Six years after the heavily over-Orwelled if otherwise unfateful year of 1984, and fully forty years since his death in 1950, one still feels that nothing like a clear picture of the precise quality of George Orwell has yet to emerge. Fame—a great, billowy, international cloud of fame—has got in the way. Ozone-like layers of controversy, chiefly having to do with conservative and left-wing claimants to Orwell’s political legacy, have further obscured the atmosphere. The highly uneven nature of Orwell’s writing has sent up yet more in the way of mist. Q. D. Leavis, for example, who early praised Orwell’s essays and criticism, asked that he write no more fiction. Then there is Orwell’s life, which from one standpoint appears so seamless, an unblemished sheet of uninterrupted goodness, and then from another makes him appear a cold and rather tasteless fish indeed, whose first wife felt that her husband’s work came before her and in fact before everything else in life and who died during an operation for an illness—presumably cancer—he scarcely knew about.

Fame of the kind enjoyed by performing artists, politicians, and other public figures is rarely available to writers and creative artists generally. Whenever he was in danger of thinking himself famous, Virgil Thomson used to say, he had only to go out into the world to disabuse himself of the notion. Soon after the burial of Balzac, a writer always keenly interested in fame, the bookkeepers at the Père-Lachaise Cemetery sent their bill for services to the family of “M. Balsaque.” Surely there must be a lesson here somewhere.

George Orwell’s fame—which has been largely a posthumous phenomenon—has been not only extraordinary but across the board: popular, academic, intellectual. What put Orwell on, in fact all over the map were his two international best-sellers, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). These books have been translated into more than thirty languages and have by now sold scores of millions of copies. In the English-speaking world, they are nearly unavoidable; for some years now students have generally encountered Animal Farm in junior high school or its equivalent and Nineteen Eighty-four in secondary school and at frequently asked to read an Orwell essay or two in university composition courses: “A Hanging” (1931) or “Shooting an Elephant” (1936), perhaps, or “Politics and the English Language” or “Why I Write” (both 1946). Among schoolchildren nowadays, the name George Orwell may be better known than William Shakespeare.

George Orwell’s fame has been not only extraordinary but across the board: popular, academic, intellectual.

Unfortunately for Danielle Steel and Euclid, it is neither number of books sold nor number of children forced to read a author that confers upon him true literal fame. Instead it is the currency of his ideas that matters. Here Orwell has scored, and scored heavily. “Orwellian” has clearly left“Kafkaesque,” “Chekhovian,” and other literary eponyms far behind. Partly, of course, this is owing to recent decades having been—if you will allow the expression—highly Orwellian. But partly it has to do with the stark clarity of Orwell’s ideas, or at least the chief ideas of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four. So much is this less so in Orwell’s other writings—his essays and nonfictional books—despite the lucidity of each discrete work, that the question of whether Orwell was finally a man of the Left or not will probably never be entirely settled.

Between the “finer grain” and the “broader outline” writers, Orwell was surely among the latter—among, that is, those writers whose work can be reduced to its essential ideas, as the work of Henry James, Marcel Proust, and George Santayana cannot. So much have the ideas extracted from Orwell’s writing been in the air that one needs scarcely to have read him to have a strong notion of what these ideas are. Just as one need not have read through Marx to be aware of the class struggle and economic determinism, or have read much of Freud to know about the Oedipus complex and the importance of dreams, slips, and early sexuality, so one does not really have to have turned a page of Orwell to know that “some pigs are more equal than others,” that “Power is Knowledge,” and that Big Brother (the creep) is watching you.

In personal testimony to this fact, I can report that, toward the end of 1984, the year of the great Orwell glut, I was asked to add to the slag heap by giving a little talk on Nineteen Eighty-four, which I glumly agreed to do. It was only when I sat down to prepare this talk that I realized that I had never read Nineteen Eighty-four. I had seen the American movie version, with the impressively sweaty-faced Edmund O’Brien playing Winston Smith; I had for years heard bandied about—no doubt bandied about myself—such terms as “newspeak” and “doublethink”; I had read a number of essays on the novel; but as for actually having read the novel itself, nope, I couldn’t rightly say I that I had. When I did get around to reading it, I found it rather disappointing; like most of Orwell’s fiction, it was thin on detail and the working-out of the plot seemed unconvincing. As a dystopian novel, I thought it less prescient than Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) as a specifically Cold War novel, it couldn’t lay a glove on Arthur Koestler’s masterpiece, Darkness at Noon (1940). But the more interesting point is that, such has been the fame of Nineteen Eighty-four, one not only can come to believe one has read the novel when one hasn’t but, more amazing still, such has been the spread of the novel through the general culture, it may well be that one doesn’t really have to have read the novel at all, so long as one doesn’t agree to go about giving talks on it.

Not only does Orwell’s fame spread wide and cut deep, but there has become, somehow, something sacrosanct about him and his works. This, too, is a posthumous phenomenon. While he lived, Orwell had more than the normal allotment of enemies. Chief among them were political intellectuals, and in the 1930s, when Orwell came to literary maturity, to be intellectual was by definition to be political. One of Orwell’s specialties was attacking intellectuals, and especially catching them out at disseminating left-wing cant, upon which he, Orwell, loved to stomp. (“All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham,” he wrote in his essay “Rudyard Kipling” (1942), “because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy.”) Orwell was much better at influencing people than at making friends, at least when alive. Now the situation appears nearly to be reversed. Excepting only the most artery-hardened Marxists and academic feminists, everyone is Orwell’s friend nowadays. Devotion to Orwell has become no laughing matter. Or so I conclude from the fact that, after all these years, no one so far as I know has published a parody of Orwell—an easy enough job, one would think, given the many strongly characteristic tics and turns of Orwell’s readily recognized prose style, with its aggressively commonsensical spin. It is easy to imagine what Orwell might have thought of the Orwell phenomenon:

As I write, this room is rapidly filling up with the stench of smelly little orthodoxies, and they are all about me. Every neo-con, lib-lab, beard-bearing student-humping academic, every Nation-reader, language snob, think-tank barnacle, priest, admiral, Harvard child-psychologist, CEO is aware that I am high on the list of entirely O.K. writers. “Orwell” has become one of those magic words, like “Art”; say it and everything is fine. You have only to quote me and your case is made. The grandchildren of people who fifty or sixty years ago would have been pleased to wipe their boots on me are now forced to read me in paperback. It’s no use pretending that the sheer power of my writing has brought this about, or that such a diversity of admirers have all come round to my general views. The last man you want to trust is the man whom everyone thinks is admirable. “Saints,” I once wrote, “should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent.” The same holds true for writers, except that, as any writer worth his salt will tell you, no good writer is ever innocent.

In one of those complex, less-than-straightforward letters of rejection that publisher’s editors frequently find themselves writing to authors, T. S. Eliot, after rejecting Animal Farm on behalf of the firm of Faber & Faber, wrote to Orwell that he regretted the rejection and that “I have a regard for your work, because it is good writing of fundamental integrity.” My guess is that Orwell would have had no difficulty accepting that as a fair description of the quality of his writing. It strikes me as dead on target: “good writing of fundamental integrity.” Nowhere did Orwell suggest that he thought himself a writer for the ages, a universal genius, a figure of the kind that, posthumously and through the vagaries of circumstance, he has become: translated into all languages, required reading for schoolchildren, quoted approvingly by natural enemies.

How intricate and never quite arbitrary a thing is reputation in literature! In one instance it can be aided immensely by early death (James Agee), in another by longevity (Robert Penn Warren). Unpopular politics have crushed a writer’s reputation (Wyndham Lewis), while careful radicalism can elevate another writer’s reputation (Robert Lowell). Some writers appear to have gained as greatly by withdrawing from the scene (Thomas Pynchon) as others have by clever self-promotion (Truman Capote). Reading the recent obituaries for Mary McCarthy, one of the more famous serious writers of our day, it occurred to me that Miss McCarthy’s fame had always depended upon her being alive to reinforce it. Her early rise in reputation depended in part on her youthful good looks, no matter how clever she was as a critic. In the fiction of her early and middle years, she sustained her reputation by her continuing ability to outrage through gossip and scandal. In her later years, a doyenne now, it was her being outraged that people tended to be concerned about, for she could be enormously disapproving and had ample supplies of anger for those of whom she disapproved. But now that Mary McCarthy is dead, good looks, outrageousness, disapproval, anger—all count for nothing. Only the work remains—much of it in her case, as has been said before, destructive and marred by a falsely moral snobbery—and since this gives so little in the way of pleasure or instruction, it is likely soon to dissipate, then disappear.

Mary McCarthy was among those who attacked Orwell. In 1969, she thought that he left no generative political ideas, that his concept of decency was badly in need of definition, that he was conservative by temperament and thus almost instinctively opposed to fashion, change, and innovation—that, finally and in 1969 devastatingly, he probably would have been on the wrong side in Vietnam. Others have written against Orwell: Anthony West attempted to diminish him by psychoanalyzing him; Kingsley Martin claimed that in Animal Farm he had lost faith not merely in the Soviet Union but in mankind; D. A. N. Jones felt that he unfairly blackened the picture against left-wing intellectuals and was father of the bashing of feminists, pacifists, homosexuals, and other left-minded groups that Jones views as part of the political distraction and irrelevance of the current day. Firing away with Howitzers, Uzis, and squirt guns, Raymond Williams, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and Terry Eagleton have all, in their turn and in their different times, taken their shots at him. Still others have spat upon, bepissed, and whacked away at the statue of Orwell, but without in any serious way staining it, let alone tipping it over.

No critic of high standing has ever claimed that George Orwell was a first-rate novelist, though John Wain, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and other distinguished writers have written approvingly of his novels. Orwell did not write enough literary criticism to qualify, strictly speaking, as a literary critic. When he did write about writers—as he did about Dickens, Kipling, Tolstoy, Henry Miller—his impetus was generally extra-literary. A number of his familiar and personal essays are immensely impressive, but the quantity of these essays is not great. As with, every journalist who works on weekly and fortnightly deadlines—as Orwell did on Tribune and the London Observer—some weeks he was much better than others, and on many of those other weeks he could be pretty thin. He was splendid as a critic of popular culture—was something even of a pioneer in this field—but he could also come near ruining his work here through the intrusion of his own often rather coarse politics. After his admirably lucid account of the widely read sub-literature known as boys’ weeklies, and a measured analysis of their social import, Orwell could not refrain from remarking that the stories in the boys’ weeklies lead their readers to believe “that there is nothing wrong with laissez-faire capitalism’ and he ended his essay, most disappointingly, by suggesting that, given the significant impression that youthful reading tends to leave for life, it is surely time to develop left-wing stories for the boys’ weekly market.

Orwell died, of tuberculosis, in 1950 at the much-too-early age of forty-six. In a relatively brief writing career, he produced a vast amount of work. Except toward the end of his life, when the royalties from Animal Farm began to arrive, he produced what he did under considerable financial strain. His wretched health increased the strain. Although Orwell much admired craft, and more than once wrote of the importance of the aesthetic element in his own writing, the circumstances under which he worked were always arduous and scarcely allowed for Flaubertian meticulousness. If not altogether by choice, he was much less the artist than the professional writer. He was also, as he came to learn, chiefly a political writer. “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” Cyril Connolly later seconded this point, remarking that Orwell was “a political animal” who “reduced everything to politics. . . . He could not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry.”

Orwell was “a political animal.”

“Good prose,” Orwell famously wrote, “is like a window pane,” and the absence of artful window dressing in his own prose has been part of Orwell’s attraction for many readers. He commanded a prose style that strongly implied truth-telling ought to take precedence over art. In some of his work—one thinks of the chapter on the role of the POUM in Homage to Catalonia (1938) that he acknowledges may ruin his book but must nevertheless be included to set the record straight—this seemed to set Orwell above art, which, from a certain point of view, isn’t a bad place to be.

Not, however, in the opinion of everyone. Conor Cruise O’Brien, reviewing the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell when it appeared in 1968, interestingly noted that “plain language has a tendency to become extreme—which is why the other kind of language is generally preferred—and thus a laudable peculiarity of style made Orwell seem more extreme than he was.” It has also made arriving at anything like a consensus about his true literary quality difficult. No agreement exists, for example, about which of Orwell’s books is his best. Some profess admiration for Homage to Catalonia; some say the first, others the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) represents his best work. Mary McCarthy called Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) Orwell’s “masterpiece”; Cyril Connolly felt the same book was not more than “agreeable journalism” done much better by Henry Miller. Most sophisticated readers, when asked where the best of Orwell is to be found, reply, the essays; but even here consensus never quite arrives. Edmund Wilson, while admiring Orwell generally, thought that in his literary essays he had “the habit of taking complex personalities too much at their face value, of not getting inside them enough.” Newton Arvin thought Orwell, as an essayist, “an excellent writer on certain sorts of subjects,” but not up to writing on figures of the high cultural complexity of Yeats. Evelyn Waugh noted of Orwell: “He has an unusually high moral sense and respect for justice and truth, but he seems never to have been touched by a conception of religious thought and life.” Apart from showing how discrepant opinions about Orwell can be, these views show how apt other writers were to read into Orwell, or discover missing from him, those qualities they thought most important in their own work. What was the quality in George Orwell that made other writers read him as if he were a Rorschach test? And might not this quality, too, be connected in some central way to the unflagging prominence of Orwell’s reputation?

To get at the complex nature of Orwell’s reputation, clearly something like a book-length study is required, or so at least Professor John Rodden, who teaches rhetoric at the University of Virginia and who has recently written such a book, must have felt. The Politics of Literary Reputation, which carries the subtitle “The Making and Claiming of ‘St. George’ Orwell,” is a vast production.1 The book is easily double the length of any single book its subject ever wrote, and carries behind it, in a giant academic caboose, more than twelve hundred footnotes, most of them discursive. Professor Rodden has to have read nearly everything ever written about or connected with or even loosely tangential to George Orwell, popular and academic, English, American, and European. The small-type index feels like the telephone directory of a small town. It is an exhaustive study.

Professor Rodden writes well enough, in a style that combines intellectual journalism with a heavy though not deadly admixture of academic locutions. There is little about his book, like so much current academic criticism, that bears the unmarked but unmistakable legend “TO THE TRADE ONLY.” And yet there is something about The Politics of Literary Reputation that makes it the near reverse, in the cant phrase, of “a good read.” It is instead a rough and rambling read. Less like a “read” at all, it feels like a long career, in which all one’s movement is lateral. Professor Rodden views Orwell from every possible angle—as Rebel, as Prophet, as Common Man, as Saint—but somehow the portrait that emerges from all these angle shots comes out less rounded than blurred. Pace and progress seem to play no part in the argument. The struggle to get in everything is paramount. Rodden seem perpetually to be reconstructing “foil phases of Orwell’s reputation in postwar Germany,” or demarcating his “three Tribune ‘lives’ between 1937–47,” or noting that this or that critic’s “history of reception of Orwell’s work can be divided into four or five parts. Near the close, Rodden refers to his book as “this project,” and project is how the reader—including the entirely interested reader—comes to view it, too. An exhaustive study, as I say.

Yet, for all Professor Rodden’s labors, one feels that the job has not been done—that is, if the job has been to account for why a writer of George Orwell’s particular quality has loomed as large as he has in the contemporary world. We get a great deal of background on the issues, questions, and problems connected with Orwell’s career. We learn much about what he meant to his contemporaries, the generation immediately following them, and to the left-wing intellectuals of the current day. We are filled in on the dispute over the ultimate character of Orwell’s politics and hence over the matter of his political legacy. Professor Rodden takes positions, is not shy about announcing his own politics (“left-of-center white male of working-class origins, a post-Vatican II Catholic liberal”), or fearful of speculating upon why one critic found Orwell attractive and another finds him repulsive. Rodden glues literally hundreds of small mosaics to the wall, but, somehow, a picture refuses to cohere. What one is left with are data, a vaster collection of facts about the career of a single writer than has perhaps ever before been gathered in a single place. But data, however interesting, remain data.

What is missing, I believe, is a stronger element of literary criticism than the author of The Politics of Literary Reputation chooses to provide. The choice was a deliberate one—“This book,” writes Professor Rodden, “aims chiefly to describe the making and claiming of a reputation, rather than to argue a specific case for its upward or downward revaluation”—but it is not clear that the two activities, criticism and description, are so easily separable. Insofar as one of the tasks of criticism is to establish the quality of a writer with a view toward placing him among his contemporaries and predecessors, the reputation of any serious writer is almost always best understood from the perspective of criticism. Another of the tasks of criticism—one of the major ones, surely—is to confer just reputation. An unjust literary reputation, as ought by now to be well known, can be as easily built on a writer’s defects as on his strengths; see, not merely passim, the last thirty or so years of American novelists. In the case of Orwell, one wonders if the question of how he arrived at his extraordinary reputation isn’t bound up with the answer to the literary critical question of what kind of writer he was, strengths, defects, ambiguities, and all.

George Orwell has become a hero of culture. Other literary men have been heroes of culture over the past century, Henry James, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot among them. But these men derived their status from their art, for which they made heroic sacrifices and on which they left a permanent impress. But Orwell is extraordinary among heroes of culture in not being exclusively an artist, or even, strictly speaking, a figure whose most strenuous efforts were invested in high culture. One might even say that Orwell’s status derives in good part from his very artlessness. Max Beerbohm once declared that “to be interesting, a man must be complex and elusive,” citing the examples of Byron, Disraeli, and Rossetti as among the most interesting men in nineteenth-century England. But Orwell’s power, much of his interest to us, comes from the reverse qualities: his simplicity and straightforwardness, at least as these are exhibited in the character he projected in his most powerful writing.

George Orwell has become a hero of culture.

From the standpoint of reputation, character has always been Orwell’s strongest asset. It was imputed to him early and continued to be conferred on him posthumously. “I was a stage rebel,” wrote Cyril Connolly, who went to St. Cyprian’s and then Eton with him, “Orwell a true one,” adding: “The remarkable thing about Orwell was that alone among the boys he was an intellectual and not a parrot for he thought for himself.” The imputation of strong character would heighten over the years. When Lionel Trilling came to write about Orwell, in an introduction to a 1952 edition of Homage to Catalonia, character had turned into virtue. Trilling allowed that Orwell was “not a genius,” but emphasized that Orwell’s virtue comprised “not merely moral goodness, but also fortitude and strength in goodness.” That he was not a genius made him, in Trilling’s view, all the more important, “for he communicates to us the sense that what he has done any one of us could do.” (In Trilling’s essay there follows a paragraph of extraordinary qualification that begins, “Or could do if we but made up our mind to it,” which suggests most of us cannot; and here one senses how Lionel Trilling, that academic Demosthenes, his mouth filled not with pebbles but perpetual qualifications and hesitations, must have achingly envied Orwell’s plainspokenness and readiness to act on his views.) From boy of character to man of virtue, Orwell was next (though not in strict chronological order) transmuted into “the wintry conscience of a generation,” in V. S. Pritchett’s obituary article in The New Statesman of January 28, 1950, “a kind of saint,” a “Don Quixote” whose “conscience could be allayed only by taking upon itself the pain, the misery, the dinginess and the pathetic but hard vulgarities of a stale and hopeless period.” One would like to think that George Orwell, reading all this, would have been mildly amused.

Yet these have been the terms in which, for the vast most part, Orwell has been judged. As Professor Rodden puts it, “If we see Pritchett’s obituary [which also appeared in a somewhat different version in The New York Times Book Review] as one of those reception moments to which readers have repeatedly returned—like Trilling’s introduction to Homage to Catalonia and Connolly’s characterization of Orwell in Enemies of Promise (1938)—it offers further insight into the reputation process.” Cyril Connolly, Lionel Trilling, and V.S. Pritchett make for a pretty fair triumvirate of testimonials, representing English and American literary criticism at its best from its aesthetic through its morally serious strain. Yet can the terms for judging Orwell that they have set down be sustained in our day?

From the standpoint of reputation, character has always been Orwell’s strongest asset.

I do not, myself, think that they quite can be. I say this with no great glee, for Orwell has been one of a small number of modern writers from whom my own way of viewing the world derives. Although one is trained, in judging literature, to ignore the life of a writer and concentrate on the work, anyone with any normal human feeling is always secretly delighted to learn that a writer he admires is also a man or woman he can respect. Part of the attractiveness of Orwell has of course been the respect that the integrity of his life invites. No finality in biography is available, and it may yet turn up that Orwell perpetuated some hideously caddish acts. But just now it does seem that a good part of the reason for the reverence in which he is held is the stupidity-ridden, disgrace-laden, generally shameful history of intellectual life of the past half century or so, against which Orwell’s relative normality, common sense, and decency stand out.

At the same time, it ought not to stand in the way of a clear judgment of Orwell’s work. Orwell was himself much concerned about what it is that makes for survival in literature and about the changing nature of literary reputation. In “Inside the Whale” (1940) he took up the change that had swept over the remains—that is to say, the poems—of A. E. Housman, who had been an important figure in his own generation when Orwell was young but seemed less so later. With typical good sense, he writes: “There is no need to under-rate him now because he was over-rated a few years ago.” I don’t mean to imply that Orwell, too, was overrated; he said things crucial to his day, and in so saying helped form not only the terms of the discussion but the history of that day and became one its central writers. Rereading Orwell in our day, one’s admiration for his insight and intellectual courage do not lessen; quite the reverse, much that he wrote then seems no less pertinent now, and not as prophesy but as simple truth. Yet much in Orwell can also seem thin, or oddly skewed, inadequate, or simply wrong. George Orwell has reached that privileged position of high reputation where his weaknesses can be openly dealt with because his strengths are no longer in serious dispute. The time, surely, has come for a fuller portrait.

It will not, for example, any longer do to consider George Orwell principally as a Cold War writer. He was partly that, of course, one of the best and most important, possibly the primary anti-totalitarian writer of the late 1930s and 1940s, a time of great denial of the murderousness of left-wing totalitarianism. Orwell was a strong and straightaway anti-Communist. It was an honorable and lonely position, and one which a man who earned a small living by his writings paid for by being denied entry into many magazines. The significance of this strain in Orwell cannot be gainsaid; nor is it quite time, at least in the gardens of the Third World, to shuck it all off as once pertinent but no longer. But Orwell’s anti-Communism grew not alone out of his historical experience—with his self-acclaimed talent for facing unpleasant facts—but also out of his exposure to intellectuals under political pressure. He repeatedly said that “the intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people.” He said it in dozens of different ways, and none of them tactful. “The truth is, of course,” he wrote in “Raffles and Miss Blandish” (1944), “that the countless English intellectuals who kiss the arse of Stalin are not different from the minority who give their allegiance to Hitler or Mussolini.”

Although Orwell described himself in The Road to Wigan Pier as “a semi-intellectual,” he was among modern writers the fiercest anti-intellectual going. Perhaps he was just enough of an intellectual—bookish, someone interested in the play of ideas—to have understood and despised the type. Having gone to Eton but not on to university, Orwell was nicely positioned to feel no inferiority toward the general class of English intellectuals and yet not quite feel himself of that class, either. To become an intellectual was, for Orwell, to become deeply out of it, hypocritical, stupid, inhumanly corrupted, spiritually bankrupt. Here is a small bouquet of Orwell’s prime remarks about intellectuals:

They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow.
—The Lion and the Unicorn (1941)

It is only the “educated” man, especially the literary man, who knows how to be a bigot.
The Road to Wigan Pier

One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that [that America had entered World War II to prevent an English revolution]; no ordinary man could be so stupid.
—“Notes on Nationalism” (1945)

[The leftish politics] of the English intellectual is the patriotism of the deracinated.
—“Inside the Whale”

England is perhaps the only great nation whose intellectuals are ashamed of their country.
The Lion and the Unicorn

Orwell wasn’t much cheerier on the subject of what one might think of as intellectual auxiliaries. “A humanitarian is always a hypocrite,” he wrote, “and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases.” Of Ezra Pound in particular, but of the conduct of artists generally, he noted: “One has the right to expect ordinary decency even of a poet.” And of course his devastating shot at the grotesque unreality of those who flocked to contemporary Socialism, which appears in the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier, once read can scarcely be forgot: “The fact is that Socialism, in the form in which it is now presented, appeals chiefly to unsatisfactory or even inhuman types.” Details not withheld: “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England.” It gets worse, wilder, and, if you happen to be sitting on the right side of the aisle, even funnier.

Having declared intellectuals poison—and “the modern English literary world, at any rate the highbrow section of it, a sort of poisonous jungle where only weeds can nourish”—Orwell was thrown back on the figure he frequently referred to in his writing as “the common man.” Sometimes this “common man” is assumed to be of the working class, a man who, quite rightly in Orwell’s view, is entirely uninterested in the philosophical side of Marxism, with its “pea-and-thimble trick with those three mysterious entities, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.” Sometimes he is the “ordinary man,” who “may not flinch from a dictatorship of the proletariat, if you offer it tactfully; [but] offer him a dictatorship of the prigs, and he gets ready to fight.” People of “very different type can be described as the common man,” Orwell wrote in his essay on Dickens.

But what marks this common man above all for Orwell is “a native decency,” a distaste for abstraction, and an appreciation of the small pleasures and surface delights of life. When Orwell writes that “the common man is still living in the mental world of Dickens, but nearly every modern intellectual has gone over to some or other form of totalitarianism,” he means that the common man retains a bred-in-the-bone respect for loyalty and kindness, courage and freedom, a hatred of unfairness and oppression, and a love for life in its everyday quality that the intellectual has bred out of himself. Mary McCarthy, it will be recalled, felt Orwell’s concept of decency needed refining, but then she was herself almost the perfect type of intellectual and wasn’t, in Orwell’s view, likely to have understood it in any case.

Orwell understood it and tried by his best lights to live it. After his youthful years in the British imperial police in Burma, after his days of deliberately going down and out, he tried to live like the common man, at least in the outward appurtenances of his life. Bernard Crick’s biography of Orwell, the most complete we now have, recounts several of the details of Orwell’s almost aggressive anti-bohemianism.2 On the other hand, he was blocked off from living in an easy middle-class way not only by his meager earnings as a free-lance writer but even more by his strong antipathy to the bourgeois life from which he had come. (“To have a horror of the bourgeois,” said Jules Renard, “is bourgeois.”) The result was that Orwell and his wife Eileen tended to muddle along somewhat grimly between working- and lower-middle-class living arrangements, with Orwell affecting proletarian habits. He smoked shag cigarettes, slurped his tea out of the saucer, cared not at all about clothes. In the last years of his life, with the royalties that were beginning to come in from Animal Farm, he bought a farm in Jura, in the Scottish Hebrides, where, with his sister and adopted son under his roof, he attempted to live the life of the hardscrabble farmer. As best he could, Orwell attempted, to use the French phrase he himself would doubtless have abjured, to live dans le vrai.

He attempted to write, too, dans le vrai, and one of his working assumptions, though so far as I know he never put it straightout, was that the truth of life has been distorted by much literature. As a literary critic, he was best as a revisionist—revising the received opinions about other writers that felt wrong to him. Allowing for Kipling’s worst thoughts, he goes on to make the points that “Kipling deals in thoughts which are both vulgar and permanent,” that “few people who have criticized England from the inside have said bitterer things about her than this gutter patriot,” that he wrote “with responsibility” and knew that “men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.” (W. H. Auden, in his political phase during the 1930s, Orwell called “a sort of gutless Kipling.”) He de-Marxified Dickens, showing how little interested in politics Dickens was, and asserted that “he was popular chiefly because he was able to express in comic, simplified and therefore memorable form that native decency of the common man.” Brilliantly, he notes: “The outstanding, unmistakable mark of Dickens’s writing is the unnecessary detail.” In what is Orwell’s best literary essay, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” (1947)—an essay that anticipates and is superior to Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox—he sides against Tolstoy, whose “main aim, in his later years, was to narrow the range of human consciousness,” and with Shakespeare, who “loved the surface of the earth and the process of life . . . [and whose] main hold on us is through language.”

George Orwell was half an artist. This was not sufficient to make him a memorable novelist, but it did put him in the class of the best English essayists, all of whom have also been, in their various ways, half artists. Serious visual art and music never come in for mention in Orwell; he is dead to the artistic significance of religion, toward which he was generally—and in the case of Roman Catholics particularly—antagonistic. But about literary art he was passionate: “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth [the same phrase he uses in connection with Shakespeare], and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.” In another time, he might have been able to give way to this side of himself. But not in that in which he lived. In his own time politics was unavoidable, and he saw his job as reconciling “my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.” As for his own ambition, about this he is entirely clear: “What I have wanted to do throughout the past ten years,” he remarked in “Why I Write,” “is to make political writing into an art.”

How successful was Orwell at turning political writing into an art? Very, is one’s unhesitating first response. A tradition of sorts was there. Burke, Paine, Cobden, Hazlitt, Macaulay had each produced political writing that—sometimes in flashes, sometimes in sustained patches—remains powerful, beautiful, greatly moving. In this tradition, political writing that aspired to art tended to go for the searing and the soaring, flamethrowers followed by French horns. Part of Orwell’s distinction as a political writer is that he departed from this tradition by playing it flat and playing it straight. He described the indecency of shooting a Fascist when the man is running while trying to hold up his trousers; he described the loathsomeness of tripe on a coal miner’s table; always and everywhere he described smells and filth, discomfort and disgust, and made plain that in war and in poverty “physical details always outweight everything else.” When he took on a political subject, Orwell regularly warned against his bias, he struggled on the page before the reader to be as honest as possible within that bias, and his interest in any political event or issue had nothing to do with his establishing his own superiority to it. This was, in political writing, revolutionary, and, since Orwell’s death in 1950, it remains without parallel.

He struggled on the page before the reader to be as honest as possible within that bias.

Yet the limitations built into making political writing an art, and thus giving it a chance for survival, are considerable. For one, political writing is called into being by events and issues, and events and issues are in the fullness—sometimes in the leanness— of time settled, dissolved, simply forgotten. Of the writing about them, only the rhetoric remains, trailing the stale odor of once-strong opinion. For another, in politics, unlike in art, it is important that one be correct, or at the very minimum not altogether wrong. In “Politics vs. Literature” (1947), his essay on Swift, whom he called “one of the writers I admire with the least reserve,” Orwell asks: “What is the relationship between agreement with a writer’s opinions, and enjoyment of his work?” Orwell doesn’t quite get around to answering this question, so let me answer it for him by saying that, in politics, where agreement exists it is usually immensely improved.

As for Orwell’s own politics, a subject of much contention, it can be said that all interpretations are equal, but some are more equal than others. In “Why I Write” he set them out in a single sentence: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 [since, that is, his experience of international betrayal in the Spanish Civil War] has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.” That sounds plain enough, but a twist is added: the progressive party of Orwell’s time so revolted him—as, he notes, Swift was revolted by the progressive party of his own—that Orwell’s most penetrating and original writing is about the detachment from political reality of left-wing intellectuals and its serious consequences in a world where horror, suffering, and organized murder are real enough. Yet, throughout his work there is a persistent rattling against the evils of “the utter rottenness of private capitalism”—for leftists of Orwell’s generation capitalism was a weight station directly on the road to fascism—cliched references to the filthy rich (“The lady in the Rolls-Royce car is now more damaging to morale than a fleet of Goring’s bombing-planes,” he wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn), false assertions (“Laissez-faire capitalism is dead”), and much else that one could pop into print in next week’s issue of The Nation without anyone noticing.

On his deathbed, apropos of Evelyn Waugh, in his journal Orwell wrote: “One cannot really be a Catholic and grown up.” In Homage to Catalonia, he wrote: “when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask which side I am on.” (The man could be a rapist, George; better ask.) Israel was for him just another variant of nationalism, and he despised nationalism in all its forms, case closed. “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude,” he wrote, in a sentence that not only illustrates Conor Cruise O’Brien’s remark that “plain language has a tendency to become extreme” but has caused great mischief by being interpreted to mean that, at bottom, everything in the world is political in any case, so let ’er rip. Orwell was wrong about many things, and about some things not merely wrong but crudely, callowly wrong.

But on many important things Orwell was right. He was right to trust his instincts over his political opinions whenever the two clashed. He was right in recognizing that the major political question of his time was how best to confront totalitarianism and all its deceptions; and right again to do so head on, with all his art and all his heart and the vast quantity of courage at his command. He was right in his impatience with intellectual cant, and percipient in early underscoring the connection between totalitarian habits of thought and the corruption of language. Orwell was scarcely a genius, nor even, in any striking way, an original thinker. What he was was honest and what he had was unshakable integrity, and these qualities, working their magic, lent his writing great force and made him a figure crucial for his time and left him a model for our own. However high George Orwell’s reputation may have risen, no matter how low it may one day fall, all this is finally part of the history of publicity. What matters is that through moral effort he made himself into a good writer. That is permanent, not subject to fluctuation, can never be taken away.

1The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of ‘St. George’ Orwell, by John Rodden. Oxford University Press, 478 pages, $27.50.

2George Orwell: A Life, by Bernard Crick, was published by Atlantic-Little, Brown in 1980.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 9, on page 14
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