World Brain, by H. G. Wells

Appendix 3. — The Fall in America, 1937

Published in Collier’s, January 28th, 1938

I SPENT October and November in America and saw Indian summer at its best, colours such as no other part of the world can boast, russet, glowing reds, keen bright yellows, soft green yellows, grey-blue, black-green, and skies of a serene magnificence. And the white American homes, grey-tiled, nestled brightly in that setting. In Philadelphia it rained, but it always rains in Philadelphia, and New York forgot itself for a day or so and blew and rained. Kansas City looked amazingly fine and handsome and I admired the parklands Henry Ford is laying out by Dearborn and the fine new pile of the Yale library, Gothic with a touch of skyscraper, and 2. great success at that. From the humming plane that took me from Detroit to Boston I looked out and saw Niagara foaming in the sunshine. I spent an instructive day at Flushing while the piledrivers hammered down hundred-foot trees into the mud, like a carpet-layer hammering tacks, preparing for the buildings that are to make New York’s World Fair of 1939 the most wonderful ever. Everywhere colour, warmth, movement, vitality-and people talking about the new depression and possible war.

The depression that has struck America this autumn has been the most surprising thing in the world. It has been like the unaccountable failure of an engine. The wheels that had been spinning so busily slowed down until now the spokes are visible, and nobody on earth seems to know when they will pick up again or even whether they will pick up again. I came over to America once in the season of hope and hardship when President Franklin Roosevelt was newly in the White House. I thought then that he and Stalin were the most eventful persons in the world. They are both in their successes, such as they are, and in their human shortcomings, cardinal men. The old private-property money system was showing signs of age and an imminent breakdown. A new order was indicated as plainly in America as Russia. The New Deal, I assumed, was to be a real effective reconstruction of economic relationships and the Brain Trust was to get together and tell us how. I was particularly keen at that time to see and sample what I could of the Brain Trust, that improvised council of informed and constructive men which had to modernise and re-equip a staggering modern community. I found it a trifle incoherent. I went afterwards to Russia to talk to Gorky and Stalin about the absolute necessity for free discussion if a social order is to be effectively reconstituted. But Gorky I found grown old, fame-bitten and under the spell of Stalin, and Stalin, whom I liked, has never breathed free air in his life and did not know what it meant. When I revisited the President in 1935 things were asway and rather confusing. Now they are clearer. The New Deal was a magnificent promise, and it evoked a mighty volume of hope. Now that hope has been dissipated. Mass-hope is the most wonder-working gift that can come into the hands of a popular leader. The mass-hope of world peace at the end of the Great War, the mass-hope of the Russian revolution and the mass-hope of the New Deal were great winds of opportunity. But these great winds of opportunity do not wait for ships to be built or seamen to . learn navigation. They pass; they are not to be recalled. As I flew now over sunlit America and noted the traffics of life ebbing again below, and realised that that great capital of hope was nearly spent, I found the riddle of how people will behave, get past or stand up to, what is coming to them this year, a problem very difficult to contemplate in a sunlit manner. More and more of them will be short of food and shelter this winter — with no end in sight and nothing of the trustfulness that staved of disaster, perhaps only temporarily, in 1934.

Like hundreds of thousands of people I have had some sleepless nights over that riddle. It has been more and more vivid in my mind, since I wrote Anticipation: in 1900, that our world cannot struggle out of its present confusions and insufficiencies without a vigorous re-organisation of its knowledge, thought and will. Its universities, schools, books, newspapers, discussions and so on seem absurdly inadequate for the task of informing and holding together the mind of our modern world community. Something better has to be built up.

Nothing can be improvised now in time to save us from some extremely disagreeable experiences. The Flood is coming anyhow, and the alternative to despair is to build an ark. My other name is Noah, but I am like someone who plans an ark while the rain is actually beginning. This time I have been giving a lecture in a number of great cities about various possible educational expansions. I have been trying to interest influential people in schemes for knowledge organisation and I have been talking to teachers, professors, educationists — in considerable profusion.

I have never lectured before in America and only my real fanaticism about education made me attempt it at all. I liked it much more and it tired me much less, than I had anticipated, and my audiences abounded in pleasant young people who listened intelligently and asked intelligent questions. There were drawbacks — a processional hand-shaking, for example, and a disposition to lure the lecturing visitor by promises of tea and a quiet time, into large unsuspected assemblies where he is pressed to give an uncovenanted address. He is pushed through a door suddenly and there an ambushed audience is unmasked. It is not generally known in Europe — possibly I have been carried away by some misunderstanding — that in every considerable American city large gatherings of mature, prosperous, well-dressed women are in permanent session. They sit in wait, it seems, for any passing notoriety and having caught one insist on “a few words.” This year they are all wearing black hats. These hats stick in my mind. Ultimately of the most varied shapes, the original theme seems to have been cylindrical, so that the general effect of an assembly of smart American womankind in 1937 is that of a dump of roughly treated black tin cans. The crazy irrelevance of this headgear on embattled middle-aged womanhood, is as essential a part of my memories of America this year, as the general disposition to discuss the depression and suggest nothing about it, and the still unstanched criticism of the President.

I talked to the President over a lunch tray and I told him how variously he was disapproved of and how incapable the opposition seemed to be of presenting a plausible alternative to him. It was our third meeting. I wrote of him some years ago as floating a little above the level of ordinary life. I find him floating more than ever. He seems to me to belong to the type of Lord Balfour, Lord Grey of Fallodon and Justice Holmes, great independent political figures, personally charming, Olympians detached from most of the urgencies of life, dealing in a large leisurely fashion with human stresses. The President is a skilled politician, as Holmes was a great lawyer, and Grey a bird watcher and fly-fisherman, but the quality their statesmanship has in common is its dignified amatcurishness. “Tell me,” Balfour used to say, treating the other fellow as a professional whose business it was to know.

At the first convulsive intimations of failure in the economic machinery of America when Franklin Roosevelt came out as the saviour of his country, “Tell me” was in effect what he said and the Brain Trust was the confused response. I recalled his difficulties to him now, because I wanted to see how far he was a disappointed man and what sort of philosophy he had got out of it. The constitution had lain in wait for him, as every written constitution lies in wait for innovators. But his major insufficiency had been the quality of the aid and direction that the American universities and schools had given him. They hadn’t told him, and instead of specialists they had yielded him oddities. The Brain Trust had proved very incalculable men. Men whom he had promoted had, he remarked, a trick of coming out against him. I pressed my obsession that America, like all the rest of the world, is in trouble because of its inadequate intellectual organisation. Men and women have been educated as competitive individuals and not as social collaborators and even at that the level of information has been low.

He agreed and began talking of certain experiments that had been made in the cultural development of Poughkeepsie county. It seemed to me an interesting and amiable exploitation of leisure, about as adequate to the urgencies of our contemporary situation, as polishing a brass button would be in a naval battle. I did not think him oblivious to the reality that America has to reconstruct its social life and cannot do so without a modernisation of education from top to bottom, but I got a very clear impression that he did not feel in the least responsible. He was not deeply interested in preparing for the future. That indifference is a common quality of the Olympian type.

The Olympian type assumes a competent civil service, but it cannot be troubled to make one. It takes the world as it finds it, and so the worst thing that can be charged against the President’s administration is the continuation of the spoils system in the public services, for which I am told his close association with A. Farley is responsible. You cannot have safe administrators who do not feel safe.

We glanced at the possibility of a successor, but he did not seem to have any particular successor or type of successor in mind. We agreed that the danger of a world-wide war crisis would rise towards a maximum between 1939 and 1940 and he thought that by that time there should be some one younger, quicker, and better equipped to meet the urgencies of possible warfare without delay, in the White House. But he spoke of that rather as his own personal problem than Americas I left this autumnal president, feeling extremely autumnal mysel£ and a day or so after I saw a play in New York, I’d Rather Be Right, in which I found a good-humoured confirmation of my own impression. It was a play about the American future, personified by a young couple who want to marry; the president, sympathetic but inadequate, was the principal character and the cabinet, the supreme court and so forth were presented under their own names. It bore marks of divergent suggestions, cuttings and rearrangements, but the genius and geniality of George M. Cohan made a delightful and sympathetic figure of the chief. The show is saturated with derisive affection. On my previous visits to America I had remarked that President Roosevelt was believed in enormously or hated intensely. The mood has changed. They like him now. They like him more than ever they did, and they believe in his magic no more.

What do they believe in? I varied my old stock question of his critics “What is your alternative?” to “You are in for a bad winter anyhow and what are you doing to prevent an indefinite prolongation of this decline?”

Lots of people just trust to Providence. “I have always come up before,” they say as the drowning man said when he went down for the third time. So far as I could find out, that was the attitude of the old Republican guard. Big business in America appears to be completely bankrupt of political and social philosophy. Probably it never had any. It had simply a set of excuses for practices that were for a time extremely profitable and agreeable. It has over-capitalised the world, exhausted the land and stuck. Unhappily it sticks in the way. The only industrial leader who seems to be looking forward is the evergreen Henry Ford. I spent a congenial day with him at Dearborn and found him greatly concerned with growing the soya bean, which fixes free nitrogen and enriches the soil that every one else is exhausting. You can make everything from soup and biscuits to motor-car bodies and electric switches from the soya bean. But Ford, in addition to being a great inventive genius, is an individualist by habit and temperament and he stands outside the American scheme, a system in himself. He is like Science. He projects new things into the world, Ford cars which revolutionise the common roads and the common life of America, Ford tractors which set collectivisation afoot in Russia and now the limitless possibilities of soya. And like Science he has his political and social limitations. In the great American dégringolade he is like an island of something else. He does not like acquisitive finance and he does not like trade-unionism, but he does not know how to circumvent these two necessary outgrowths of our present competitive property-money system. He has his prejudice against Jewish particularism and his false estimates about the will for peace, but even in that prejudice and that false estimate there is maybe a gleam of prophetic foresight. A harder-thinking United States might have assimilated instead of isolating this outstanding imaginative genius. On the Left side of American affairs, strikes rather than ideas, increase and multiply. I was as much impressed by the number of pickets on the New York pavements as I was by the multitude of black can hats in the women’s societies. I had heard a good deal about john L, Lewis as a coming man who Was going to do great things in politics. I met him and tried to find out how he thought the world was going. It reminded me of the distant past when I tried to get Clynes and Henderson and such-like lights of labour to tell me exactly what they thought they were going to do with the dear old British empire.

Maybe I misjudged him, but the impression I had was of a man, leonine according to the old senatorial model — he would look well in a cage with Senator Borah — and capable, but specialised largely in the purely labour issues of transport and mining. Anthracite and its rights and wrongs have entered into his soul. I aired my lifelong insistence that we and our world are all horribly at sixes and sevens mentally, and that first and foremost the world has to learn and think. He and my host denied hotly that the American Labour Party ignored education.

But I could not satisfy myself that what Labour means by education in America is anything more than an upward extension of the scholastic thing that is, qualified by a certain amount of training for political efficiency. I doubt if in America labour has got even so far as J.F. Horrabin of the British Plebs League or Laski and Strachey of the London Left Book Club, men who have evidently concluded long ago that equipment for an eternal class war is the sole end of human education. I do not believe that any benefit will accrue to America through the development of a special Labour Party in its political life. It is likely to be a heavy drag on intelligent reconstruction. As it has been in Britain. Labour parties have failed to become anything but trade-union parties and trade unionism is nothing more than the defensive organisation of the workers under a private capitalistic system. Its natural tactics are defensive and obstructive. It aims at shorter hours, better pay and a restraint upon dismissals. It is unable to imagine a new system. But a hundred years ago Karl Marx evolved a fantastic notion, partly from an inadequate analysis of British trade unionism and partly out of his inner consciousness, that the worker mass could become a mighty reconstructive force in the world. With no Blue Prints of what it was going to reconstruct. That would be the heresy of Utopianism. That delusion, embodied in communism and labour socialism, has undermined and checked the forces of science and creative liberalism for a century.

The British Labour leaders in power, showed themselves politicians within the containing politics of their time; they had neither the imagination nor the confidence in themselves to lay hands upon the universities, the diplomatic service, the foreign office and the monetary and financial organisations they found in being; they seem never to have heard of the gold standard until it hit them; and put to the test they did not even “nationalise” anything of importance. John L. Lewis may end in the White House as Ramsay Macdonald ended in royal favour, Clynes and Henderson in court costumes and Snowden and Webb in the house of lords. But “end” is the word for what any definitely Labour politician seems likely to do in the way of creative reconstruction.

I question indeed if the United States has sufficient time ahead to go through a phase of class politics at all. It has had all the possibilities of that worked out for it and ready for study — from Great Britain to Russia. It is an unprecedented country in its size, its freedom and its physical opportunities and I think the world has a right to expect something characteristic and original from it. Cannot it cut out that particular phase and get on?

The thing I found most hopeful among the falling equities and the falling leaves of this visit, was my occasional glimpses of the younger people. I saw more of them and I liked them better than I have ever done before. Every country nowadays’ shows a contrast between the old and the young — a contrast in more than age; but here the contrast is astonishing. One still has the old boys with their stately, fatherly presences, uttering platitudes with an intensity of conviction unknown in the rest of the world, one is still introduced to a succession of presidential candidates with an irresistible suggestion about them of Tristram Shandy’s bull — and THEN you meet the young.

In Henry James’s America Revisited he tells of an encounter with a party of pre-war youth, drunken, noisy, coarsely sexual and hilariously irresponsible. I found very little of that, this journey. Instead I found a new generation, alert and interrogative. They have learnt about life in three courses of instruction. The disillusionment of the war made them pacifist. At first in rather a shallow fashion. They just proclaimed they were not to be humbugged into that sort of thing again. Dos Passos, that distinguished writer, has stuck at that stage, he is now a fossil from the first period. He proclaims that the Atlantic is too wide for air-raids, and has not yet discovered Mexico and South America nor the fact that America cannot keep her whole fleet in the Atlantic and the Pacific at the same time. But his juniors have taken these complications into account. Then before they could settle down into a qualified isolationism came the collapse that necessitated the New Deal. There again there was a tendency to think cheaply and there was a rush of uncritical communism, happily arrested —“happily” so far as America goes-by the Moscow trials and the Trotsky controversy, Now they seem to be facing the American problem in something like its real distinctness and complexity. They have to go further and reconstruct more fundamentally than Marx ever dreamt oh making new minds as well as a new world. I talked to a bunch at Harvard and I talked to a bunch at Yale and sampled individuals in the other places I visited. Cheap red paint is at a discount. I suppose that in a world of Tristram Shandy leaders, the phase of resentful insurgent communism was inevitable, but now in America you could put all the organised communists, rich undergraduates and genuine proletarians together, into a third-rate town and still have houses to let.

Reconstruction through socialisation, strenuous educational work to build up a competent receiver for bankrupt and expropriated public utilities, a steady development of a loyal civil service, freed from —“Farleyism” seems to be the word I want — and after the harsh winter that must surely follow this present Fall, a new spring may break upon the world from America. Through its renascent young people.

Two young men — for so I speak of men in the early forties, nowadays — produced a vivid the upon me, the presidents of Harvard and Yale. They are something new in my experience of Americans, something fresh, clear, frank and simple. President Conant of Harvard, for example, is a very distinguished chemist indeed; he has the balanced lucid mind of the research addict, and he is deliberately fuming from physical science to educational and administrative work. Every one speaks well of him. Ever since I met him I have been asking whether there are more like him and why he is not in the running for the White House. “He has been talked of,” I was told, “but —”


“You see we’ve already had one college president there — Wilson.”

It seems an inadequate excuse. For Wilson was a professor of history, that is to say, a man trained to be unscientific.

Indian summer still reigned as the Queen Mary with a sort of lazy swiftness pulled out from dock. I watched the great grey and brown and amber masses, cliffs and pinnacles of middle and then of lower New York, soften in the twilight and light up. What a spectacle it is!, Such towering achievement and so little finality. How much more vitally unfinished than the contour of dear old Saint Paul’s, brooding like a shapely episcopalian hen over the futile uneasiness of London! America seems to have a limitless capacity for scrapping and beginning again.

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