Or, rather, a late night with Mr. Kaempffert, a name that Wells would just love.
And this man loved Wells. But he was very hard to find.
It began after midnight with an article I found that I wanted to use for my chapter of the Oxford Handbook on H. G. Wells. Wells is famously known to have written that human history is a race between education and catastrophe. In seeking interpretations other than the obvious, I came upon an article from 2017 by Jeffrey Di Leo entitled “Catastrophic Education: Saving the World with H. G. Wells”. In this article, he wrote:
Upon his death on 13 August 1946, the New York Times concluded his obituary with the claim that he was the greatest public teacher of his time.
This was cited to a (Slater 70), which was in Leo’s bibliography as
Salter, Arthur. (1980). Apostle of a World Society. In Hammond, J. R. (Ed.), H. G. Wells: Interviews and Recollections. Barnes and Noble Books.
So I go looking for Salter’s chapter, and neither it nor the book are online or in JSTOR, but I find it in the Internet Archive, not for download but only checkout. So I check it out and it’s kind of small and hard to read, and I want to keep it and file it. My screenshot to pdf skills being somewhat rusty, that took over half an hour, but I had it. It began with
The obituary leader on H. G. Wells in the New York Times concluded with the statement that he was the greatest public teacher of our time.
I plugged parts of the phrase into Google, and discovered that absolutely everyone who had used anything like this sentence had cited Salter.
An item in Modern Fiction Studies by Richard Costa, reviewing a book on Wells by John Reed, said:
…an anonymous New York Times editorial writer was right when, at the time of Wells’s death, he called him the “greatest public teacher of his time.”
I can only search Reed’s book online at Google Books, and only in a limited capacity. The phrases “public teacher” and “anonymous” yield no results.
Salter, unfortunately, had not cited the New York Times. Because I’m a historian, I wanted the primary source. I wasn’t there yet.
By now it was 2 a.m., and I kinda thought I should go to bed. But with a mystery unsolved? Perish the thought.
So naturally I search the New York Times for the day of his death (August 13, 1946) and find the obituary. There are two, one longer and one shorter, and neither has the quotation or anything like it. So where did Salter get it? I eat a few more fruit jellies and start searching for phrases at the New York Times archive, which luckily I can access as part-time faculty at the college.
It appears on August 25. It is not anonymous at all — it is an “In Memoriam” feature written by a Waldemar Kaempffert. It concludes with:
Anyone who is familiar with the vast output of Wells or only with the “Outline of History,” “Work,” “Wealth and Happiness of Mankind,” the “Anatomy of Frustration” and “Open Conspiracy” will probably agree that he was the greatest public teacher of his time.
This is hardly the resounding declaration claimed by everyone citing Salter, but at least it’s primary.
Other than not using the Oxford comma (and that may well be an editorial decision), Waldemar Kaempffert is unknown to me. But that’s a search for another day. Or night.