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This review is taken from PN Review 55, Volume 13 Number 5, May - June 1987.

USEFUL TRUTHS David C. Smith, H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal (Yale), £18.50

It is hard to disagree with the basic belief of H. G. Wells, that only the truth is useful, or his belief in science and progress as seen from the status quo of 1900, though he was not such a fool as to think progress was inevitable; his mission was to educate the public, which he carried through better than either Thomas or Matthew Arnold; he began with a tendency to the messianic, became prophetic, and ended with a wish to inscribe 'I told you so' on his tombstone. Even his alliance with his friend Frank Swinnerton, his disciple J. B. Priestley, and perhaps with Arnold Bennett, with the consequent wish for a middle-brow criticism of literature, appraising only 'good writing' and a progressive tendency, seems in retrospect more sympathetic than one would have thought it at the time. He supported Joyce and tolerated Pound ('just a poet - dissolved in sound'), and in none of his numerous fields of endeavour was he negligible. By now the chip on his shoulder has become pleasantly dated, and all prejudices against him are disarmed. To understand how exciting he once was, and in some ways still is, entails an exercise of historical recovery: his star is rising.

He was a most remarkable man, and this thorough and meritorious biography traces his intellectual history blow by blow. There must be some people who still need to learn some of his lessons, though most of us have learned most of them. ...


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