The Outline of History

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The Outline of History

Author H.G. Wells is probably best known today for his forays into science fiction. Indeed, many consider him the father of modern science fiction, and the influence of ground-breaking novels like The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor Moreau can be seen throughout the genre. The anniversary of The War of the Worlds saw the proliferation of books and films consciously nodding to Wells's work. But Wells was no mere writer of fantastic tales. In fact, science fiction made up but a fraction of his more than 80 published books. Wells worked also within the traditional forms of the novel and wrote extensive nonfiction, often with a sociological bent. Of all his work, none had the impact of The Outline of History. This massive project was first published serially in 1919, and as a single volume in September of 1920, to critical and popular acclaim, initially selling an astonishing two million copies. Besides being one of the most popular histories ever written, the book was groundbreaking, a new kind of history text, arguing for a holistic look at history with a nod to the necessary subjectivity of such a project. Wells acknowledged that history was what the historian made of it, and his own interests manifested themselves as he regarded the history of humanity as a story of inevitable change and progress towards world unification.

Wells's own life certainly shaped the views that would manifest themselves in The Outline of History. He was born in 1866 in Bromley, Kent, into a lower-middle-class family that, in 1880, would experience financial collapse, dropping into poverty. Wells experienced first-hand the economic struggles of those trying merely to survive. He continued in school, however, eventually working briefly as an apprentice draper. After quitting his apprenticeship and returning to school, Wells had his break in 1884—a scholarship to The Normal School of Science in South Kensington. It was here that he came under the tutelage of T.H. Huxley, and it was during this time that he was introduced to the Socialist party. After earning his degree in zoology, Wells published his first book, A Text-book of Biology.

The impact of the natural sciences and Socialist thought is visible throughout Wells's work, informing both his fiction and his nonfiction. Ultimately, divergent works like The Time Machine and The Outline of History explore the same territory, examining the way mankind has evolved or will evolve. In writing The Outline of History, Wells had definite agendas. He claimed that the book was an attempt to explain the truth about human nature and that that nature was one of change; humankind, in other words, had been gradually evolving towards a greater social state. For Wells the evolution towards global unity was to be applauded, but he was aware that although change must by nature occur, there was nothing dictating that such change would be positive. The Outline of History thus served as a cautionary tale demonstrating not only how humanity had advanced, but highlighting historical figures and institutions that resisted this change. It is on these grounds that Wells encouraged education, elevated sound philosophy and literature, discouraged sexual licentiousness (in print, if not in person), and condemned fundamentalism.

Yet Wells was not content to state his ideas and let the public sort them out. Instead, he enlisted the aid of numerous experts in the various fields through which The Outline of History passed to contribute footnotes to the work, sometimes complementary, sometimes argumentative. The footnotes made clear to the reader that the work was not intended as the final word on history, but only the beginning of the conversation. They also suggested the "interpretability" and mutability of historical thought. And the footnotes were not the only stand-out feature of The Outline of History. Illustrations and charts filled the book and stylistically, it demonstrated Wells's wit and accessibility.

H.G. Wells did not strictly consider himself an historian. Thus, it is understandable that, though critically acclaimed within the field, The Outline of History was largely intended for a lay audience, as evidenced by the readability and Wells's own insistence on the importance of knowledge to the common man. Previously, history texts of this scope had been largely academic, but now history had entered the popular realm. The success of the book surprised and pleased Wells; understandably, it became his own dearest achievement and one on which he would continue to work. Subsequent editions were published with additions and modifications by the author into the 1940s. The Outline of History also spawned other works. An abbreviated version of The Outline of History, A Short History of the World, sold nearly as well, while two companion books, The Science of Life (written with Julian Huxley and H.G.'s son G.P.) and The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind, failed to perform as expected.

Despite these failures and despite the fact that The Outline of History is not nearly so widely disseminated today, the impact of Wells' most ambitious project has been profound. The work is still considered by many to be one of the great books of the twentieth century, and certainly one of the finest overviews of human history. Most importantly, perhaps, Wells's dream of educating the masses has largely been fulfilled and The Outline of History deserves much of the credit for dragging the field of history away from the exclusive grasp of experts and scholars and into the public forum.

—Marc Oxoby

Further Reading:

Foot, Michael. H.G.: The History of Mr. Wells. Washington, D.C.,Counterpoint, 1995.

Kemp, Peter. H.G. Wells and the Culminating Ape. New York, St.Martin's, 1996.

Murray, Brian. H.G. Wells. New York, Continuum, 1990.

Reed, John R. The Natural History of H.G. Wells. Athens, Ohio University Press, 1982.