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Orwell: Sage of the Century

John F. Stephenson / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Ten years ago, in an essay called “Dragon Slayer,” Christopher Hitchens wrote this about his beau ideal of morality and intellectualism, George Orwell: “He owns the twentieth century, as a writer about fascism and communism and imperialism, in a way that no other writer in English can claim.” In 1968, Orwell’s friend and onetime schoolmate Anthony Powell wrote that “Orwell’s exposure of the ruthless, totalitarian nature of communism is his greatest political achievement.” Powell might have added “artistic achievement,” as well, since Orwell’s essays stand in the same deathless brigade as Montaigne’s.

The novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four certainly augmented the exposure of which Powell writes, but no serious reader of Orwell doubts that he measured a rather inadequate novelist and that his real genius was for the political/literary essay and books of urgent reportage—The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia have an ease of hand, a naturalness of form half absent from the novels. That backslash in the previous line is imperative because, with Lionel Trilling and Isaiah Berlin, Orwell understood—and perfectly demonstrated in his famous essays on Dickens and Kipling—that the political and the literary are always entwined, uneasy in their Janus glances at the future and past.

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Depending on the contemporary mood, Orwell oscillates from Saint George to George the Seer to George the Sage. What other thinker has been both so fervidly claimed and derided by both the left and right? Who else except Kafka do we credit with having seen the sinister future? When the NSA spying scandal broke in June, Amazon sales of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four vaulted more than 6000 percent. The connection of Big Brother with the NSA might have been hysterical and spurious, but it was also testament to our sentimental, kneejerk affection for Orwell, to the fact that he remains the default scribe whenever our paranoia is fondled by the ominous machinations of realpolitik. The utter clarity and goodness of his intellect seem something of a miracle when one considers how many of his fellow writers botched the most pressing moral and political tests of their time. He could smell bullshit and blood a continent away: When a passel of leftist intellectuals was hailing the Soviet Union as humankind’s only hope, Orwell was persistent in pointing out that Stalin was a monocratic lunatic.

Larry Ellis / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
A poster from a 1965 BBC TV production of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

If Peter Davison’s refulgent new volume, George Orwell: A Life in Letters, isn’t altogether de-sanctifying, it is certainly humanizing, a reminder that Orwell the Saint and Seer was also a lowly man named Eric Blair, a man whose fingernails were dirt-crammed from gardening, whose bank account was perennially bereft, and whose health was forever threatened by the tuberculosis that would eventually claim him. It’s always necessary to remember that our heroes are human—Orwell, above all others, would have insisted on that. He witnessed and reported on what blood-wet havoc stems from our maniacal making of heroes, from our masochistic need to be herded and lead. This is the real warning of Nineteen Eighty-Four: the danger comes not from our suppressors but from our ovine willingness to be suppressed.

Every Orwell scholar owes a tremendous debt to Peter Davison, the editor not just of this new volume, but also a 20-volume Complete Works: His massive, decades-long editorial undertaking on Orwell stands with Leon Edel’s sublime achievement on Henry James and Joseph Frank’s on Dostoevsky—Hitchens called Complete Works “a Boswellian tribute.” This new edition of Orwell’s letters is imperative for anyone who wishes to earn a larger understanding of the twentieth century’s most potent essayist. Davison, a sober Virgil, leads us through the warrens of Orwell’s life and mind, never lapsing into a promiscuous note-leaving. He’s included an exhaustive chronology of Orwell’s abbreviated life, an introduction to every section, numerous letters by those closest to Orwell, and biographical sketches of all the individuals named. His assiduous annotations proclaim an expert’s lifelong immersion in the vital details of Orwellia. He exemplifies the editor’s job: to correct the record while enhancing it with his own sharp insight.   

In case we had any doubt, these missives showcase Orwell’s intolerance of nonsense, of the bogus in all its manifestations. Evelyn Waugh, reviewing Orwell’s Critical Essays in 1946, quite nicely wrote, “They represent at its best the new humanism of the common man,” and then Waugh couldn’t help but fault Orwell for his lack of religious feeling, which is rather like faulting penguins for their lack of flight. As an adoring Catholic, Waugh was no doubt miffed that Orwell never feared to mention how the papacy lay down each night with Europe’s puppeteers of power. Orwell’s animus for the Church was almost tantamount to his animus for despotism—he made little distinction between the malarkey of religion and the lethal mendacity of governments.

In a 1930 letter to his friend Max Plowman, Orwell comments on how we in the West locate truth in the Christian worldview because it’s supposedly so much more complex than childhood superstition: “I know this is so, but the why is beyond me. It is clear that the thicker the fairy tales are piled, the more easily one can swallow them, but this seems so paradoxical that I have never been able to understand the reason for it.” In Nineteen Eighty-Four, when Winston Smith says of Newspeak, “Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think,” you can bet that Orwell intended the religious implications of that term orthodoxy.

The masses’ inability to think for themselves struck him as a crime against their own humanity. “The most elementary respect for truthfulness is breaking down,” he wrote in a 1938 letter, about the duplicitous English reporting on the Spanish Civil War, in which he’d fought for six months, and during which he was shot through the esophagus. “It gives one the feeling that our civilization is going down into a sort of mist of lies where it will be impossible ever to find out the truth about anything.”

Like every robust thinker, Orwell had his contradictions, the most pronounced of which was the fact that he was both an intellectual who despised intellectualism and its attendant snobbery—“The direct, conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves,” he wrote in his 1946 essay “The Prevention of Literature”—and a common man who had reservations about common men. In January of 1940 he wrote this to his publisher, Victor Gollancz: 

What worries me at present is the uncertainty as to whether the ordinary people in countries like England grasp the difference between democracy and despotism well enough to want to defend their liberties. One can’t tell until they see themselves menaced in some quite unmistakeable manner. The intellectuals who are at present pointing out that democracy and fascism are the same thing etc. depress me horribly. However, perhaps when the pinch comes the common people will turn out to be more intelligent than the clever ones.

When the pinch comes—Orwell’s careful pessimism is everywhere in his correspondence, because if you were alive and even sporadically sentient at this time, you should have understood that the pinch was coming. He’d seen that pinch firsthand in Spain, and some of the most remarkable missives in this volume read like dispatches from the bombed streets of Barcelona.

Also on display here is Orwell’s hard-won discernment, an aphoristic wisdom that comes couched in his of-the-soil directness of style—a “belly to earth attitude,” as he calls it in a 1936 letter to Henry Miller. Paul Fussell once wrote that Orwell had an “almost neurotic sensitivity to physical reality”—he was loyal to physical reality because we live in physical reality, and his wisdom reflects as much: “Wars tend to break out in the autumn,” Orwell wrote, “perhaps because continental governments don’t care to mobilise until they have got the harvest in”; “one really learns nothing from a foreign country unless one works in it”; “what sickens me about left-wing people, especially the intellectuals, is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen” (Lionel Trilling made an identical observation); “pacifists usually belong to the middle classes and have grown up in somewhat exceptional circumstances.” In that same 1936 correspondence to Henry Miller, Orwell pauses halfway in to say, “I have got to go and milk the goat now but I will continue this letter when I come back.”

It’s unfortunate that “Orwellian” has come to mean the totalitarian tactics of a demagogy, based mainly on two pretty bad novels, when there’s so much more to Orwell the thinker and the man. Unlike, say, “Nietzschean,” the term “Orwellian” gets attributed to the steadfast enemies of Orwell—autocracy, hypocrisy, state-mandated falsity: the “slogan-world,” as he calls it in his novel Coming Up For Air—and never to Orwell himself. During the NSA revelations in June, we were hourly harassed with the adjective “Orwellian,” and those wielding the word certainly didn’t mean an incorruptible reverence for values, truth, and liberty. By popular definition, no one was less Orwellian than Eric Blair.

In his introduction to this volume, Davison writes, “Many of those who refer to Orwell seem not to have read much more than Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four, if those. The millions who have heard of Big Brother and Room 101 know nothing of their progenitor.” It’s shameful that today’s mouthy political expositors aren’t better versed in Orwell. Can you imagine a theater director who hasn’t studied Shakespeare?

Most writers deserve the reputation posterity has bestowed upon them: You can’t for long conceal the toxic spots on your character—Philip Larkin is Exhibit A—nor can you conceal your dignity, your humanism, your regard for veracity and freedom. Of course George Orwell was not a saint—he could be unfaithful to his wife and suspicious of democracy, for starters—and it’s a good thing, too, because saints are always hard to take seriously. Still, those marauding cynics who turn to this volume looking to rob the nimbus from Orwell will see themselves thwarted on every page.

Instead they will find the kindness of a tubercular expat who wrote lengthy replies to strangers in his homeland. They will find the abundant integrity of a famished critic who turned down work from the New Statesman because the magazine was printing lies about the Spanish Civil War that could hurt his friends still in Spain (“I have got to do what little I can to get justice for people who have been imprisoned without trial and libeled in the press”). They will find a citizen intensely sickened by war but resolved to its necessity. They will find an intellect keener on politics than any politician then living. And they will find a writer who composed spell-casting sentences.

In 1943, Rushbrook Williams, the BBC Eastern Service Director, wrote this in a confidential report on Orwell: “I have the highest opinion of his moral, as well as of his intellectual capacity. He is transparently honest, incapable of subterfuge, and, in early days, would have either been canonised—or burnt at the stake! Either fate he would have sustained with stoical courage.” George Orwell’s nimbus was not fig-leafed on posthumously—it was there all along. 

William Giraldi is author of the novel Busy Monsters and Fiction Editor for the journal AGNI at Boston University.

This article has been corrected. The title of Orwell's 1946 essay was originally referred to as "The Prevention on Literature.” In fact, it is “The Prevention of Literature.”