H.G. Wells Sparked Modernism and the Literary Imagination

Eve Glasberg
October 23, 2019

In a wide-ranging discussion with Columbia News, Humanities Dean and Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature Sarah Cole touches on her new book, Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century, as well as her favorite books, which women writers she would host for dinner and how to write a book while juggling other work and parenting. As Cole explains, Wells is barely recognized or taught in the academy, the works of his that are appreciated today all stem from the first 10 years of his 50-year writing career, and all of them are science fiction, which is a marginalized genre among literary scholars. So Cole set out to change that with her new book.

Q. Why did you decide to write this book?

A. I had barely read H.G. Wells when I decided to write this book; I had never studied him as a student, and the only book of his I had taught was The Time Machine, which I loved and sometimes placed as the first text in my modernism survey courses. The Time Machine figures as an interesting in-between work, but Wells in general is not part of academic modernism. Yet I was finding him everywhere. I had been reading, teaching and writing about modernism for 20 years, and the deeper I got into modernism, the more I started bumping into Wells. Virginia Woolf was constantly attacking him; her two most famous manifestos, which in some ways define literary modernism for today’s students, use Wells as their foil.

But on the other side, Joseph Conrad dedicated The Secret Agent to Wells. In the World War I texts I had been reading for many years, Wells was constantly coming up. Why was everyone talking and thinking about Wells, and why had I never read him in any academic capacity? Suddenly, I had an epiphany: I wanted to write a book that would take up this very question—a book on Wells and modernism. It was a conviction: something is going on here, there is a reason why he was such a presence in his world. Yet he has been totally erased from the collective conception of literary history. Once I began reading his work in earnest, I found my conviction deepening, that Wells and modernism is a consequential story about the literary imagination of the first half of the 20th century, and one we have never heard before. 

Q. Is there any overlap between this book and the Theater of War performances coming to Columbia on November 6 and 7?

A. Yes. Wells was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, and one of the most famous and widely read. His huge corpus—which included writing in every genre under the sun, including a few he invented himself—was dedicated above all to one thing: ending war. He believed that we could and must change the course of history, to abolish the possibility of war in the future (the slogan “the war that will end war” came from him). As I wrote this book, I increasingly asked myself: why not? Why is it better to take an attitude of irony and condescension toward great political ideals such as the possibility of ending warfare? Wells’ own solution (a single world state) may not be my own, but the idea that the work I do might be enlisted toward the goal of eradicating war, or even lessening its impact, was one I took to heart.

More generally, the subject of war is an abiding interest of mine. I teach and write about it, as do many others in the humanities. As humanities dean, I thought it could be a real contribution to bring those people together and support their work on this subject, including not only scholarship, but also teaching, outreach and performance/exhibition. Theater of War--which is sponsored by the Humanities War and Peace Initiative--is a unique theater experience, which will present readings of Sophocles' Ajax to Columbia Core students. I think it will resonate especially on this campus, where ancient texts form the basis of the Core curriculum, and where we have over 500 military veterans in our student body.

A book cover featuring a black-and-white photograph of a man wearing a suit.

Q. How do you think Wells would feel about the current state of the world?

A. He would not be happy. Many mornings when I feel sickened as I look at the newspaper, I think of Wells, and how his efforts to abolish nations in order to preserve the planet, end injustice and foster scientific progress and human community seem like sad ironies. But Wells was an optimist, a utopian, and he believed fervently that it is during the worst of times—for him, World War I and the 1930s—that the potential for massive change in people’s ideas becomes possible, enough to shake them out of complacency and produce lasting change. No doubt, he would take 2019 as such a time and would offer his trademark solution. His contemporaries expected this of him. Sometimes I wonder who offers us a similar way to think about the awful present as a prelude to a better future; I find some of that Wellsian optimism-within-the-dark in our former president, Barack Obama.

Q. You’re organizing a dinner party. Which three scholars or academics, dead or alive, do you invite?

A. I have loved writing this book on Wells, but am ready for the intellectual company of women. So I will build my dinner party around several inspiring women intellectuals, two alive, two dead, whose deep concerns in many ways connect closely to Wells'. Two living writers would be Elaine Scarry, whose book The Body in Pain has profoundly affected me as a teacher and writer, along with Hermione Lee, who wrote the great biography of Viriginia Woolf. From the past, I propose Susan Sontag and Simone Weil.

Q. How did you manage writing this book while also teaching and serving as chair of the English department and then dean of humanities?

A. It was not easy! I have two children, so when I became a parent, I learned how to work in whatever time slots I have. Even if it’s just half an hour, I can sit down and do something, write a page, revise a paragraph—it adds up. But my time was limited, and I had to make choices: I did not write many standalone journal articles, and I said no to a lot of interesting projects. I was very focused on this book. It helps that I really enjoyed writing it, more than anything else I have written. It was also a big challenge, a new kind of argument for me and completely new material, so the motivation to get it right kept me focused. I do think it’s important for administrators to be able to find a way to do our own work; we spend most of our time helping to support our colleagues and their scholarship—and this is something to which I am deeply committed—but it feels very important to be able to do some of our own.

Q. What are your favorite books?

A. That is, of course, an impossible question for a literature person to answer. But two novels that I will never, ever stop appreciating to the point of awe are Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. And the last three paragraphs of James Joyce’s "The Dead." As a bonus: The Iliad.

Q. What is your next project?

A. I have two projects I am considering, both stemming from the Wells book. One is a book on invisibility, which I am starting to explore. I begin with an interesting fact, one that no one seems ever to have noticed: the period of literary modernism begins and ends with two books entitled Invisible Man—one by Wells, The Invisible Man, one by Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. This strange fact has gotten me thinking about the concept of invisibility, in literature, but also more broadly in our modern culture. I envision a study that brings together the history of science, fantasy literature (think: Tolkien’s ring or Harry Potter’s cloak) and critical issues around social, racial and gender invisibility.

Another topic I am considering is a book on the political novel—in the broadest sense—and trying to think of ways in which the 20th century novel saw itself as an agent of positive change. In addition to Wells, who had the highest ambitions for writing to change the world, I have been reading a lot of Orwell. I wonder if there is a tradition of activist writing that has been displaced by other categories (modernist, postmodernism, etc.) that can be rehabilitated. It seems especially relevant today, when the climate crisis poses a worldwide emergency that is motivating many in the arts to think about how their own work contributes to the well-being of the planet.