Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Outline of History

The Outline of History, Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind (Volume I)
© 1920 H.G. Wells, revised edition by G.P. Wells and Raymond Postgate © 1970
550 pages

At the close of the Great War, people wondered how such a monstrous conflict could have arisen and destroyed so many lives. In part to answer this question, and out of conviction that contemporary history texts were not up to the task. H.G. Wells set about penning an epic history of humanity, beginning with the formation of the Earth billions of years ago. His opening chapters cover the tumultous early years of Earth and the rise of life, followed by four hundred pages of human history -- from the birth of agriculture to the Crusades.Though originally published in 1920, Wells continually revised the book in keeping with new discoveries, a work continued by his son and Raymond Postgate after his death. Wells' account and the many revisions through the decades seem to have aged well, as there were no notable discrepancies between this and my readings from last week, consisting of modern treatments of the same subjects. I am altogether impressed with the work of Postgate: his seamless revisions only stick out when they reference events Wells could not have possibly written about, being dead at the time.  I chose to read this book because Wells is for me a representative of the late 19th century: his protagonists in novels such as War of the Worlds are the ideal man -- intelligent, literate in various fields of study, humanistically moral, and advocates of technological, cultural, and social progress. His voice is what I generally expect of Wells: elegant and strong, encouraging me to read sections of the narrative aloud and savor the flow of his sentences and the texture of his word choices. It was such a reading on the Punic Wars that an offhand joke -- completely unexpected from such a 'serious' author as Wells -- startled me into laughter that did not abate for several minutes. Though an intellectual, Wells is not above a sly remark or two.

The Outline of History is an ambitious title, one that forces Wells to be economical with his narrative. He thus focuses on the big picture, studying a given civilization's growth or regress than reciting fact after fact. He quotes liberally from other historians, including Herodotus and Edward Gibbon. Most of the book follows the standard narrative of western history seen: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and finally Europe. It is not wholly eurocentric, though: his frequent diversions to China, Persia, and India, followed by his focus on Arabia in this volume's final hundred pages, succeed in offering the reader a broad perspective with a slight western emphasis.

Though writing to (presumably) an early-20th century western audience, Wells does not pander to them by vigorously condemning  paganism or by giving Christianity preferential treatment. Though he regards Jesus and Christianity favorably, he approaches them in the same way as he approaches Buddha, Muhammed, Mani, and Zoroaster. C.S. Lewis and G.K. Cheston are chauvinistic babies for whining about Wells' very complimentary treatment of Christianity. He's also very keen on Buddha, though not so much the religion that others created around him, and regards Islam as a triumph even though its founder was unremarkable, "cast from commoner clay" than Jesus.  While he doesn't praise religion and authority figures as much as Will Durant, he appreciates those which spur humanity on to greater heights and spares the reader morality tales. Interestingly, he's also completly unimpressed with the Roman empire, seeing it as a prolonged epoch of stagnation and rot following Rome's victory in the Second Punic War -- a series of wars he regards as more wasteful than the Great War which he just survived. He emerges from this first volume as an even-keeled author, whose goal is to make the world understandable. He writes in the introduction that the "why's" of the Great War inspired him to write this, and I have some inkling as to how he will address that question: throughout the book he reminds the reader that despite our accomplishments, biologically we are not far removed from our primitive ancestors, and it is altogether too easy to shove a human being and see him gazing back with the "red eyes of the cave man".  I suspect that the Great War will be attributed to  nationalism's primitivism.

Wells is thus far an engaging author, and I look forward to continuing to the second and final volume of this series -- especially to his coverage of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.  This volume was like returning to my Western History 101 class and being delighted to hear these stories of human history all over again.


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