Some writers are known as much for their legends as for their writing. Think of Hemingway or Kerouac. George Orwell likewise has a place in popular myth, though as a more austere and moral hero, a prophet against communism in a clear English prose. You can see his gaunt, lined face on a t-shirt or coffee mug, and you will come upon his wax likeness at Madame Tussaud’s in London, sitting at a typewriter as a jack-booted policeman looms behind his right shoulder. Moreover, his name has morphed into an adjective, so we might call the cameras watching you walk down a hallway “Orwellian,” and we regularly use phrases he coined like “Big Brother” and “doublethink.”
However, if you read through all of his writing, as I had the chance to do for a seminar last year, and look at the steps of his career, you will find a much more ungainly story. His politics are often idiosyncratic, sometimes incoherent, and finally anti-capitalist as well as anti-communist. His writing is clear, but billboards are clear. What is genuinely distinctive about his style is its opinionatedness, as well as his sharp images. And while he is known for his politics, he was perhaps at his best describing ordinary work.
The standard impression of Orwell comes largely from his last two novels, Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949), which have remained perpetual bestsellers, staples of junior and senior high school English in the US. Through the Cold War, students were taught the follies of communism from them, particularly of the Soviet Union.
But in Animal Farm, if one recalls from eighth or ninth grade English, the original owners of the farm are capitalists, and they are no better than the communists who eventually take over. They thoughtlessly exploit and abuse the animals. The problem with the communists is not socialism; at the beginning of their revolt, with Old Major, a Marx/Lenin figure, in charge, the animals experience better and more equitable conditions than before. The problem is that they later become corrupted, with the pigs, led by Napoleon, a Stalin figure, seizing power and following carrying out their own self-interest.
Animal Farm is, in my opinion, Orwell’s one flawless book. Before it, he had written four other novels, largely focusing on hapless young men, as well as three books of reportage, and each has uneven patches. Animal Farm is a departure, taking a satirical note from one of his favorite authors, Jonathan Swift, but adopting the gently mocking, whimsical air of a fairy tale.
One of the more captivating stories about the book is that he composed it in the evenings, waiting out the German Blitz on London and following work in the wartime ministry for propaganda. He and his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, read passages aloud to pass the time. One night, after a bomb took down part of his building, he ran back in to save the manuscript. Several biographers speculate that Eileen had a hand in improving the novel, which does not miss a beat throughout. One of the more heart-breaking details of Orwell’s biography is that she died in 1944, in preparation for an ordinary surgery, because of a reaction to anesthesia.
An irony of the book’s publishing history is that, while it became a bestseller, it was turned down by a series of presses in 1944. It was deemed too critical of the Soviets, with whom Britain was then allied. But when the alliance fell apart at the end of the war, the book finally saw print, becoming a Book of the Month Club selection and international bestseller. It sold 600,000 copies in its first four years and marked the first time in his adult life that Orwell was financially comfortable.
That granted him unimpeded time to write, and he took a remote house in Scotland, where he drafted 1984, though he was ill, suffering from the lung disease that finally took him. His son, Richard Blair, with whom I had a chance to speak in February on the opening of a play version of 1984, recalled that he could hear his father’s typewriter clicking away every morning.
The vision, though, is hardly sunny. Where Animal Farm has a gentle, humorous tone about the vagaries of politics, 1984 has a much darker vision, conveying an indelible image of a dystopian future. Winston, the protagonist, is ground under by the state, and the book holds out little political hope.
In the ordinary American schools that I attended, we were taught that 1984 depicted the Soviet Union. But Orwell’s real target was the rise of modern bureaucracies. He had worked for the BBC during the war, and he almost certainly had in mind the views of a prominent social commentator, James Burnham, who wrote a number of books on “managerial society.” Orwell mistrusted the imposed order of bureaucracies, which is probably another reason why conservatives take him as a hero.
1984 is sometimes seen as prophetic, but it actually misses the mark on the fate of Western societies. In it, the state controls all one does, from what time one gets up to one’s workday and exercise, and there are few amenities, just bad coffee and kerosene-like gin. Today, instead we have a paradise of macchiatos, mochaccinos, and lattes, and myriad consumer goods and services. As the social critic Neil Postman observed in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Aldous Huxley landed nearer the mark in Brave New World, showing a society that provides consumer pleasures, plenty of mood-enhancing drugs, and a hook-up culture. (In one of the twists of a small world, Huxley had been one of Orwell’s schoolteachers.) Or perhaps a more accurate recent portrait is William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), which depicts a world striated with the Internet and virtual reality, as well as the corporations that run things.
Rather than the overt politics of his era, Orwell might have had his clearest eye on cultural politics. In many ways he was a harbinger of cultural studies, writing about the culture of tramps and coal miners, and about objects like penny postcards or boys’ weeklies. He understood the subtleties of class and British character, serving a pivotal role in explaining the working and underclass to educated readers.
Orwell is often invoked to complain about academic writing, held up as the paragon of clarity against scholarly obfuscation, but clarity is something of a misnomer. One might be clear but banal, shill, or tedious. Short ads and lengthy lists are usually clear. Rather, Orwell’s writing affects a directness that gives free rein to his observations and opinions—even though some of the views he expresses are quirky, racist, or ill-tempered. He confesses wishing to put a bayonet through the guts of a Buddhist monk, dismisses some socialists as “sandal-wearing, vegetarian fruit-juice drinkers,” and calls contemporary writers grouped around the British poet W. H. Auden “nancy poets” (several in the coterie were gay). He is opinionated, which has an effect like the loud uncle at a barbecue: you might wince at some of his views, but you don’t doubt his honesty.
It is also worthwhile remembering that, whatever the poor or clotted quality of much academic writing, there are a good number of academics who write polished prose, like Louis Menand or Jill Lepore, who are professors at Harvard as well as writers for the New Yorker, or Laura Kipnis, who writes with panache on sex, culture, and politics. Even Homi Bhabha, notorious for writing complicated theory, has a good deal of elegant journalism on art.
The credo for clarity comes from Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” According to a study conducted by Professor Lynn Z. Bloom, that essay is one of the most taught in college composition classes. Bloom’s “The Essay Canon” inventories course anthologies and finds that Orwell has a near monopoly on the top slots, with “Politics” and his reflection on serving as a British officer in Burma, “Shooting an Elephant.” In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell proposes the iconic simile that good prose is “like a window pane.”
But his case for clarity rests on a dubious theory of language. Most philosophers and linguists would say that writing is never simply transparent but always a filter or lens. Moreover, Orwell holds that poor writing directly leeches into thinking, like a mold irretrievably rotting it. Instead, I would take the point of his teacher, Huxley, who observed in Beyond the Mexique Bay that “at every epoch and in all countries, most art has been bad,” but that does not stop there being good art. We manage to sort through it and distinguish good from clotted.
One key of Orwell’s writing is that it avoids the lengthy locutions of Victorian literary prose and fashions a plainspoken idiom. Gone are the roundaboutness and piety of figures like Matthew Arnold or John Henry Newman, whose sentences can perambulate for a paragraph. Orwell’s prose is no-nonsense; it is a modern style, like modern architecture shorn of traditional embellishment or fancy touches. In his dicta in “Politics and the English Language,” he bans pretentious Latinates and advises using the fewest words possible.
Another strength is his gift for the striking and even unforgettable first line. He begins “Shooting an Elephant,” “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen.” Or in “England your England,” he commences, “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” Or “Dickens is one of those writers who are well worth stealing.” They stick in your mind, and you get the point right away.
There is something of the schoolboy desire to shock to this tendency and it can be a glitch if used too often, but at its best it drives us out of the conventional or humdrum. He also uses it to correct common impressions. For instance, in “A Hanging” he dramatizes a detail, describing how a prisoner, while walking to his punishment, steps aside to avoid a puddle. With that image, Orwell brings home the point that the prisoner, though condemned, remained human and thus it was wrong to kill him. The skill is not simply clarity but sharp images, mind-changing observations, and a takeaway that sticks in mind.
While my students and I found Orwell cranky, racist, or a bit weird at points, these flaws did not lead us to toss him from the canon. We still found 1984 a masterpiece, and even though we started to glean his habits, we admired the deft mastery of his essays. And though his politics were sometimes inchoate, we admired his persistence in exploring class in England, crossing class boundaries more than any other writer we could think of.
Reading through his work leavened the myth. One thing we found particularly admirable, in covering his published writing as well as some of the biography and criticism, is that he met life with a constant stream of work, composing a couple hundred pages of published prose a year, despite ill health and other hardships, and often jockeying with other jobs, such as a bookstore clerk or setting up shop as a grocer.
In literary history Orwell is sometimes seen as part of “the Auden Generation,” but unlike many of his contemporaries born in the early 1900s, “those moneyed young beasts who glide so gracefully … from Cambridge to the literary reviews,” as he put in in a novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), Orwell could not afford to go to college and instead went out to India, as many unmoneyed, middle-class Englishmen did in his time. He became a British Imperial police officer for five years, and afterwards held a number of scrappy jobs through his twenties and early thirties.
In “Why I Write” he declares that, from the late 1930s onward, he aimed to write about politics, but a central preoccupation of Orwell’s writing is work itself. The actual grind of labor is rarely depicted accurately in fiction or film; if a protagonist has a job, their tasks are in the background or summarized in a quick scene. To be truly realistic, one might imagine more substantial coverage, whereas the focus usually turns toward a protagonist’s domestic relationships, out-of-the-ordinary events, or personal turmoil.
Moreover, Orwell did not write about professional jobs, such as a doctoring or lawyering, which provide the fodder for a good number of novels and TV shows. He wrote about common ones, in his essays as well as his novels, such as one protagonist’s deadening hours as a bookstore clerk, or a pastor’s daughter slogging through preparations for a church show or teaching school, or a book reviewer gathering the energy to go through a packet of books and complete a piece at the eleventh hour.
Even in his late novels, Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell cannot resist detailing the work that the main characters do, whether the farm animals in the barn or Winston in his cubicle in 1984. Winston is another clerk, like the depressed bookstore clerk in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, or Orwell himself in an essay called “Bookshop Memories.”
Much of his nonfiction also dwells on work. His still-captivating first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), depicts laboring as a dishwasher in the hell of restaurant kitchens. A harbinger of creative nonfiction, it stamps Orwell’s career as a
reporter of class, translating the experience of those usually invisible to an upscale, educated audience. Another book, Road to Wigan Pier (1937), which has been recently reissued in England in an eightieth anniversary edition, reports on what it is like to work in the coal mines near Manchester. It also includes Orwell’s impolitic observation that the working class smells.
It was with Down and Out that he first used his pen name George Orwell. Part of the myth is that he did so for political reasons, but it actually was out of consideration for his family. His early essays carried his actual name, Eric Blair, but, sensitive to middle class propriety, he masked his account of the seedier side of life, washing dishes, panhandling, drinking, and living amid prostitutes and pickpockets.
One lesson we took away from the seminar is that Orwell had a good number of failures as well as successes. Before Animal Farm, in some ways he was a failed novelist. His books had not sold particularly well, and each has visible and significant flaws. For instance, A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) turns on the hokey premise that the eponymous hero has sudden amnesia, setting her on her adventures, and includes a tedious imitation of James Joyce’s stream of consciousness. Even 1984 has laborious parts, such as a long political treatise halfway through, which his publisher wanted to cut. Orwell himself was not satisfied with the book but, accustomed to the necessity of moving on to the next assignment, he let it go.
Orwell’s model of a writer was without preciosity. He was not the modernist genius, like James Joyce, who perfected a few singular and difficult masterpieces over the course of his career. He aimed not for the sacred altar of all time, but was engaged in his place and time. That is not a bad lesson for any writer. If he had a genius, it was in his ability to lead his readers along like a deft tour guide, with just the right combination of observation and detail, in crisp language and fresh phrases, shining a slightly brighter light on cultural and political experience.