Orwell, George (1903–1950)
In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell reflected, “What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.” In that same essay, he also noted, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.” These two statements define Page 233 | Top of Articlehis importance for British working-class and Socialist literature and 20th-century English literature more generally. Most famous for his last, immensely influential works—the satire Animal Farm (1945) and dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which made him the darling of the new, anti-Soviet Cold Warriors—Orwell is remembered most fondly by leftists for his 1930s documentaries of working-class life and his protest novels. He is also celebrated for his delightful essays on popular culture, including “Boys’ Weeklies,” “Good Bad Books,” and “Raffles and Miss Blandish,” which form early contributions to cultural studies.
Orwell was born (as Eric Arthur Blair) in Motihari, India, into an Anglo-Indian family with ties to the Far East that extended several generations. He grew up with his mother and two sisters in what he famously described as a “lower upper middle class” household. His father, a minor official in the Opium Department, remained for seven years in India while the rest of the family lived in the charming English town of Henley-on-Thames. At age eight, Orwell was sent on scholarship to St. Cyprian's School, where he was successfully crammed for a scholarship to Eton, but was so traumatized by the experience that his memoir of his prep-school days, “Such, Such Were the Joys” (1953), could only be published after his death due to fears of libel.
Orwell's years at Eton were unexceptional, politically and academically, and at their end, he chose to go into the Indian Imperial Police. At age 19, he arrived in Mandalay and then Mulmein, Burma, where the routine work of upholding “the machinery of despotism” transformed him into a fierce opponent of British colonialism. He retired from the service after five years, much to the dismay of his family, and began the series of domestic adventures that led to the publication of his first major work, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), a documentary of his journeys into the underworlds of Parisian slums and English lodging houses. Burmese Days (1934), a bitter satire of British imperialism, followed quickly. In 1936, the editors of the Left Book Club commissioned Orwell to write an account of unemployment in the distressed areas of the industrial North. The result was The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), half powerful documentary of the working and living conditions of Wigan's miners, half blistering critique of Socialism and the “cranks” that supported it. Before leftists had time to digest Orwell's diatribe in Wigan Pier against English Socialists, Orwell had left England to fight Fascists in the Spanish Civil War . Exhilarated by the egalitarian society that greeted him in Barcelona, where his equally committed wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, joined him, he fought bravely on the Aragon front, leading a group of Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista anarchists until being shot through the throat. He heroically returned to service only to find that all the members of his division were in danger of capture, torture, and execution by their one-time allies, the Communists. His book Homage to Catalonia (1938) is a piercing, partisan account of what Orwell experienced as a Soviet betrayal of the anarchists and republicans in Spain.
His novels of the late 1930s, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Coming Up for Air (1939), are humorous, somewhat despairing protests against capitalist development in England. Although Orwell still called himself a Socialist, only at the extraordinary moment of national unity inspired by Dunkirk could he bring him-self to advocate radical political change, arguing in The Lion and the Unicorn (1941) that war would facilitate a Socialist “bloodless revolution.”
Rejected from military service because of the lung disease that would eventually kill him, Orwell spent the years of World War II in London, working as a talks producer for the BBC. He resigned from that job, frustrated with censorship originating with the Ministry of Information, and plunged into journalism full time. His regular “London Letter” to the American Partisan Review extended his influence, as did his “As I Please” columns for the leftist weekly Tribune, for which he worked as literary editor. During these same years, he crafted Animal Farm, though publication was delayed because he could not find a sympathetic editor. It was eventually published in 1945 by the leftist Frederick Warburg, who anticipated that the book would be interpreted as an attack on Socialists everywhere, but understood the power of the fable and the necessity of its publication.
Animal Farm became an international sensation, and financed Orwell's retreat to the Hebrides island he had often fantasized about. Now a widower, Orwell wrote most of his last, most famous book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, on Jura, amid conditions that some of his friends considered suicidal. Published by Warburg in 1949, it made Orwell wealthy. Yet wealth came too late, since Orwell's failing lungs required him to exchange his remote island for a bed in London University Hospital. There Orwell suffered uncomplainingly, his life enlivened only by visits from friends and his courtship of Sonia Brownell, whom he married three months before he died.
Orwell's legacy is, from the perspective of English Socialists, a mixed one; intellectuals on the right and left have tried to lay claim to his reputation as England's and America's most “honest,” “decent,” “plain-speaking” political writer, creating in the process an “Orwell myth” that continues to serve politicians as much as it frus-trates literary critics and historians. Undisputed is Orwell's extraordinary impact on postwar Anglo-American political and popular culture through sales of his last two novels, which have sold more copies worldwide than any other pair of books by any other literary or popular postwar author.
Crick, Bernard. George Orwell: A Life. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.
Norris, Christopher, ed. Inside the Myth: Orwell, Views from the Left. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1984.
Patai, Daphne. The Orwell Mystique: A Study in Male Ideology. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1984.
Rodden, John. The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of “St. George” Orwell. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.