English Innocents Abroad: Wells and Lewis

by zunguzungu

Amused by the questions they ask him at immigration (“Are you a Polygamist? Are you an Anarchist?”), as well as startled by the cunning with which they invite him to incriminate himself, H.G. Wells launches into a discussion of the Future, America’s future (in The Future in America). It’s a curious choice; after noting that people would expect him to write about England, he recuses himself by pointing to the partiality of his English eyes which prevent him from examining his own native country. Maybe. But he also notes that “Our future is extraordinarily bound up in America’s and in a sense dependent upon it…a common Englishman has an almost pathetic pride and sense of proprietorship in the States; he is fatally ready to fall with the idea that two nations that share their past, that still, a little restively, share one language, may even contrive to share an infinitely more interesting future…in that sense indeed America belongs to the whole western world…” It’s still a curious choice, though.

Apparently he was to have co-written a novel with Henry James (the mind boggles), and here he discusses the “the prophetic habit of mind” they share:

“I find this characteristic turn of mine, not only in Heraclitus, the most fragmentary of philosophers, but for one fine passage at any rate, in Mr. Henry James, the least fragmentary of novelists. In his recent impressions of America, I find him apostrophizing the great mansions of Fifth Avenue, in words quite after my heart;–

“It’s very well,” he writes, “for you to look as if, since you’ve no past, you’re going in, as the next best thing, for a magnificent compensatory future. What are you going to make your future of, for all your airs, we want to know? What elements of a future, as futures have gone in the great world, are at all assured to you?”

“I had already, when I read that, figured myself as addressing if not these particular last triumphs of the fine Transatlantic art of architecture, then at least America in general in some words. It is not unpleasant to be anticipated by the chief Master of one’s craft, it is indeed, when one reflects upon his particular intimacy with this problem, enormously reassuring, and so I have gladly annexed his phrasing and put it her to honor and adorn and in a manner to explain my own enterprise.”

And, just to throw a little counterpoint on the grill, here’s a bizarre bit of dialogue from America, I Presume, Wyndham Lewis’ repulsive but funny travel narrative to the states. Before being commissioned to travel to the States, he meets an old college friend in a club and they strike up a conversation:

“What are you up to now, Kitters? I asked. “Still n*****-driving, on the Dark Continent? Or up in Chitral?”
“God no!” said he, looking over at one of the women, and tipping his glass, I thought, in her direction. “Africa’s played out. Another Dark Continent claims all my attention. I spend most of my time in America”