Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The New America: the New World (1935)

Wells travelled to the USA in 1934, and went back again at the beginning of 1935. The second of these trips was commissioned by Collier's, who wanted Wells's view of the Rooseveltian New Deal. They paid him $12,500, plus all his expenses—first class cabin to New York, accommodation in the best clubs in the States, a flight from New York to Washington. In return he wrote them four articles, which were later collected in this slim (it's less than 100 pages) volume. He was in America for 23 days. He spoke to people and moseyed around. He had lunch with Roosevelt (Wells declines to report ‘upon the particular things that were said in our rambling and discursive conversation. It was not an “interview” for publication’ [50]) and chatted with Louisiana Senator Huey Long among others.

One thing that strikes him is how much influence demagogues have upon US public opinion: what he calls ‘raucous voices’, pulling the country into what he sees as a series of radically incommensurate directions. So: no change there over the last 80 or so years. Wells argues that ‘the great masses of the American population ... were ready and eager for a New Deal’ but that now ‘the actual New Deal has not gone far enough and fast enough for them, and that is what the shouting is about’ [41]. Conceivably, though, the shouting is more integral to the republic than might be explained by disagreements about specific government policy. I don't know. Nobody has paid me what would be in modern money several hundred thousand dollars to go round America asking people.

Wells undertakes a certain amount of discussion of elements of FDR's policies, which boils down to his feeling the New Deal is too much of a sticking-plaster designed, fundamentally, to maintain a status quo Wells believed had to be swept away. Some of the criticism is more convincing than others. There is for instance an odd insistence in the book that aspects of the New Deal (Wells means but doesn't specifically mention the NRA Blue Eagle campaign, which sought among other things to rein-in agrarian and industrial over-production and so raise prices for producers) was an attack on vitality as such.
I must confess that I am temperamentally hostile to all attempts to lower the vitality of the human community in order to ease its troubles. But I think that below this innate feeling there is an intuition of a primary biological fact. A living creature or species that will not live more and more, will soon be living less and less and presently pass away. Restraint that concentrates vigour is always justifiable, but only if it amounts to a real net gain in vitality. Birth control, for example, may be either a means to fewer, better, and individually more energetic offspring, in which case it is admirable, or a mere evasion of parental responsibility, in which case it is an attentuation of life. And in a large part of the governments’ controls of production in America and Great Britain, I cannot see anything else but devitalization. [New America, 63]
It's not that this makes Wells sound like a suspiciously right-wing free-marketeers although it sort-of does. It's more that it makes him sound like Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper in Dr Strangelove, banging on about precious bodily fluids.

It's a short book, and it makes for quite an interesting read. I'd have liked more on Roosevelt, to be honest. He and Wells were friends, after a fashion; FDR read Wells and wrote letters praising his books, and Wells met him in 1934 as well as in 1935. But The New America doesn't give us much. Wells writes that Roosevelt ‘looked well and energetic’ [48], which is the white lie all correspondents agreed to disseminate where that crippled and physically ailing man was concerned. ‘He talked with that curiously detached freedom, which is part of his distinctive charm for me’, Wells adds, which, to be honest, I'm not sure I understand. But Wells is surely right with his broader comments on the office FDR occupied:
The job of being President of the United States is one of the most difficult, the most nearly impossible, ever devised by the ingenuity of man. A politician is elected and he is expected to become a divinity. Past presidents of the United States belong to two classes; those who attempted to rise to the occasion, and those, the majority, who did nothing of the sort, and from the outset remained, like Harding, apologetic good fellows, or like Hoover, just paralyzed figure-heads overcome by their own prominence. Wilson was the great tragedy in the former class. In some respects I imagine Franklin Roosevelt has got nearer to the effect of a divinity floating in a cloud a little off the earth, than anyone of his predecessors. He is a politician, they say, although, how it could be possible to become President of the United States and not be a politician, no one has ever explained to me; but at any rate he is an exceptionally subtle and exalted politician. [New America, 48-49]
And here we are, in 2018, with Donald Trump as President. Ho hum.


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  2. After inflation, $12,500 in 1935 dollars is worth $220,000 today. And that's before expenses, too.

    Not bad for a past-his-prime old coot like Wells.

    Granted that in the years before television, the big American magazines could dispense truly regal fees to writers (e.g. as late as 1950, Vonnegut sold his first two short stories to the SATURDAY EVENING POST, and his whole family could live off that for a year). But for comparison with Wells's case, in the same mid-1930s period Ernest Hemingway 'only' got $250 each for the monthly pieces he did for Arnold Gingrich's ESQUIRE, and some of those are near to being great lit.

    1. It is amazing money, though, isn't it? And it lasting right through the 20th-C: big name writers in the 80s and 90s could command ridiculous fees for Sunday Supplement high-profile stories (though the unfamous were being paid much less). I've been in the novel-writing game long enough to remember when there was a sudden influx of journalists into the ranks of the fictioneers: they'd been being paid handsome money, and it dropped off a cliff with the coming of the Internet, and they were looking to bump-up their income by utilising their core skill. I have a very limited experience of journalism, just some reviewing for some newspapers and mags, but even the very modest remuneration for that work has slipped back over the last five years ...

  3. Vitality, indeed! I wonder if he'd been reading Bergson, or T.E. Hulme.