The Outline of History, Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind


The first comprehensive history of the world, The Outline of History is a vibrant synthesis of real history, told in a sweeping, panoramic style, as if it were fiction. H. G. Wells removes nationalism from the equation, creating the premier worldview of history, told from a global rather than a local point of view.

With The Outline of History Wells started a craze that lasted throughout the 1920s for copycat "outlines" on every conceivable ...
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The outline of history : being a plain history of life and mankind

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The first comprehensive history of the world, The Outline of History is a vibrant synthesis of real history, told in a sweeping, panoramic style, as if it were fiction. H. G. Wells removes nationalism from the equation, creating the premier worldview of history, told from a global rather than a local point of view.

With The Outline of History Wells started a craze that lasted throughout the 1920s for copycat "outlines" on every conceivable subject. Coming right after the carnage of World War I, the Outline was neither unduly pessimistic and cynical about the human condition nor Pollyannaish about humanity's future. Instead, it offered an account of the development of the world's civilizations up to the present, showing its readers that an enlightened future depended on a clear, unprejudiced view of the past.

About the Author:
H. G. Wells is most famous for being one of the godfathers of science fiction. His masterpieces include The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The War of the Worlds. Born in 1866 in the small town of Bromley, England, to an impoverished family, Wells never forgot the hardships of his origin and wrote with the common man in mind.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781154807035
  • Publisher: General Books LLC
  • Publication date: 3/28/2010
  • Pages: 726
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.59 (d)

Meet the Author

H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells
"Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe," H. G. Wells once said. Widely revered as the father of science fiction, the English novelist, journalist, sociologist, and historian penned ominous -- and educated -- glimpses at humanity's possible future, including The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898).


Social philosopher, utopian, novelist, and "father" of science fiction and science fantasy, Herbert George Wells was born on September 21, 1866, in Bromley, Kent. His father was a poor businessman, and young Bertie's mother had to work as a lady's maid. Living "below stairs" with his mother at an estate called Uppark, Bertie would sneak into the grand library to read Plato, Swift, and Voltaire, authors who deeply influenced his later works. He shoed literary and artistic talent in his early stories and paintings, but the family had limited means, and when he was fourteen years old, Bertie was sent as an apprentice to a dealer in cloth and dry goods, work he disliked.

He held jobs in other trades before winning a scholarship to study biology at the Normal School of Science in London. The eminent biologist T. H. Huxley, a friend and proponent of Darwin, was his teacher; about him Wells later said, "I believed then he was the greatest man I was ever likely to meet." Under Huxley's influence, Wells learned the science that would inspire many of his creative works and cultivated the skepticism about the likelihood of human progress that would infuse his writing.

Teaching, textbook writing, and journalism occupied Wells until 1895, when he made his literary debut with the now-legendary novel The Time Machine, which was followed before the end of the century by The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds, books that established him as a major writer. Fiercely critical of Victorian mores, he published voluminously, in fiction and nonfiction, on the subject of politics and social philosophy. Biological evolution does not ensure moral progress, as Wells would repeat throughout his life, during which he witnessed two world wars and the debasement of science for military and political ends.

In addition to social commentary presented in the guise of science fiction, Wells authored comic novels like Love and Mrs. Lewisham, Kipps, and The History of Mister Polly that are Dickensian in their scope and feeling, and a feminist novel, Ann Veronica. He wrote specific social commentary in The New Machiavelli, an attack on the socialist Fabian Society, which he had joined and then rejected, and literary parody (of Henry James) in Boon. He wrote textbooks of biology, and his massive The Outline of History was a major international bestseller.

By the time Wells reached middle age, he was admired around the world, and he used his fame to promote his utopian vision, warning that the future promised "Knowledge or extinction." He met with such preeminent political figures as Lenin, Roosevelt, and Stalin, and continued to publish, travel, and educate during his final years. Herbert George Wells died in London on August 13, 1946.

Author biography from the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of The War of the Worlds.

Good To Know

In 1891, Wells married his cousin Isabel. However, he eventually left her for one of his brightest students, Amy Catherine, whom he married in 1895.

Wells was once interviewed on the radio by an extremely nervous Orson Welles. The two are unrelated, of course.

Many of Wells's novels became film adaptations, including The Island of Dr. Moreau, filmed in 1996 by Richard Stanley and John Frankenheimer, and The Time Machine, filmed in 2002 by Wells's great-grandson, Simon Wells.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Herbert George Wells (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 21, 1866
    2. Place of Birth:
      Bromley, Kent, England
    1. Date of Death:
      August 13, 1946
    2. Place of Death:
      London, England


H. G. Wells conferred upon The Outline of History a subtitle—"Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind"—that is probably more indicative than the main title of what the work really is. For to call a work of over one thousand pages and five hundred thousand words an "outline" betrays our common notion of the term. But if "plain" means plainly or clearly written so a general reader can understand it, and if "life and mankind" means it is a history of the beginnings of life on Earth and the subsequent development of the social, political, and economic history of the highest life form—then we have a pretty fair description of Wells' endeavor. Written over an amazingly short period of time in 1918-1919 by a highly successful English man of letters, The Outline of History caught on first in Britain and America and then throughout the rest of the literate world, selling in its first decade over two million copies, to highly enthusiastic professional reviews. Wells had started a craze that lasted throughout the 1920s for copycat "outlines" on every conceivable subject. Coming right after the carnage of World War I, the Outline was neither unduly pessimistic and cynical about the human condition nor Pollyannaish about humanity's future. Instead, it pretended to offer an account of the development of the world's civilizations up to the present, trying to convince its readers that an enlightened future depended on a clear, unprejudiced view of the past. Many readers must have been convinced. Even twenty years after its initial publication, when it was in its sixth edition, The Outline of History and its author were well enough known that in the film The Maltese Falcon, Sidney Greenstreet's malevolent character can tell Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) that the story of the Falcon is true, though he will not find it in "Mr. Wells' History."

H. G. Wells was by 1918 perhaps the best-known writer in the English-speaking world. His name may still be the most recognizable of any author's of his generation, thanks mostly to his enduringly popular science-fiction novels, such as The War of the Worlds (1898). Novelist, polemicist, scientific popularizer, journalist, socialist, futurist, and advocate of world government, birth control, and other "progressive" measures, H. G. Wells had raised himself from humble beginnings to a life of international celebrity and financial success. Born in 1866, he achieved early success with his science-fiction romances, and by 1918 had solidified that popularity and increased his literary reputation with such serious realistic novels as Tono-Bungay (1909). Wells was largely self-taught though he had attended a teacher's college where he studied under the great T. H. Huxley, Darwin's so-called "bulldog," the most prominent public apologist for the theory of evolution. Like his mentor, Wells was an unabashed "progressive," convinced that the world could be understood without recourse to revelation or mythical narratives, that science ultimately could explain the material world, and that a dispassionate "scientific" attitude toward human endeavor was actually essential for prosperity and, as years went on, even for the survival of the species. Occasionally Wells' fame lapsed into infamy, for he was something of a philanderer, fathering at least two children out of wedlock, one by the novelist Rebecca West rather quietly, and the other not so quietly by Amber Reeves, the young daughter of a fellow Fabian socialist. When Wells died in 1946, there was almost universal agreement that, in the words of Dora Russell, the philosopher Bertrand Russell's much younger second wife, Wells had been, along with George Bernard Shaw and her husband, one of the "great emancipators from Victorian orthodoxy."

Why then did Wells write The Outline of History? Certainly not because he foresaw the immense financial bonanza it would become for him. In fact, he was on a mission. If future conflagrations like the Great War were to be avoided, a fundamental reordering of the political system had to be undertaken. The world would have to adopt an international system far more radical than Woodrow Wilson's proposed League of Nations. And mankind could only unite in such a system if it had a better idea of its common history. A "universal" history, as Wells called it, would break down the old nationalistic, ethnic, and racial divisions by plotting, from the beginnings of the planet, the human race's common heritage. This may sound far too utopian, but Wells' realism should be stressed. He did not think a "magic bullet" was found in history. Instead, he thought of history with its progression of thought and possibility of beneficial action as essential if humanity were to advance. In short, history will emancipate (to use Dora Russell's word) one from mere sectarian or local prejudices and provide an enlightened review of humanity's possibilities to help shape a better future.

To further guarantee that The Outline of History would have the desired impact, the amateur Wells enlisted many experts to help him. His biggest aid was probably the magnificent eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a work that remained justly famous as far superior to both its predecessor editions and its successors throughout most of the century. Wells lists over fifty specialists in his introduction, and to the principal four he provided not only handsome remunerations but also the honor of having their names listed on the title page (following "with the advice and editorial help of"). Wells was justifiably proud of his omnivorous knowledge, however he was not only humble enough to seek advice, but shrewd enough to supply his volumes the extra pedigree that only professional and renowned scholars could provide.

What then did the early readers of the Outline find when they opened the first volume of Mr. Wells' latest work? What they did not find was another version of what Wells called the "King and Country" history, his term for the narrowly nationalistic (and chauvinistic) history taught in the schools. For Wells, this kind of history, with its emphasis on one country's "heroes" and battles and accomplishments, was part of the problem. Indeed in the first volume of the Outline, the original British and American readers found a history that began long before their respective nations came into existence. Readers might have been used to such a looking back, but only in a limited way. If they were better schooled they would expect to find a treatment of classical Greece and Rome and of biblical history. The not-so-well-trained would only be aware of some Bible stories. In the Outline they found both classical and Old Testament history covered, to be sure, but placed within a much wider scope. The Greeks were picked up, for example, when their ancestors first ventured onto the Balkan peninsula. And their ancestors were traced back to their first arrival in Europe. The Hebrews were made to share their geographic territory with all the other peoples of the region, and their relative unimportance at the time was carefully noted.

In short, Wells insisted on a far different idea of historical contextualization than had usually obtained in the past. The reader would not only find more space given to the ancient civilizations that came into contact with the Greeks and Hebrews, but also to civilizations completely remote from them. Thus Chinese culture is given its due, and Confucius comes off as one of the most admired ethical teachers of the early period—as does Buddha. And Asoka (264-227 BC), an Indian ruler whom Wells says is the first leader to abandon warfare as a tool of state, is valued and honored as perhaps no other political leader in the entire volume.

One might expect that Wells, a freethinker when it came to religion, would use the occasion to attack religion or specifically Judeo-Christian beliefs. But nothing could be further from the truth. First he sees the rise in prehistoric times of a "priestly class" as one of the great moments in the advance of civilization, for they are the first "writing class," the first "reading public." Any convincing explanation of the purpose and potential of mankind would have to start with this. And with Christianity, Wells masterfully combines the latest skeptical biblical scholarship with an appreciation of the moral saneness of Jesus and the intellectual rigor of St. Paul. As for the Jews, they are central to his story of "progress," for with them, "the ideas of the moral unity of mankind and of a world peace had come into the world."

Wells, as we have noted, does insist that the ancient Hebrews were far less important in their world than any recent opinion would have. He has the same tendency to place classical civilization in its diminished place, doubtless in part as a reaction to its too-exclusive centrality in liberal arts education, especially in England. But it is within Greek civilization that Wells finds his first true hero—i.e., the first man who could have brought about the kind of universal government that Wells thought the world was tending to or needed to move toward. Unfortunately, like Julius Caesar a few hundred years later, Alexander the Great proves less than adequate to the task thanks to character defects, and the readers are witness to what undoubtedly was an unexpectedly harsh assessment of the Macedonian conqueror.

In short, the first readers of The Outline of History would have found a far more tempered treatment of the civilizations most invoked in their own time as examples of exemplary accomplishments and moral vigor. And they would have found perfectly alien civilizations and belief systems-many of whose modern descendents or adherents were now under European colonial control—treated with respect and often ranked as more important than their own Western cultural ancestry.

But the first readers would also have found that Wells thought it necessary for them to know far more than the story of ancient and potent civilizations. It was necessary to know something of the beginnings of the planet and of life itself. Thus the Outline opens with "The Earth In Space and Time," which tries to give the reader some sense of the vastness of the universe, followed by chapters and subchapters on the origins of life, the evolution of life from single-celled organisms up through reptiles to mammals to early man. The chapters are proof that Wells was a science-minded thinker in his own right and believed that a basic knowledge of science was necessary for a "world citizen," as he might put it. Still, one might question how necessary this is for a history of human endeavors. But any debate on that point would obscure the sense of empowerment this material could give to the first readers.

We have been inundated for so long with "Big Bang" theories and popular films about dinosaurs and documentaries on cave-paintings and the like that we tend to forget that just about all the knowledge represented by these topics is quite recent. Wells himself was born while most of the great innovators in geology, astronomy, paleontology, biology, physics, anthropology, and philology were still alive. At least in the broad outline we are reading material today that is just as valid as it was supposed to be in 1920. But readers in the 1920s were examining material that in 1820 was in its entirety almost completely unknown. Surely that first generation of readers of The Outline of History felt a sense of intellectual pride and even ownership that we can only guess at—surely they felt far more inclined to follow Mr. Wells in his search for a better world when they saw how much the human mind was capable of reconstructing, recuperating, or theorizing.

It is much the same with Wells' treatment of his scholarly "co-authors." Until the fourth edition, Wells not only put their names on the title page, but allowed them to argue with him in the footnotes. This has the effect of letting his readers understand the nature of intellectual inquiry: It proceeds by debate, not by fiat. And the mere fact that Wells does not change the text to conform to expert opinion indicates his continuing disagreement. Such editorial behavior, one would suspect, is empowering, as it shows that the common man can argue with experts. After all, it is unreasonable to expect the ordinary reader to retain many of the names, dates, and events that inevitably assault the brain when reading a rapid-fire history like the Outline. If the reader emerged from the experience more tolerant, more aware of a vast scope of time and cultures outside his own, and with the confidence that he could play a significant and intelligent part on the world stage, then Wells surely would have achieved his goal.

With the passing of time, it is fair to ask whether there was anything that Wells, his first readers, and his first reviewers did not notice that we might find offensive or at least insensitive today. The answer is yes, and the problem lies where one probably would have guessed. In spite of Wells' "universalizing" tendencies and his attempt to avoid privileging certain Western traditions, he is still a child of the West, and he clearly displays a Eurocentric bias even is his treatment of early man, where far more attention is paid to the ancestors of modern Europeans than to those of other groups. And he is equally prejudiced in favor of the Indo-European family of languages (the group which includes almost all European languages, ancient and modern). This not only proves that Wells and his uncomplaining readers and reviewers were products of their time, it also shows how "science" can mislead. For in both these endeavors, Wells was dependent on the very scholars he had sought out to keep him from error. The section on the "languages of man," for example, is almost wholly derived from the Britannica, and represents current or nearly current—the field was fast changing—thinking and methodology on the subject.

But there is no reason to read The Outline of History to find these historical "slips" or diminish Wells' accomplishment. It is far more rewarding to read the work in its first edition for the enjoyment and knowledge it still brings, and at the same time to intuit the wonder and respect many ordinary readers in search of enlightenment must have felt as they worked their way through Mr. Wells' emancipating history of life and mankind.

William T. Ross is Professor of English at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He is the author of H. G. Wells's World Reborn: The Outline of History and its Companions (2002) and many other studies of twentieth century literature and culture.
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