|The Outline of History|
Cover of the 1920 edition
|Author(s)||H. G. Wells|
|Illustrator||J. F. Horrabin|
The Outline of History, subtitled either "The Whole Story of Man" or "Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind", is a work by H. G. Wells that first appeared in an illustrated version of 24 fortnightly installments beginning on November 22, 1919 and was published as a single volume in 1920. It sold more than two million copies, was translated into many languages, had a considerable impact on the teaching of history in institutions of higher education.
Many revised versions were produced during Wells's lifetime, and the author kept notes on factual corrections he received from around the world. The last revision in his lifetime was published in 1937. In 1949, an expanded version was produced by Raymond Postgate, whose extended the narrative through World War II, and later through 1969. Postgate wrote that "readers wish to hear the views of Wells, not those of Postgate," and endeavored to preserve Wells's voice throughout. In later editions, G. P. Wells, the author's son, updated early chapters about prehistory to reflect current theories; previous editions, for instance, gave credence to the Piltdown Man hoax. The final edition appeared in 1971, but earlier editions are still in print.
Organization of work
The third revised and rearranged edition is organized in chapters whose subjects, grosso modo, are as follows: Ch. 1-2: The origins of the Earth; Ch. 3-6: Natural selection and the evolution of life; Ch. 7: Human origins; Ch. 8: Neanderthals and the early Paleolithic Age; Ch. 9: The later Paleolithic Age; Ch. 10: The Neolithic Age; Ch. 11: Early (prelinguistic) thought; Ch. 12: Races; Ch. 13: Languages; Ch. 14: The first civilizations; Ch. 15: Sea voyages and trading; Ch. 16: Writing; Ch. 17: Organized religion; Ch. 18: Social classes; Ch. 19: The Hebrews; Ch. 20: Aryan-speaking (or Indo-European-speaking) peoples; Ch. 21-23: The Greeks; Ch. 24: Alexandria; Ch. 25: Buddhism; Ch. 26-28: Rome; Ch. 29: Christianity; Ch. 30: Asia (50 BC-AD 650); Ch. 31: Islam; Ch. 32: The Crusades; Ch. 33: The Mongols; Ch. 34: The "renascence" of Western Civilization; Ch. 35: Political developments, esp. the great power concept; Ch. 36: The American and French revolutions; Ch. 37: Napoleon; Ch. 38: The nineteenth century; Ch. 39: The Great War; Ch. 40: The next stage of history.
History as a quest for a common purpose
From Neolithic times on (12,000-10,000 years ago, by Wells's estimation), "[t]he history of mankind . . . is a history of more or less blind endeavors to conceive a common purpose in relation to which all men may live happily, and to create and develop a common stock of knowledge which may serve and illuminate that purpose."
Recurrent conquest of civilization by nomads
Wells was uncertain whether to place "the beginnings of settled communities living in towns" in Mesopotamia or Egypt. He was equally unsure whether to consider the development of civilization something that arose from "the widely diffused Heliolithic Neolithic culture" or something that arose separately. But between the nomadic cultures that originated in the Neolithic Age and the settled civilizations to the south, he discerned that "for many thousands of years there has been an almost rhythmic recurrence of conquest of the civilizations by the nomads."
According to Wells, this dialectical antagonism reflected not only a struggle for power and resources, but a conflict of values. "Civilization, as this outline has shown, arose as a community of obedience, and was essentially a community of obedience. But . . . [t]here was a continual influx of masterful will from the forests, parklands, and steppes. The human spirit had at last rebelled altogether against the blind obedience of the common life; it was seeking . . . to achieve a new and better sort of civilization that should also be a community of will." Wells regarded the democratic movements of modernity as an aspect of this movement.
Development of free intelligence
Wells saw in the bards who were, he believed, common to all the "Aryan-speaking peoples" an important "consequence of and a further factor in [the] development of spoken language which was the chief factor of all the human advances made in Neolithic times. . . . they mark a new step forward in the power and range of the human mind," extending the temporal horizons of the human imagination. He saw in the ancient Greeks another definitive advance of these capacities, "the beginnings of what is becoming at last nowadays a dominant power in human affairs, the free intelligence of mankind.". The first individual he distinguishes as embodying free intelligence is the Greek historian Herodotus. The Hebrew prophets and the tradition they founded he calls "a parallel development of the free conscience of mankind." Much later, he singles out Roger Bacon as a precursor of "a great movement in Europe . . . toward reality" that contributed to the development of "intelligence." But "[i]t was only in the eighties of the nineteenth century that this body of inquiry began to yield results to impress the vulgar mind. Then suddenly came electric light and electric traction, and the transmutation of forces, the possibility of sending power . . . began to come through to the ideas of ordinary people."
Rejection of racial or cultural superiority
Although The Outline of History is marked here and there by racialist thinking, Wells is firm in rejecting any theories of racial or, indeed, civilizational superiority. On race, Wells writes that "Mankind from the point of view of a biologist is an animal species in a state of arrested differentiation and possible admixture . . . [A]ll races are more or less mixed.". As for the claim that Western minds are superior, he states that upon examination "this generalization . . . dissolves into thin air.".
Criticism of potential world unifiers
Again and again Wells identifies figures who held in their hands the possibility of unifying humanity, but failed to understand their opportunities, e.g. Alexander the Great, Muhammad, Napoleon, and Woodrow Wilson.
Neglected or omitted aspects of world history
A number of themes are downplayed in The Outline of History: Ancient Greek philosophy and Roman law figure among these. Others are altogether absent, surprisingly given Wells's intellectual attachment to some of them: romanticism, the concept of the Age of Enlightenment, and feminism, for example.
Composition of work
In the years leading up to the writing of The Outline of History Wells was increasingly preoccupied by history, as many works testify. (See, for example, The New Machiavelli, Marriage, An Englishman Looks at the World, The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, Mr. Britling Sees It Through, etc.) His interest in and commitment to socialism, after all, implied a broad historical outlook. During World War I, he tried to promote a world history to be sponsored by the League of Nations Union, of which he was a member. But no professional historian would commit to undertake it, and Wells, in a financially sound position thanks to the success of Mr. Britling Sees It Through and believing that his work would earn little, resolved to devote a year to the project. His wife Catherine (Jane) agreed to be his collaborator in typing, research, organization, correspondence, and criticism. Wells relied heavily on the Encyclopedia Britannica (11th ed., 1911), and standard secondary texts. He made use of the London Library, and enlisted as critical readers "a team of advisers for comment and correction, chief among them Ernest Barker, Harry Johnston, E. Ray Lankester, and Gilbert Murray. The sections were then rewritten and circulated for further discussion until Wells judged that they had reached a satisfactory standard." The bulk of the work was written between October 1918 and November 1919.
Unproven allegations of plagiarism
In 1927 a Canadian citizen, Florence Deeks (1864–1959), unsuccessfully sued Wells for infringement of copyright, claiming that much of the Outline had been plagiarized from her unpublished manuscript, "The Web of the World's Romance", which had spent over a year in the hands of Wells's North American publisher, Macmillan & Company.
The Outline of History has inspired responses from the serious to the parodic.
- In 1921, Algonquin Round Table member Donald Ogden Stewart achieved his first success with a satire entitled A Parody Outline of History.
- The Outline of History was praised on publication by E. M. Forster and Beatrice Webb.
- American historians James Harvey Robinson and Carl Becker lauded the Outline and hailed Wells as "a formidable ally".
- In 1923 J. Gresham Machen condemned the book in Christianity and Liberalism as featuring all the philosophical limitations of "Modernism." He records that at the time of his book's writing, the Outline was already experiencing a decline in popularity in the United States.
- In 1925 G. K. Chesterton wrote The Everlasting Man at least partly in reaction to Wells. It disputes his portrayals of human life and civilization as a seamless development (via evolution) from animal life, of Jesus Christ as merely another charismatic leader, and of the Christian Church as one more religious movement like any other.
- In 1926 Hilaire Belloc wrote "A Companion to Mr. Wells’s "Outline of History". A devout Roman Catholic, Belloc was deeply offended by Wells’s treatment of Christianity in The Outline of History. Wells wrote a short book in rebuttal called Mr. Belloc Objects to “The Outline of History.” In 1926, Belloc published his reply, Mr. Belloc Still Objects.
- In 1934 Arnold J. Toynbee dismissed the criticism of The Outline of History and praised Wells's work in his A Study of History:
Mr. H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History was received with unmistakable hostility by a number of historical specialists. . . . They seemed not to realize that, in re-living the entire life of Mankind as a single imaginative experience, Mr. Wells was achieving something which they themselves would hardly have dared to attempt ... In fact, the purpose and value of Mr. Wells’s book seem to have been better appreciated by the general public than by the professional historians of the day.
- After Wells's death, The Outline was still the object of admiration from historians A. J. P. Taylor (who called it "the best" general survey of history) and Norman Stone, who praised Wells for largely avoiding the Eurocentric and racist attitudes of his time.
- In his autobiography, Christopher Isherwood recalled that when he and W. H. Auden encountered Napoleon's tomb on a 1922 school trip to France, their first reaction was to quote The Outline's negative assessment of the French ruler.
In popular culture
- In John Huston's 1941 film The Maltese Falcon Kasper Gutman played by Sydney Greenstreet says "These are facts, historical facts, not schoolbook history, not Mr. Wells's history, but history nevertheless."
- In Fredric Brown's 1949 science-fiction novel What Mad Universe, the protagonist finds himself transported to an alternate universe. Finding a copy of Wells's Outline of History, it turns out to be identical to the one he knows until 1903, at which point the alternate Wells records the invention of anti-gravity, a fast human expansion into space, a brutal war for the conquest of Mars which Wells strongly denounces, followed by a titanic conflict with Arcturus.
- In John Updike's 1961 story "Pigeon Feathers," the young protagonist finds a copy of Outline of History and is surprised and disturbed by Wells's descriptions of Jesus. Updike describes Wells's account of Jesus as:
He had been an obscure political agitator, a kind of hobo, in a minor colony of the Roman Empire. By an accident impossible to reconstruct, he (the small h horrified David) survived his own crucifixion and presumably died a few weeks later. A religion was founded on the freakish incident. The credulous imagination of the times retrospectively assigned miracles and supernatural pretensions to Jesus; a myth grew, and then a church, whose theology at most points was in direct contradiction of the simple, rather communistic teachings of the Galilean.
- William Golding used Wells's description of the Neanderthals as a basis in creating his own Neanderthal-tribe in The Inheritors.
- Michael Sherborne, H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life (Peter Owen, 2010), p. 252; A.B. McKillop, The Spinster and the Prophet (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000), p. 147.
- Michael Sherborne, H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life (Peter Owen, 2010), p. 252-53; David C. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography (Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 258-60.
- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 3rd ed. rev. (NY: Macmillan, 1921), p. 104 (Ch. XI, §6).
- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 3rd ed. rev. (NY: Macmillan, 1921), p. 131 (Ch. XIV, §1).
- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 3rd ed. rev. (NY: Macmillan, 1921), pp. 131-32 (Ch. XIV, §1).
- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 3rd ed. rev. (NY: Macmillan, 1921), p. 246 (Ch. XX, §3).
- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 3rd ed. rev. (NY: Macmillan, 1921), p. 843 (Ch. XXVI, §5).
- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 3rd ed. rev. (NY: Macmillan, 1921), pp. 842-43 (Ch. XXVI, §5).
- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 3rd ed. rev. (NY: Macmillan, 1921), p. 243 (Ch. XX, §2).
- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 3rd ed. rev. (NY: Macmillan, 1921), p. 204 (Ch. XVIII, §3) (emphasis in original).
- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 3rd ed. rev. (NY: Macmillan, 1921), p. 202 (Ch. XVIII, §3).
- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 3rd ed. rev. (NY: Macmillan, 1921), p. 234 (Ch. XIX, §4).
- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 3rd ed. rev. (NY: Macmillan, 1921), pp. 729-33 (Ch. XXXIV, §6).
- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 3rd ed. rev. (NY: Macmillan, 1921), p. 927 (Ch. XXXVIII, §1).
- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 3rd ed. rev. (NY: Macmillan, 1921), p. 110 (Ch. XII, §§1-2).
- H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, 3rd ed. rev. (NY: Macmillan, 1921), p. 556 (Ch. XXX, §8).
- Michael Sherborne, H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life (Peter Owen, 2010), p. 252.
- A.B. McKillop, The Spinster and the Prophet: H.G. Wells, Florence Deeks, and the Case of the Plagiarized Text. New York City: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000. ISBN 1-56858-236-6 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]
- Michael Sherborne, H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life (Peter Owen, 2010)
- Michael Sherborne, H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life (Peter Owen, 2010)
- Michael Sherborne, H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life (Peter Owen, 2010).
- Toynbee, A.J. A Study of History, Vol I, Oxford University Press, 1934.
- Michael Sherborne, H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life (Peter Owen, 2010)
- Isherwood, Christopher, Lions and Shadows, 1938. New English Library edition, 1974, pg. 18.
- IMDb: The Maltese Falcon (1941) - Memorable quotes
- Updike, John (2003). The Early Stories 1953-1975. New York: Random House. p. 14. ISBN 0-345-46336-6 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. Note, however, that Wells does not assert (at least in the 3rd revised edition of The Outline of History) that Jesus "survived his own crucifixion and presumably died a few weeks later"; rather, Wells says that after Jesus's death and burial "presently came a whisper among [the disciples] and stories, rather discrepant stories . . ." (see Ch. XXIX, §4).
- Full text of the 1920 edition of The Outline of History
- PDF File of the full Outline of History
- Salon.com's review of A. B. McKillop's examination of the Deeks/Wells plagiarism case, The Spinster and the Prophet.
- A Short History Of The World, the full text of Wells's much shorter history, published in 1922.