Monday, June 13, 2005

Today Wells is himself almost mythical. The first feature film version of '>The Time Machine and especially Nicholas Meyer's movie, '>Time After Time (in which Wells, played by Malcolm MacDowell, invents and uses an actual time machine) suggest that H.G. Wells was a Victorian gentleman, living in a spacious, lavishly furnished house, with at least one servant. But the author of The Time Machine actually lived in crowded rented rooms, and finished that book by writing at night with his head hanging out of an open window to escape the stifling heat of his apartment, while his landlady was complaining loudly about him below.

Eventually he did live pretty luxuriously. H.G. Wells was an important world figure for most of the first half of the twentieth century. His friends included Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill and William James, Bertrand Russell and Margaret Sanger. He lunched with Franklin Roosevelt, spent stimulating afternoons with Freud and evenings with Jung, talked privately in the White House with President Teddy Roosevelt, and in the Kremlin with Lenin and Stalin.

When President Woodrow Wilson asked the U.S. Congress to declare war on Germany and its allies in World War I, he did so with words taken from Wells: "the war to end all wars." As Wells struggled through his final illnesses and despair during World War II, he roused his energies to campaign for a postwar declaration of human rights. His efforts, ideas and his words contributed to the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, officially adopted two years after Wells' death. In between, he wrote one of the best-selling non-fiction books of all time, '>The Outline of History.
"The minds of all of us, and therefore the physical world, would be perceptibly different if Wells never existed," George Orwell wrote. Upon Wells' death in 1946, the New York Times called him "the greatest public teacher of his time."

But it all came very close to not happening. The son of servants in a provincial town outside London, he was lower middle class-a precarious step removed from the industrial working class of the time. His mother meant for him to follow his brothers into trade as a draper's assistant, which was as high as anyone of their circumstances would normally aspire. Failure could be disastrous.

But a boyhood accident that kept him in bed began a lifelong passion for reading and learning. The books he was given during his convalescence---particularly the illustrated natural histories and stories of explorers-changed his life. "I am alive today and writing this autobiography," he wrote in1934, "instead of being a worn-out, dismissed and already dead shop assistant, because my leg was broken."

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