there's an acknowledged western bias. Even so, its odd that some 50 pages - about one-sixth of the whole book - are devoted to the history of Rome, not least given the author's claim that,

"the whole Roman Empire in four centuries produced nothing to set beside the bold and noble intellectual activities of the comparatively little city of Athens during its one century of greatness" (p. 134).

The point, of course, is that Wells is using history to illuminate the (then) present, and Rome provides the template for the British Empire and the clash of the great powers. 

"The Roman Empire was a growth; an unplanned novel growth; the Roman people found themselves engaged almost unawares in a vast administrative experiment ... In a sense the experiment failed. In a sense the experiment remains unfinished, and Europe and America to-day are still working out the riddles of world-wide statecraft first confronted by the Roman people." (p. 119)

In that mode, his chapter on Jesus as a historical rather than religious figure reads like a description of a Fabian social reformer. That's also true of his description of other prophets and thinkers, though he adds the caveat that a modern reader of their ideas may also find,

"much prejudice and much that will remind him of that evil stuff, the propaganda literature of the present time." (p. 82)

For all he covers a lot of ground concisely, Wells is careful not to draw too simple parallels or to make his history overly simplistic.

"It is well for the student of history to bear in mind the very great changes not only in political and moral matters that went on throughout this period of Roman domination. There is much too strong a tendency in people's minds to think of the Roman rule as something finished and stable, firm, rounded, noble and decisive. Macauley's Lays of Ancient Rome, SPQR, the elder Cato, the Scipios, Julius Caesar, Diocletian, Constantine the Great, triumphs, orations, gladiatorial combats and Christian martyrs are all mixed up together in a picture of something high and cruel and dignified. The items of that picture have to be disentangled. They are collected at different points from a process of change profounder than that which separates the London of William the Conqueror from the London of to-day." (pp. 119-20).

That disentangling includes his acknowledgement that only a small minority in Rome enjoyed the benefits and freedoms of the empire. He devotes considerable time to the myriad roles played by slaves in agriculture, mining, metallurgy, construction, road-making and on galleys, as well as working as guards and gladiators. What's more,

"The conquests of the later Republic were among the highly civilised cities of Greece, North Africa, and Asia Minor; and they brought in many highly educated captives. The tutor of a young Roman of good family was usually a slave. A rich man would have a Greek slave as librarian, and slave secretaries and learned men. He would keep his poet as he would keep a performing dog. In this atmosphere of slavery the traditions of modern literary scholarship and criticism, meticulous, timid and quarrelsome, were evolved." (p. 133)

That's surely a popular novelist having a dig at the pretensions of poets and critics of his own age. The novelist is also there in the sizeable imaginative leap of trying to get inside the heads of early humans to describe how they thought and felt about the world around them (Chapter XII, Primitive Thought) - an attempt later repeated by William Golding in The Inheritors and by the first Doctor Who story. Less credible is the novelist's odd conspiracy theory that, after Alexander conquered Egypt in 332 BCE, 

"the Phoenicians of the western Mediterranean suddenly disappear from history - and as immediately the Jews of Alexandria and the other trading cities created by Alexander appear."(p. 94)

This, I suspect, is drawn from whatever racial theories Wells was reading. As I rather expected, there's quite a lot here on the geographical movements and cultural impact of particular ethnic groups such as the Aryans, detailing skin colour and other racial characteristics. The terminology used is similarly racist and  of their time, and I already knew Wells was an enthusiastic eugenicist. But I think that makes it all the more notable when he endeavours to avoid prejudice. For example, there's his response to the wealth of evidence of early humans found in France and Spain:

"The greater part of Africa and Asia has never even been traversed yet by a trained observer interested in these matters and free to explore, and we must be very careful therefore not to conclude that the early true men were distinctly inhabitants of Western Europe or that they first appeared in that region." (p. 32)

Or, there's his caveat on outlining what he calls the "main racial divisions" of the neolithic world: 

"We have to remember that human races can all interbreed freely and that they separate, mingle and reunite as clouds do. Human races do not branch out like trees with branches that never come together again. It is a thing we need to bear constantly in mind, this remingling of races at any opportunity. We shall be saved from many cruel delusions and prejudices if we do so. People will use such a word as race in the loosest manner, and base the most preposterous generalisations upon it. They will speak of a 'British' race or of a 'European' race. But nearly all the European nations are confused mixtures of brownish, dark-white, white, and Mongolian elements." (p. 45)

I was also struck by his defence of the latter:

"We hear too much in history of the campaigns and massacres of the Mongols, and not enough of their curiosity and desire for learning" (p. 202).

This all feels very pertinent given the context of the time in which Wells was writing. The chronology at the end of the 1934 edition ends with "Hitler becomes dictator of Germany [and] World Economic Conference in London" (p. 313), but Wells - for all he astutely identifies problems in the Treaty of Versailles leading to future conflict, warns of war, 

"in twenty or thirty years' time if no political unification anticipates and prevents it" (p. 300).

Hitler is not mentioned in the main body of the text; he and Stalin were both added to the 1938 edition. My 1941 edition includes Chamberlain, Churchill and Roosevelt, as well as references to Disraeli and Kipling. In updating the book to cover events of less than a decade, he reaches further back into the past.

It's also interesting what revisions Wells didn't make to the 1941 edition: for example he doesn't add the discovery of Pluto to his description of the Solar System in chapter one. I find myself picking over what he might have added to a later edition, if he'd lived a little beyond 1946. The atomic bomb - a term Wells coined - would be key. His chapter on industrialisation would need something on automation and loom cards, now recognised as so crucial to the development of computers. 

Oh, and his reference to the "fascinatingly enigmatical" Piltdown Man (p. 27) would get quietly cut.

In fact, I'd love to see a new version of this enterprise: a concise, breezy history of the whole world (not just the western bits), making sense of now based on what's gone before and pointing the way to the future...

See also:

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