Scholarship and the
Riddle of the Sphinx
Leon Stover, ed. The Time Machine: An Invention: A Critical Text of the 1895 London First
Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. THE ANNOTATED WELLS,
Vol. 1. 258pp. $45 ($48 pp.) McFarland & Co. Inc., Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640),
Leon Stover's purpose in this edition of The Time
Machine is to make plain to present-day readers what was presumably plain to readers
in England in 1895. To that end he has reproduced the text of the first London edition and
provided it with an introduction and a number of appendices designed to put it into
context and with 257 explanatory notes, some of considerable length. Others have glossed
terms in The Time Machine, but none so many or in such great detail.
The introduction begins with an identification that was
presumably obvious to turn-of-the-century readers but that has apparently escaped all the
many critics that have written on the novel since the beginnings of the Wells revival: the
Sphinx encountered by the Time Traveler in AD 802,701 represents the Sphinx of Carlyle's Past
and Present. According to Stover, Carlyle posed the riddle of the Sphinx as "'the
immense problem of Organizing Labour, first of all Managing the Working Classes'" and
argued that the "'Organization of Labour must be taken out of the hands of absurdly
windy persons [trade unionists] and put in the hands of Industrial Leaders,' those
'Commanders of Working Men' and 'Captains of Industry' who are needed as 'Fighters against
Stover's derivation of morlock from mallock
(9), while reasonable enough, is of less interest, unless one accepts his grand thesis:
that the morlocks are descended from the unionized workers of the 19th century and
that the moral of The Time Machine is that "the only hope" for avoiding a
Marxist revolution that would lead eventually to a world of Eloi and Morlocks, is "to
solve the Sphinx riddle here and nowcrush the labor movement and install a working
aristocracy of new-class intellectuals who understand their duty to save mankind from
chaos and extinction" (107 n150).
Scholarship. By any standard of scholarship, Stover's
work is sadly deficient. There are no page references for any of the quotations from
Carlyle, and many of the references for the quotations from Wells are erroneous in one way
or another; all the quotations from both Carlyle and Wells are wrenched out of context and
many are doctored in ways that falsify the meanings they have in their proper context.
Stover seldom quotes a full paragraph from Wells or Carlyle or even a full sentence. His
usual practice is to insert an enquoted phrase into a sentence of his own, which can
produce absurdities of various kinds.
The most absurd of such sentences is perhaps: "The
Morlocks, heirs to the 'resentful slacker' (1944:74) of today, work only enough to
maintain the cattle-like Eloi as a 'permanent edible class' (1928a: 179)." The source
of the first insertion is a chapter title in '42 to '44; in that chapter the
resentful slacker is a war-time bureaucrat who feels he should have a higher position in
the bureaucracy and so does his job slackly and ill-humoredly. The second is from Mr.
Blettsworthy on Rampole Island: "A multitude of other traps awaited the
unobservant, the unlucky or the recalcitrant, and secured a permanent edible class for the
comfort and support of the higher ranks in the social pyramid" (ß3.3:151). So in
Stover's hands Wellsian attacks on bureaucrats and the exploitation of the poor by the
rich become attacks on unionized working men.
Stover's mishandling of Carlyle begins with slipshod
bibliographical statements: "'The Sphinx' [is] the key essay of his most famous
collection, Past and Present (1843). Required of school children to study for its
ornate prose, this title was unavoidably familiar to Wells's readers..." (2). Past
and Present is a unified work, not a collection; "The Sphinx" is not an
essay but a chapter. Stover's bibliography lists for Carlyle only the Works of
1896-1901; that is, there is no entry for the putative essay nor for any schoolbook in
which it might have been printed.
Stover writes that Carlyle "blamed trade unions for
the labor unrest of his day" (8) and believed that in England "Labor is out of
control, agitated by insurrectionary trade unions to breed a 'Human Chaos'" and
"organiz[ing] itself with 'ape's freedom' in pursuit of sectarian class interests at
the expense of social duty; with the 'liberty of apes,' Labor seeks its own greed"
Carlyle does not blame trade unions for the social unrest
of his day; instead he blames the indifference of the rich to the miseries of the poor.
Trade unionism is never discussed in Past and Present; trade-union leaders are
mentioned only in passing, only six times, and always alongside other nuisances. Carlyle
does not think that "Labor is out of control"; instead, as we shall see, he is
impressed by the meekness with which working men have accepted upper-class rule. The
charge that Carlyle likens working men to apes (a charge later compounded with
"Carlyle further harps on this imagery when he emphatically declares that only
industrial discipline, under a working aristocracy, is all that distinguishes 'the Species
Man from the Genus Ape!'") is simply false. The "liberty of apes" is dealt
with, and Stover's species-genus quotation comes from, a passage in the chapter called
The 'tendency to persevere,' to persist in spite of
hindrances, discouragement and 'impossibilities': it is this that in all things
distinguished the strong soul from the weak: the civilized burgher from the nomadic
savagethe Species Man from the Genus Ape!" (ß4.5:266; the edition cited here
and below was published in 1947 in London and New York as Everyman's Library 608).
It is permanent employment that Carlyle argues for in
"Permanence," and it is the liberty of the employer to dismiss his employees at
any time for any reason that he would abolish.
Carlyle never characterizes working men as greedy:
these poor Manchester manual workers mean only, by
day's-wages for day's-work, certain coins of money adequate to keep them living;in
return for their work, such modicum of food, clothes and fuel as will enable them to
continue their work itself. (ß1.3:20)
Carlyle does not equate "absurdly windy persons"
with "trade unionists" and does not advocate putting the organization of labor
"into the hands of industrial leaders"; Stover's "The 'Organization of Labour' must be taken out of the hands of absurdly windy persons [trade unionists] and put
into the hands of Industrial Leaders'" is a grossly doctored version of a passage in
which Carlyle is satirizing certain proposals for reform:
Alas, what a business will this be, which our Continental
friends, groping this long while somewhat absurdly about it and about it, call
'Organization of Labour'; which must be taken out of the hands of absurd windy
persons, and put into the hands of wise, laborious, modest and valiant men. (ß3.10:188)
Finally, Carlyle does not advocate turning everything over
to industrialists. In the utopian fourth book of Past and Present, phrases like
"Captains of Industry" express not present-day realities but hopes for the
future: a captain of industry would be an industrialist who assumed for his employees the
kind of responsibility that an army officer is ideally supposed to assume for his men. The
fourth book is primarily addressed not to industrialists but to Parliament, which should
enact laws providing educational and health services and requiring living wages, steady
employment, and improved working conditions. In sum, what Past and Present
advocates is not the suppression of labor but the creation of a welfare state.
According to Stover, Wells in 1893 was not only
anti-Marxist but, it seems, hysterically class-conscious:
The class warfare predicted by Carlyle soon was energized
by the Marxist-driven SDF. Its actions led to the Great London Dick Strike of 1889, which
for the first time won the legal right of unskilled labor to unionize; and to the Coal War
of 1893, which closed down every coal mine in Great Britain, and which further won the
right of Labor to form its own political party. H.G. Wells, like all anti-Marxist
intellectuals in England, was aghast at this latest outrage of proletarian arrogance.
I do not believe that Stover can produce one scintilla of
evidence for his assertion that Wells in 1893 was "outraged" by an instance of
"proletarian arrogance" or for Wells's having been in 1893, or ever, anti-union
or passionately anti-Marxist. Though Wells found no place for trade unions in his imagined
classless utopias, he did see them as having a legitimate function in the present-day
world: see ß7.6 of The Work, Wealth, and Happiness of Mankind (NY 1931),
especially page 286:
the worker is no longer an isolated individual or even a
member of a helot class. He is a voter, a citizen with acknowledged rights.... He is also,
if he is wise, a member of a respected and powerful union which guards his hours and wages
and champions him in any case of ill-treatment or injustice.
And in Meanwhile (1927), a novel on the General
Strike of 1924, the unions are much more sympathetically treated than the employers or the
For Wells in his student days and throughout his life,
Marx was simply one of the many writers who had made contributions to socialist theory,
his "main contribution" being a fairly convincing demonstration, that a system
of competitive production for profit could not be a permanent system. Competition, he
showed, argues the final victory of a dominating competitor (or group of competitors)
which will own practically everything and attempt to hold all mankind in unendurable
subjection. Unendurableand hence, he argued, the revolution. (Experiment in
Autobiography [NY 1934], 202).
If Wells in the years 1895-1899 was not in some respects
himself a Marxist, he was at least ready to use Marxist theory as the basis for a future
history that would lead to the world of 2100 as depicted in When the Sleeper Wakes:
And this spreading usurpation of the world was so
dexterously performed...that it was already far advanced before common men suspected the
tyranny that had come. The Council never hesitated, never faltered. Means of
communication, land, buildings, governments, municipalities, the territorial companies of
the tropics, every human enterprise, it gathered greedily. And it drilled and marshaled
its men, its railway police, its roadway police, its house guards, and drain and cable
guards, its hosts of land-workers. Their unions it did not fight, but it undermined and
betrayed and bought them. It bought the world at last. (NY 1899, ß14:100)
It is typical of Stover's misreading of Wells that he
should ignore such passages in When the Sleeper Wakes in favor of the
The comatose body of the title Sleeper, a democratic
socialist named Graham, is maintained by a trust fund set up by his friends in 1897. When
he wakes up 203 years later, he finds the accumulated interest amounts to half of the
world's wealth, now held by a Council of Trustees whose twelve members ironically rule the
planet in Graham's name. The trust at once recalls Bellamy's council of industrial
officers and anticipates the World Council of Directors in Things to Come..., but
in all cases the purpose is the same: to win at last for intellectuals "the whip
hand" (1933b:315) over unionized labor in a decisive solution to the Sphinx problem.
And it is typical of Stover's scholarship that there is no
mention of "the whip hand" on page 315 of "1933b" (i.e., The Shape
of Things to Come), nor indeed of "intellectuals" or "unionized
labor" on that page or in the chapter indicated (ß3.9:312-21).
There is a curious parallel between Stover's
identification of Past and Present as a collection of essays rather than a unified
work and his treatment in the following of Socialism and the Great State as if it
were a book-length essay by Wells1:
The Prussian idea originated in 1831, "when the rage
for Saint-Simonism swept through Germany" (Hayek 1979:303). This entailed the picture
of a future society in which "the 'immoral' concepts of individual rights will
disappear and there will be only duties" (353f). It is exactly the futuristic picture
Wells offers in The Shape of Things to Come, in which those "impossible
'rights'" of the democratic order have been swept away (1933b:107). Then will come
about "a general labour conscription together with a scientific organization of
production," on the principle that "to organize for work [is] the primary duty
of our modern civilizations, and organization for work is Socialism (1912a:46, 119)"
Socialism and the Great State
Socialism and the Great State is a collection of
essays for which Wells was one of three editors. Although the words quoted from page 46
are from Wells's essay "The Past and the Great State," those quoted from page
119 are from an essay by one L.C. Chiozza Money, M.P.
But just as bad from the standpoint of interpretative
scholarship is the quoting of the tail-end of a long sentence (i.e., "a general
labour conscription together with a scientific organization of production" in the
final block in the following diagram2) in a context which makes it seem to
indicate that Wells advocates harsh repressive measures to get the work done, whereas in
its proper context it sets forth a way of relieving the working class from such measures.
Stover never mentions the fact that the "general labor conscription" proposed by
Wells in "The Past and the Great State" is to be only for a year or so and never
discusses Wells's argument that "a scientific organization of production" would
relieve everyone for the rest of his or her life not only from toilsome labor but also
from any necessity to work at all (ß4:37-39).
The words from The Shape of Things to Come are also
wrenched out of their proper context:
A struggle for sanity had to take place in the racial
brain, a great casting-out of false assumptions, conventional distortions, hitherto
uncriticized maxims and impossible "rights," a great clearing up of ideas about
moral, material, and biological relationships; it was a struggle that, as we shall see,
involved the passing of three generations. (179, edition cited by Stover)
To call some of the rights claimed by various people
impossible, is not to say that the rights "of the democratic order" are
impossible, and victory in a conflict of propagandas after three generations is hardly a
sweeping away. To read Stover is never to know that Wells devoted the last years of his
life largely to writing and agitating for a declaration of the Rights of Man, which, as
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was adopted by the United Nations in 1957
(David Smith, H.G. Wells, Desperately Mortal: A Biography (New Haven: Yale UP,
If the following means what by all standards of scholarly
writing it should mean, Stover has Wells's own son as an authority for the idea that
Wells's socialism was simply warmed-over Saint-Simonism:
Realizing that Old Testament socialism had been forgotten
once the New Testament socialism of Karl Marx rose to ascendance in SDF, Wells
appropriated Saint-Simonism for himself and personalized it as 'Wellsism' (G.P. Wells,
1984:172; see also Wells 1934:562, where he declares himself a disciple of Saint-Simon's
number one disciple, Auguste Comte). (11).
But G.P. Wells, who merely edited the book referred to (H.G.
Wells in Love), never himself has in it anything to say about Saint-Simonism or
"Wellsism," not on page 172 or any other page. The word "Wellsism"
does appear in the book, on page 73, where Wells is discussing his affair with Amber
Reeves, in a context that makes it seem to have been coined by the young acolyte rather
than by the master himself. If memory serves, the word appears nowhere else in any book or
pamphlet by Wells. Saint-Simon is not listed in the index to Experiment in
Autobiography; he is mentioned in New Worlds for Old (NY 1908, 207) and perhaps
once or twice by Wells elsewhere, but, unlike Plato, More, Owen, George, Morris, or Marx,
never as an influence on his thinking. Finally on this matter, Wells does not, on page 562
of Experiment or elsewhere, proclaim himself a disciple of Auguste Comte.
The Riddle of the Sphinx. Stover defines the riddle of
the Sphinx as
nothing less than the "immense problem of Organizing
Labour, first of all Managing the Working Classes, [which] will, it is very clear, have to
be solved by those that stand practically in the middle of it; by those who themselves
work and preside over work." This "'Organization of Labour' is, if well
understood, the Problem of the whole Future, for all men who in future pretend to govern
This would be fair enough if each of the two quotations
were presented in its proper context: for the second, a call for the enactment of laws
that would require industrialists to improve working conditions (ß4.3: 248); for the
other, a discussion of what government can and cannot do (ß4.4: 259-60).
Though Stover's formulation of Carlyle's riddle of the
Sphinx is approximately accurate, the riddle takes on a much different emphasis in
Carlyle's own formulations. It is first defined simply as "What is Justice?"
(ß1.2:13); It is next expressed as the "huge inarticulate question" put by the
"million of hungry operative men" assembled in the streets of Manchester:
"What do you mean to do with us?" (ß1.3:16-17), and finally in the following
And truly this first practical form of the
Sphinx-question, inarticulately and so audibly put there, is one of the most impressive
ever asked in the world. "Behold us here, so many thousands, millions, and increasing
at the rate of fifty every hour. We are right willing to work; and on the planet Earth is
plenty of work and wages for a million times as many. We ask, if you mean to lead us
toward work; to try to lead us,by ways new, never yet heard of till this new
unheard-of Time? Or if you declare that you cannot lead us? And expect that we are to
remain quietly unled, and in a composed manner perish of starvation? What is it you expect
of us? What is it you mean to do with us?" This question, I say, has been put in the
hearing of all Britain; and will again be put, and ever again, till some answer be given
That Wells was aware of Carlyle's sphinx-question in 1901
and so most probably also in 1895 is evident from a locus overlooked by Stover:
"'What are you going to do with us, we hundreds or millions, who cannot keep pace
with you?' If the new republic emerges at all it will emerge by grappling with this
riddle; it must come into existence by the passes this sphinx will guard" (Anticipations
[NY 1902], ß9:394).
For the Time Traveler, however, the riddle of the sphinx
is not what the upper classes are to do with the lower classes but instead how the Eloi
and the Morlocks came into existence. He formulates, in his second hypothesis, a perfectly
reasonable answer, one too well known to need full recapitulation here:
.... So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves,
pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots; the Workers
continually adapted to the conditions of their labour....
The great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of took on a
different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general
co-operation as I had imagined. Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected
science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of to-day. Its triumph
had not been simply a triumph over nature, but a triumph over nature and the fellow-man.
This, I must warn you, was my theory at the time. I had no convenient cicerone in the
pattern of the utopian books. My explanation may be absolutely wrong. I still think it the
most plausible one. (107-09; ß8 in reprints of the first London edition; ß5 in most
According to Stover, the second hypothesis is rejected in
favor of a third (note 153), but there is no way to escape the finality of "I still
think it the most plausible one." The third hypothesis amends the second not on the
origin of the Eloi and Morlocks but only on their relationship in AD 802,701.
The Time Traveler explains not only why humanity has
divided into two species but also why the Morlocks not only work but also live
underground. Stover never discusses this matter, beyond saying, "It was the coal
miners of [the Coal War of 1893] that surely inspired Wells to his vision of subterranean
Morlocks" (105-06 n148). But the miners did not live underground. Wells himself would
four years later provide a basis for an answer.
In When the Sleeper Wakes, in the London of the
year 2001 (and presumably in all the cities of the world) one third of the people live and
work in underground warrens as clients of the Labour Company, which was once the Salvation
Army but which was bought by the Council and turned into a commercial enterprise required
by its charter to take in any applicant and give him or her a day's lodging for a day's
work, which in effect means permanent subservience, for the applicants are penniless when
they arrive and still penniless after a day's work.
Graham could note the pinched faces, the feeble muscles,
and weary eyes of many of the latter-day workers. Such as he saw at work were noticeably
inferior in physique to the few gaily dressed managers and forewomen who were directing
their labours. The burly labourer of the old Victorian times had followed the dray horse
and all such living force-producers, to extinction; the place of his costly muscles was
taken by some dexterous machine.... In the young cities of Graham's former life, the newly
aggregated labouring masses had been a diverse multitude, still stirred by the tradition
of personal honour and a high morality; now it was differentiating into a distinct class,
with a moral and physical difference of its owneven with a dialect of its own. (NY
In the Wellsian future, as conceived in 1895-1899,
Stover's riddle of the Sphinx was solved in the 21st century: by 2100 the unions had long
since been smashed, and, for that very reason, the unorganized slaves of the Labor
Company, working and living underground, were already undergoing the evolutionary
deterioration that would finally make them into Morlocks.
When not concerned with Wells's supposed dread of
unionized labor, many of Stover's annotations are quite informative; e.g., note 4, which
explains why the Time Traveler's house is lit by gas rather than electricity. But such
information cannot compensate for the misinformation with which Stover seeks to establish
an absurdly false view of Carlyle and Wells.
1. The book is listed in Stover's bibliography simply as
by Wells, with no indication that it is a collection of essays by divers hands (253).
2. The last page of Wells's essay "The Past and Great
State," Socialism and the Great State (UK title The Great State), ed.
H.G. Wells, Frances Evelyn Warwick, and G.R.S. Taylor (NY and London: Harper, 1912), 1-46,
which also appears as "The Great State" in Social Forces in England and
America (NY: 1914), 112-154 (UK title An English Looks at the World, pagination
differs), and The Works of H.G. Wells, Atlantic Edition, Vol. XVIII (NY &
London, 1926), 405-444.
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