By PETER LANG
In chapter 14 of The Invisible Man, the investigative reader is presented with something of a curiosity. A mariner, in conversation with Mr. Marvel (the Invisible Man’s reluctant confidant), observes:
“There’s some extraordinary things in newspapers…there’s a story of an invisible man, for instance.”
Two pages later, in describing the locality of the story, the man further remarks:
“None of your American wonders this time” (62, 64).
The relevance of this passage lies not in its being merely a moment of self-reference in the novel but that if taken in context to the Mitchell Hypothesis, it reads like something of a veiled confession. If that is the case, is it wrong to question it being simply a coincidence that on January 30, 1881 the New York Sun printed a story of a man rendered invisible by a process not unlike that posited by Wells, 14 years prior to The Invisible Man? Was Wells giving credit (albeit coded*) to his anonymous forebear? That a mariner, one to whom the newspapers of the world would be most accessible, makes such a claim is telling in itself.
Although the answer to the latter question went with Wells to the grave, a brief textual analysis will suffice to shed at least some light on the issue. But first a synopsis of the story that appeared in the Sun:
The Crystal Man, attributed to Edward Page Mitchell, is the story of Stephen Flack. Flack is a research assistant and guinea pig to one Professor Fröliker. The Professor, while searching for a viable, working process to make anyone and anything invisible, tests his theory on the willing Flack. On the eve of the day the pair are to reveal their breakthrough, the Professor dies of apoplexy and with him goes the means by which to restore Flack’s visibility.
Also a love story, the primary drama of The Crystal Man concerns Flack’s love for Pandora Bliss, above whom he is secretly lodging. Flack leads the narrator, who is a a friend of Pandora’s, into his apartment and explains to him his dual plight of invisibility and lost love. The narrator, so moved by Flack’s story, promises to not only assist him in restoring himself but to also immediately re-connect him with Pandora. The narrator wastes no time in collecting Pandora who, to the surprise of both he and Flack, received the spectacle with cold condescension. She rejects the man who has dedicated his crapshoot of a life to her, reducing his affections as mere posturing. Overcome by this, Flack breaks down and, running from the building, throws himself into the river.
From a narrative standpoint the two stories are thoroughly dissimilar. However, it is not the respective story that is to be held into account but the idea.
In The Crystal Man, manipulation of the skin is explained as such:
As the color of the organic tissues constituting the body depends
upon the presence of certain proximate principle of the third
class, all containing iron as one of the ultimate elements, it
follows that the hue may vary according to well defined
chemico-physiological changes…I deplore my inability to
record the result of some highly interesting histological
experiments conducted by…investigator Fröliker in
achieving success in the way of separating pink dis-
coloration of the human body by chemical means.
Flack expands on this in regard to invisibility, explaining:
Our efforts were at first directed to the enlargement and
variation of the quantity of pigmentary matter in the
system. By increasing the proportion of melanin, for
instance, conveyed in food to the blood we were able to
make a fair man dark, a dark man black as an African…
Hitherto he [Fröliker] had sought merely to increase or
to modify the pigments in the tissues. He now began a
series of experiments as to the possibility of eliminating
those pigments altogether from the system by absorption,
exudation, and the use of the chlorides and other chemical
agents acting on organic matter (7-8, 9).
In so many words it is a process of manipulating the blood and bleaching the skin. In The Invisible Man, Griffin’s work is as follows:
I found a general principle of pigments…I took up the
question of pigments to fill certain gaps and suddenly,
not by design but by accident, I made a discovery in
physiology (86, 89).
Wells, to his credit, presents a theory which involves refraction, focusing on a marriage of physics and chemistry necessary for Griffin to achieve invisibility. It involves “a geometrical expression involving four dimensions” which is not unlike the theory for time travel explained in The Time Machine:
But some philosophical people have been asking why
three dimensions particularly – why not another direction
at right angles from the other three? – and have ever tried
to construct a four-dimension geometry (11).
The concept of a fourth dimension, that of sheer potentiality against what was plausible during the end of the 19th century seems to be the lynch pin in Wells’ science fiction. In the case of invisibility, it is only a matter of accounting for pigment in conjunction with this abstract fourth-dimension. Sam Moskowitz, in Lost Giant of American Science Fiction, notes, “Both stories go into extensive scientific explanation on the necessity for the bleaching of the pigments of the body, including the pigments of the eye and the red corpuscles of the blood in order to achieve complete transparency” (lxi). Fröliker and Flack are concerned with:
The melanin that colors the choroid of the eye, the iris, the hair…the hematin and the melanin, together with the greenish-yellow bilviderine and the reddish-yellow urokarine, are the pigments which impart color to tissues otherwise transparent (8).
Griffin, in kind, observes:
…the whole fabric of a man except the red of his blood and the black pigment of hair, are all made up of transparent, colorless tissue.
The process failed…in two particulars, these were the claws and the pigment stuff – what is it? – at the back of the eye in a cat. (88-9, 92)
The choroid and the tapetum (“the pigment stuff” so bothering Griffin) are similar entities in the ocular system. As well, both examinations concern the same problem of coloring otherwise transparent tissue. It seems that, with the inclusion of the reflection and refraction of light, Wells does not offer a replica theory but one that is built on an extant paradigm.
Both Flack and Griffin accidentally encounter men of science, the narrator of The Crystal Man and Dr. Kemp respectively, in whom each confide. As captive audience to their invisible men, these new confidants become witness to a chair mysteriously dragged along the floor as well as a free-floating glass. These phenomena aside, the language used to describe the moment of initial physical contact is particularly telling. In Mitchell it is described as such:
I saw no hand. I reached forth my own, however, and it met the pressure of warm, living fingers.
He stepped forward suddenly…and his hand met invisible fingers.
Although the men’s dispositions differ (the narrator is calm while Dr. Kemp is in a state of suspicious agitation), the grammar speaks for itself – the noun and the verb are in strict agreement. Incredibly, Mitchell and Wells conjure a nearly identical image in the mind of the reader.
What is at stake in all of this is not the pilfering of an idea but its evolution. There is evidence that Mitchell’s works were available in England, published by the same company who would in turn serialize The Invisible Man. Wells is credited with being the first to use “hard science” to separate his fiction from fantasy. In comparing the two theories of invisibility, said “hard science” is clearly at work in The Crystal Man. The textual evidence alone speaks for itself and to dismiss Mitchell as having no influence on Wells would be irresponsible both intellectually and academically. Wells himself raises the issue. Moskowitz caught on to it in 1973. Thirty seven years later he seems little more than a mute witness. There is still much more scholarship to be done, from which the answers to these questions and those to arise will surely take shape.
*The numerology is as follows: The mariner’s statement – “There’s some extraordinary things in newspapers…there’s a story of an invisible man, for instance” – occurs in chapter 14 of a book published 14 years after The Crystal Man appeared in the pages of the New York Sun, at the time one of America’s largest and most read dailies. Coincidence or code, the author of this piece leaves such distinctions to the discretion of the reader.
The author wishes it to be known that although he is indeed kin to Edward Page Mitchell, all investigation into his influence on the world of modern science fiction has and will continue to be performed with strict academic and journalistic integrity. Bias in any direction will be influenced by facts alone. Any other approach would be simply irresponsible.