H. G. Wells died on this day in 1946, six weeks before his eightieth birthday. Wells was active to the end, adding new books to a pile that already numbered over 100, seizing every new opportunity for a public airing of his political and social views, promoting yet another of his war-winning inventions and strategies to this admiral or that politician. Yet all this relentless commitment was cast in gloomy, often strident despair. His war inventions were necessary because “not only is Homo sapiens a fool to make war, but in the way he sets about it, he is a dazzlingly silly fool.” He was convinced that, short of somehow quickly evolving a breed of brighter supermen, the human race was a lost cause, done in by its “foolish dogmatisms and ultimate ‘explanations’ of life, the priestcrafts, presumptuous teachings, fears, arbitrary intolerances, tyrannies and mental muddles.” In his last year, Wells composed a series of “hemlock letters” to his friends, and painted a mural on the wall behind his house depicting his view of the story of evolution, the words “Time to Go” written beneath the figure of Man. He also composed his epitaph: “I told you so. You damned fools.”
In his funeral speech, J. B. Priestly praised “the great prophet of our time,” and described his less well known side:
…the man who could enrich his letters with droll little drawings, who could invent uproarious family games, whose blue eyes twinkled with mischief, and whose famous voice, which never lost a kind of reedy Cockney impudence, rose higher and higher in friendly mischief; who was not only a tremendous character but also a most loveable man….
Perhaps to preclude any opportunity for the epitaph, Wells’s ashes were scattered in the sea off the Isle of Wight. The following is from his semi-autobiographical 1909 novel, Tono-Bungay, a scene in which the hero, aboard a destroyer, heads down the Thames to a new world:
Out to the open we go, to windy freedom and trackless ways. Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass—pass. The river passes—London passes, England passes…out to the open sea.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.