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H. G. Wells Of England Post by :AOIII Category :Essays Author :Heywood Broun Date :November 2011 Read :1626

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H. G. Wells Of England

H. G. Wells in his Outline of History seldom seems just an Englishman. He fights his battles and makes most of his judgments alone and generally in defiance of the traditions of his countrymen, but he is not bold enough to face Napoleon Bonaparte all by himself. The sight of the terrible little Corsican peeping over the edge of the thirty-eighth chapter sends Wells scurrying from his solitude into the center of a British square. It must be that when Wells was little and bad his nurse told him that if he did not eat his mush or go to bed, or perform some other necessary function in the daily life of a child, Old Bony would get him. And Wells is still scared. He takes it out, of course, by pretending that Napoleon has been vastly overrated and remarks that it was pretty lucky for him that he lost Trafalgar and never got to England, where troops would have made short work of him.

Nelson, Wells holds, was just as great a figure in his own specialty as Napoleon in his, but if so it seems a pity that he did not rise to Wellsian heights of strategy and lose Trafalgar so that Napoleon might land and be defeated by British pluck and skill. Then, indeed, might Waterloo have been won upon the cricket fields of Eton.

Not only does Wells insist on regarding Napoleon through national lenses but through moral ones also. Speaking of his accession as First Consul, Wells writes: "Now surely here was opportunity such as never came to man before. Here was a position in which a man might well bow himself in fear of himself, and search his heart and serve God and man to the utmost."

That, of course, was not Napoleon's intent. His performance must be judged by his purpose, and it seems to us that Wells doesn't half appreciate how brilliant was the stunt which Napoleon achieved. "He tried to do the impossible and did it." Man was no better for him and neither was God, but he remains still the great bogy man of Europe, a bogy great enough to have frightened Mr. Wells and marked him. Here was a man who took life and made it theatrical. It was an achievement in popular æsthetics, if nothing else, but Wells doesn't care about æsthetics. Perhaps even a moral might be extracted from the life of Napoleon. He proved the magic quality of personality and the inspiration of gesture. Some day the same methods may be used to better advantage.

The institution of the Legion of Honor Wells calls "A scheme for decorating Frenchmen with bits of ribbon which was admirably calculated to divert ambitious men from subversive proceedings." But these same bits of ribbon and the red and green ones of the Croix de Guerre and the yellow and green of the Médaille Militaire were later to save France from the onrush of the Germans. Without decorations, without phrases and without the brilliant and effective theatrical oratory of French officers, from marshals to sub-lieutenants, France would have lost the great war. Everybody who saw the French army in action realized that its morale was maintained during the worst days by colored ribbons and florid speeches. Even the stern and taciturn Pershing learned the lesson, and before he had been in France three months he was about making speeches to wounded men in which he told them that he wished that he, too, were lying in hospital with all their glory. Personally, it never seemed to me that Pershing actually convinced any wounded doughboy of his enthusiasm for such a change, but he did not use the gesture with much skill. He lacked the Napoleonic tradition.

Another American officer, a younger one, said, "If I ever have anything to do with West Point I'm going to copy these Frenchmen. They do it naturally, but we've got to learn. I'm going to introduce a course in practical theatricalism. Now, if I were a general, as soon as I heard of some little trench raid in which Private Smith distinguished himself I'd send a staff officer down on the sly to find out what Smith looked like. Then I'd inspect that particular organization and when I got to Smith my aide would nudge me and I'd turn, as if instinctively, and say, 'Isn't that Private Smith who distinguished himself on the evening of January 18 at 8 o'clock? I want to shake your hand, Smith.' Why, man, the French army has been living and breathing on stuff like that for the last two years."

It is an easy matter to satirize the heroic and theatrical gesture. The French themselves did it. Once in the Chamber of Deputies, late in the war, a Radical member, who didn't care much for the war, anyway, and still less for the Cabinet, arose and said: "This morning as I was walking in the streets of Paris a little before dawn I saw three camions headed for the front, and I stopped the first driver and said, 'Ah, I am overjoyed to see that at last the ministry is awake to the needs of our brave poilus and is sending supplies to the front. What is it that you carry--ammunition, clothing, food?' But the driver shook his head and said, 'No; Croix de Guerre.'"

But the satire does not cut too deeply, for Croix de Guerre played just as important a part in winning the war as food or ammunition or clothing. I heard a French colonel once cry to a crowd of prisoners returned from Germany, broken and ill: "Now, let us hear you shout that which it has been so long forbidden to you to say, 'Vive la France!'" And as he spoke his arm shot up into the air and his voice rang like a trumpet call, and everybody within sound of the man straightened up and thrilled as if he had just heard of a great victory. It was fine art for all the fact that it was probably also sincere.

No, when Napoleon had himself crowned in Nôtre Dame it was not, as Wells says, "Just a ridiculous scene." Napoleon realized that a play can be staged in a cathedral or upon a battlefield just as well as in a theater, and that man, who may come in time to be the superman of whom Wells dreams is still a little boy sitting in the gallery, ready to applaud and to shout for any dressed-up person who knows how to walk to the center of the stage and hold it.


(The end)
Heywood Broun's essay: H. G. Wells Of England

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