In H. G. Wells' absorbing memoirs, Experiment in Autobiography
(1934), he related in some detail how he came to write The Outline of
History. "My idea was at first," he wrote, "an outline of history
beginning with an account of the Roman and Chinese empires at the
Christian era, and coming up to contemporary conditions." Established
historians would collaborate in writing this chronicle of the last
nineteen centuries, under Wells' supervision.
He soon gave up on the "established historians" and wrote the whole book
himself, albeit with plentiful advice and commentary from professional
colleagues. He also abandoned his plan to begin with the advent of
Christianity. As readers of the first volume of The Outline of
History know, he chose instead to launch his narrative with the
creation of the solar system. In more than two dozen chapters he told us
of everything from the emergence of life on earth to the history of
But Wells did not abandon his plan to come up "to contemporary
conditions." In the second volume of The Outline of History, he
carried the story down to what, in 1920, was the latest news: the "Great
War" of 1914-1918 and the creation of the League of Nations. He also took
the opportunity to peer into the future.
Anyone familiar with what passed for world history in 1920 cannot help
but be impressed by the scope of Wells' account in this second volume.
The first four chapters traced the rise of Christianity and Islam, with
an intervening chapter on the tangled history of Asia, both western and
eastern, from just before the Christian era to AD 650. Although Wells
personally adhered to no religion, he treated the founders of
Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism with respect, showing how their
teachings harmonized in many ways with one another, and even--in his
judgment--with the spiritual and ethical implications of modern science.
He also anticipated the finding of more recent world historians, such as
Andre Gunder Frank, that China was the world's richest and most advanced
nation from the seventh century AD to at least the seventeenth. Chapter
IV, after reviewing the history of early medieval Europe, charted the
collision between Islam and Christianity during the Crusades.
The most remarkable portion of this second volume of The Outline of
History is the way it surveys life in Asia and Europe between the
thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. To most of Wells' Western readers,
this was simply the era of the later "Middle Ages" and the "Renaissance"
and "Reformation." All eyes focused on the metamorphosis of Western
Europe from feudalism to powerful monarchies and the first blushes of a
distinctively "modern" sensibility.
But Wells began his exploration of this era with another theme
altogether: the emergence of the Mongols as the world's greatest power in
the thirteenth century, their conquests throughout Eurasia, and the
exploits of their self-styled descendants, such as Timurlane and Baber,
the founder of the Mughal Empire in northern India. He also took
appropriate note of the rise of the Ottoman Turks as the preeminent power
in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkans, capped by their
seizure of Constantinople in 1453. Just by putting these vast events in
the so-called medieval era first, ahead of his report of developments in
Western Europe, Wells made a salient point. Western Europe did not yet
occupy center stage in global history. The chief movers and shakers of
the world during all this time were, as often before, the teeming tribes
and nations of Asia, many of them Muslim.
In his next chapter, however, Wells caught up with the European story,
sketching the "renascence of Western civilization" largely as a history
of ideas, and in particular the progress of free inquiry and speculative
thought from the thirteenth century to the sixteenth. Predictably, his
heroes were men such as John Wycliffe, John Ball, and John Huss (Jan
Hus), priestly rebels against the established order, although he was more
guarded about Martin Luther and had nothing to say about John Calvin. He
also devoted admiring pen-portraits to the earliest pioneers of modern
science, from Roger Bacon to Galileo. Among the philosophers of the later
Middle Ages, his idol was William of Occam, one of the originators of
"nominalism," the doctrine that objects are unique and that the
categories or "essences" into which we group them for our own convenience
do not have any independent existence. By 1920 Wells had come to regard
himself as a nominalist, like many other thinkers drawn to the methods
and world-view of modern science.
But one section of this chapter stands out as an illustration of the
limits of even Wells' imagination and reach, in good part because of the
times in which he lived. If he surmounted these limits when dealing with
the civilizations of Asia, he failed to do so when he looked westward to
the so-called New World. The title of the section in question, "America
Comes into History" (ch. VI, § 8), suggests that the great
Amerindian civilizations of the pre-Columbian Western Hemisphere did not
become "historical" until Europeans discovered--and ravaged--them. Wells'
narrative did include a few sentences on the origins of the Aztec and
Incan empires before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors, but nearly
the whole section focused on the conquest itself and its immediate
aftermath. By the same token, there is no account of the major
civilizations and cultures of sub-Saharan Africa before the seventeenth
century, although in this instance Wells may more readily be excused.
Much less was known about them by Western scholars at the time he
conducted his research.
Then come five closely related chapters, originally linked under the
omnibus title "The Age of the Great Powers," which treated, in
succession, the history of Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries down to about 1775, the revolutions in North America and France
that followed, the life and times of Napoleon (perhaps Wells' favorite
villain), the nineteenth century chiefly in Europe, and World War I.
Brief sections on the history of Japan, the European rape of Africa, the
reawakening of China (which he expected would soon rival Europe and the
U.S.), and the British Empire gave readers glimpses of life beyond
Europe's shores, but they were glimpses only. The Americas barely entered
the picture at all.
The real point of these five chapters was that Europe's division into a
patchwork quilt of armed and aggressive national states in early modern
times led ultimately to what Wells called the "international catastrophe
of 1914," a catastrophe so horrific that it brought closure to the "Great
Power period" in world history altogether. The decision to write The
Outline of History in the first place had been a direct response on
Wells' part to World War I, then known as the "Great War." He had
attributed its millions of corpses and shattered landscapes to the
teaching of history as national epic, as the record of this or that
country's rise to glory and power, without regard for other nations or
their own grievances and aspirations. Human beings needed to be
reeducated, to view the history of all humankind as a single adventure.
"History," he wrote in an eloquent article published in the spring of
1919, "is one." Accordingly, in Wells' eyes, it was essential to assign
full responsibility for the Great War to the ill-taught leaders of the
vainly strutting Great Powers of Europe, to Britain, France, Germany,
Italy, Austria, and Russia, which had been jostling for supremacy for
centuries and had now brought well-earned ruin on themselves.
The extensive chapter on the Great War ends with a bracing bitter account
of the attempts of the peacemakers at Versailles in 1919 to create a new
world order. Wells had been a leading figure in the movement in Great
Britain to promote the idea of a postwar league of nations, a league with
real authority to reduce or eliminate armaments altogether and to keep
the peace of the world. As he saw it, the statesmen at Versailles had
instead imposed a punitive peace on the defeated nations. They had
fashioned the League of Nations, but it was a league only of diplomats
appointed by their respective governments, with few powers and little
authority. Wells expressed his disdain and disappointment in some of his
most caustic prose and continued to ridicule the League of Nations for
the rest of his life.
Nevertheless, he did not abandon hope. He brought his Outline to a
striking close with Chapter XII, "The Next Stage of History," taking
advantage of his considerable prowess and reputation as a prophet of
things to come, first demonstrated in 1902 in a book entitled
Anticipations. The future is accorded only one chapter, and it is
quite compact, but it sums up all the thought that Wells could bring to
bear on the deeper meaning of world history.
Wells argued that through the interplay of communities of obedience (the
great settled civilizations) and communities of will (the nomadic
cultures), humanity had progressed through the ages. In its advance, the
size of its states had steadily enlarged, although still not widely
enough. Ideas of freedom and democracy had also emerged and had been
realized, at least in part, in various parts of the world. Knowledge and
skill had vastly expanded.
Today, Wells insisted, technological wonders had transformed a planet of
many separate, relatively isolated societies into a planet where the only
sanely conceivable state was a world state, empowered by all its peoples
to keep the peace and serve the needs of everyone. He offered his vision
of what a true world state, a federation of all nations, could achieve.
Still lacking was an educated public prepared to demand and support such
a state, but this problem, too, could be solved, with enough will and
determination. In the most often quoted passage from all of Wells' many
books, he wrote: "Human history becomes more and more a race between
education and catastrophe." He placed his wager on education.
Had the world heeded Wells' counsel in the postwar era, most of the
horrors of the rest of the twentieth century might have been avoided. We
might have inherited a sane, responsible world order in the twenty-first
century. We shall never know for sure, but the wisdom and foresight that
Wells displayed at the end of The Outline of History are cause for
much soul-searching as we contemplate what actually ensued on this earth
after its first publication.
In the years that followed, The Outline of History sold millions
of copies in many languages. Religious conservatives, such as Archbishop
Richard Downey and Hilaire Belloc, railed against it in polemical tracts.
Florence Deeks, a Canadian woman, went to court to accuse Wells of
plagiarizing a manuscript of her own, as if world history could be
copyrighted. No credible evidence of plagiarism has ever surfaced, and no
one has demonstrated that Wells even saw her manuscript. She lost her
suits, both in Canada and Britain.
But on the whole, the Outline was warmly received. It inspired
others to bring out similar, although never comparable, volumes. Its
freshly written sequel, A Short History of the World (1922), was
adopted as a textbook in progressive English secondary schools. Many
professional historians, especially in the United States, caroled its
praises, although some sprang to the attack.
No matter. As the celebrated Cornell historian Carl Becker commented,
The Outline of History was "a notable effort to enlist the experience
of mankind in the service of its destiny." Another great historian, the
late A. J. P. Taylor of Oxford University, confessed that he may have
learned more from the Outline, which he encountered as a youth,
than from any other book he ever read. Nowadays, the professional study
and writing and teaching of world history have become perhaps the most
venturesome and exciting enterprises of scholars in the discipline. How
much of this we owe to Wells is a matter of conjecture, but he surely
belongs somewhere in the chain of causation.
What remains most true of Wells' The Outline of History is its
sheer readability. Wells was among the finest prose writers of his
generation, with an uncanny sense of how to seize the attention of the
average educated man or woman. Swift but colorful biographical sketches,
candid personal asides, vivid narration, memorable figures of speech, and
frequent pauses to show the larger importance of the subjects at hand
sustain our interest through its many pages. At the same time, Wells did
not treat his readers with condescension. Nor did he evade controversy by
suppressing it, as the many initialed footnotes from dissenting
consultants included in early editions bear witness. But above all, he
knew how to tell a story and give it human significance.
W. Warren Wagar is Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus in
the History Department of Binghamton University, SUNY, where he taught
from 1971 to 2002. He is the author and editor of eighteen books,
including four on H. G. Wells.