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Wells, Robert Gilbert

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

(?1865-?   ) US teacher and author, mostly resident in Iowa, where he published Anthropology Applied to the American White Man and Negro (1905), which despite its title is a fictional Satire on race relations in post-Reconstruction America (see Race in SF) with numerous sf and fantastic elements, including Invisibility, Time Travel and a Drug that allows one to change skin colour, the latter being perhaps the first instance of a theme that recurred again and again in Black American fiction, most famously in George S Schuyler's Black No More (1931). As Martin R Delany's Blake, Or the Huts of America (1970), which began to appear in magazine form in 1859, is a Utopia lacking any explicit sf elements, Anthropology is almost certainly the first sf novel written by a Black American.

Much of Wells's text constitutes a series of dialogues between Mr Jones (white) and Bob Wells or Sam (both Black), while other sections offer disquisitions on Anthropology, which the author broadly defines as "the science of matter and mind", and on how modern science can illuminate age-old questions about race. Despite its rather hortatory tone, the book is clearly an imaginative rather than a scholarly work, though a title page that seems to describe a provincial self-published anthropological study may have failed to attract those interested in an authoritative discussion of race relations, while discouraging those readers who might have enjoyed its mode of fantastic satire. The book, very unusually for an early twentieth-century novel, is illustrated by several dozen photographs, some of them tableaux dramatizing various scenes in the narrative, while others comprise images cut out from current magazines and newspapers and juxtaposed upon or inserted into further images. They are, in other words, genuine collages. The term collage did not exist in 1905, and its invention is generally credited to Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso some half a dozen years later. Wells's collages themselves are sometimes allegorical (one them being entitled "Sam stands before the Southern people and answers the charges against his race"); others are floridly parodic, and offer no attempt at mimetic representation.

Little is known about Wells except for what he supplies in an autobiographical introduction, and while his claim to have been born in the month that the American Civil War ended seems unreliable (the 1870 US Census suggests that he was some years older), he was clearly Afro-American (both an author's photograph opposite the title page and the Census attest to this). Nothing at all is known of his later life; the poor state of the text of Anthropology suggests that Wells did not oversee its production, and a promised second volume never appeared. A new edition of Anthropology, annotated and with a corrected text, is under preparation by Gregory Feeley. [GF]

Robert Gilbert Wells

born Georgia: ?1865



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