Review of War of the Wheels

Withers, Jeremy, The War of the Wheels: H.G. Wells and the Bicycle . Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2017. Pp. xii+237. Introduction, notes, bibliography, and index. Paperback: $29.95.

Reviewed by Ari de Wilde

In his War of the Wheels, Jeremy Withers, assistant professor of English at Iowa State University, adds to the increasingly impressive amount of scholarly literature on cycling and bicycling. “Literature” is an especially appropriate term to use with War of the Wheels as Withers examines the relationship between famed British author, H.G. Wells and, well, the bicycle. To begin his work, Withers makes the argument that H.G. Wells’ collected work is important to understanding the Bicycle Era (1890s) and the decades after that time (p. 3-4). He acknowledges that historians have given tangential credit to Wells’ literature (p.3), but argues that the bicycle was a central theme and metaphor in Wells renowned works. It is, therefore, worthy of a book length treatment—as is the bicycle given its growing importance as a transportation solution, now and in the future.

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Syracuse University Press, 2017.

In Chapter I—“Nature”—Withers reflects on Wells’ description of the bicycle in several novels, especially his 1896 Wheels of Chance, including “The Bicycle as Horse Motif” in which Withers draws on Leo Marx’s “Machine in the Garden” to describe Wells’ positive description of the bicycle(p. 34) as both natural and an “avatar of ecological disruption” (p. 52). His second chapter, “Arrogance” examines Wells’ depiction of the bicycle “as an emblem for excessive human pride” (p. 52). Here, Withers examines the bicycle’s roots in elitism and upper class status. The author particularly examines Wells’ portrayal of the bicycle’s classed character in his classic novel, War of the Worlds, noting that Wells’ signals that “Given the technological advancements of the Martians, the bicycle, the novel declares, is nothing special and nothing over which humans ought to feel smug and self-satisfied” (p.66). Moreover, Withers argues, Wells depicted Martians as “atrophied” and non-athletic because of their “overreliance on technologies,” a direct reference not only to 1890s concerns about the bicycle’s negative effect on the human body but also to complaints about the bicycle as a general nuisance to society.  It was understood as a “scorching” machine on which selfish, prideful humans ignorantly ran-over or ignored pedestrians and carriages.

In his next chapter, “Warfare,” Withers importantly takes his analogies of Wells and the bicycle beyond the 1890s and into the twentieth century—something that many, if not most, analyses of the bicycle in the 1890s fail to do. Specifically, Wells was quite interested in the bicycle as a tool for soldiers and warfare during the first two decades of the twentieth century—up to and including the First World War. Though Withers points out that in real life the bicycle as more than just a courier’s machine was limited and that even Wells’ depiction of them by World War I marginalized them. Withers still argues that Wells saw the bicycle as “a component of a larger compilation of machines such as airplanes, tanks, ships and so forth” (p. 106). Withers makes this argument by examining Wells’ works such as War of the Worlds (1898), Anticipation of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1902), and War and the Future: Italy, France and Britain at War (1917).

He segues to his next chapter, “Hypermobility,” examining a Wells’ work on warfare, The War in the Air (1908). The author argues that despite Wells seeing an apocalyptic world of space-and-distance-conquering-machines, Wells saw the bicycle as a still “ideal form of transportation,” believing it had less deleterious social effects than other, more mechanized forms of transportation (p. 126). In his related chapter, “Commodification,” Withers examines Wells’ juggling of the shallow commercialism of bicycle culture with its “utopian possibilities” (p. 128) as a “social leveler (p. 152). He shows Wells contemplated both dialectic tensions in novels and works such as Three Men on the Bummel (1900), Kipps (1905) and The War in the Air (1908).

Finally, Withers examines Wells’ contemplations on the bicycle and what some might see as its heir apparent, the car, in his chapter entitled “Automobility.” Examining Wells at midcareer, well in to the twentieth century, Withers shows his evolving acceptance of the car with, for example, Wells’ repeated portrayal of the bicycle as a child’s toy in Mr. Britling Sees it Through (1916)—-a significant departure from earlier portrayals. In his conclusion, Wither looks at some of the interpretations and vestiges of Wells views towards the bicycle—especially in and around Ames, Iowa, noting a bike rack sculpture engraved with the Wells quote “Cycle tracks will abound in utopia” (p. 178), as well as noting that people sometimes over attribute Wells’ interest in and quotes towards bicycles.

Withers work is a fascinating contribution to the literature on cycling and its cultural meanings. Withers is erudite in his approach to Wells—exploring work on cycling in a number of different disciplines from the history of technology to transportation studies. The work is executed very well and is a pleasure to explore. However, as a sport historian, I would want Withers to contemplate cycling and Wells in the context of sport and sporting bodies more than he does. I would also be very interested in what Withers briefly touches on in his conclusion: How Wells’ relative positive depictions of the bicycle have been interpreted in society. These requests, though, might be their own book or books and Withers does a masterful job in his book. I strongly would recommend this book to cycling historians and enthusiasts, as well as literary scholars.

Ari de Wilde is an Associate Professor of Sport and Leisure Management at Eastern Connecticut State University. He studies sport and business history. His articles have appeared in the Journal of Sport History, Journal of Macromarketing and the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing among other journals. He can be reached at dewildea@easternct.edu and on Twitter @aodewilde.

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