An Alternate History Of H.G. Wells' Time MachineS

When H.G. Wells' The Time Machine first appeared in the U.S., it had a drastically different text than the British edition. Was this a hatchet job, or did the U.S. publisher get an earlier Wells draft? We may soon know.

The library at University of California, Riverside, just scored a rare U.S. 1895 first edition of The Time Machine, allowing scholars to study the text — and maybe unravel, once and for all, the mystery of the two text versions. It took a $10,000 grant for the University to score a copy and become one of only 25 places known to hold a copy. The British first edition, which was the source of all subsequent printings, is much easier to come by.

The American edition, published by Holt, misspells Wells' name as H.S. Wells, Americanizes the book's language, and omits or adds some passages. The British version begins:

The Time Traveler (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us. His grey eyes shone and twinkled, and his usually pale face was flushed and animated.

Whereas the American version begins:

The man who made the Time Machine — the man I shall call the Time Traveler — was well known in scientific circles a few years since, and the fact of his disappearance is also well known. He was a mathematician of peculiar subtlety, and one of our most conspicuous investigators in molecular physics.

See for yourself:

An Alternate History Of H.G. Wells' Time MachineS

The American text seems less florid and a bit more dumbed-down. But it does also include more discussion of the metaphysics of time travel. And it may not be a case of the publisher revising the text, said Melissa Conway, head of Special Collections and Archives of the UCR Libraries:

Most intriguing of all is the theory of the Wells scholar Bernard Bergonzi that the Holt edition was prepared from an entirely different, earlier and now-lost manuscript. With the acquisition of the New York edition we will be able to offer scholars the opportunity to prepare careful textual analyses of both editions of the novel, reconstruction more precisely the process and timeline of its creation and publication.

I'm only a tad suspicious of that explanation because in other cases where American editions of non-U.S. novels around that time differed, it was indeed a case where the U.S. publisher changed stuff to try and appeal to American sensibilities. I'm thinking of Lao She's Rickshaw Boy. But if this is an earlier version of Wells' text, the opportunity to unravel his creative process would be invaluable. Either way, it's quite a score. [UC Riverside]