- Historic Sites
George Orwell’s America
The author of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ never set foot on our shores, but he had a clear and highly personal vision of what we were and what we had been
February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
One is of a boy sitting in a whitewashed stone schoolroom. He wears braces and has patches on his shirt, and if it is summer he is barefooted. In the corner of the schoolroom there is a bucket of drinking water with a dipper. The boy lives in a farm-house, also of stone and also whitewashed, which has a mortgage on it. He aspires to be President, and is expected to keep the woodpile full. Somewhere in the background of the picture, but completely dominating it, is a huge black Bible. The other picture is of a tall, angular man, with a shapeless hat pulled down over his eyes, leaning against a wooden paling and whittling at a stick. His lower jaw moves slowly but ceaselessly. At very long intervals he emits some piece of wisdom such as “A woman is the orneriest critter there is, ’ceptin’ a mule”, or “When you don’t know a thing to do, don’t do a thing”; but more often it is a jet of tobacco juice that issues from the gap in his front teeth. Between them those two pictures summed up my earliest impression of America. And of the two, the first—which, I suppose, represented New England, the other representing the South—had the stronger hold upon me.
Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives are, I suppose, still flickeringly in print.…As a child, I loved both of them.
The books from which these pictures were derived included, of course, books which it is still possible to take seriously, such as Tom Sawyer and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but the most richly American flavour was to be found in minor works which are now almost forgotten. I wonder, for instance, if anyone still reads Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm , which remained a popular favourite long enough to be filmed with Mary Pickford in the leading part. Or how about the “Katy” books by Susan Coolidge (What Katy Did at School , etc), which, although girls’ books and therefore “soppy,” had the fascination of foreignness? Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives are, I suppose, still flickeringly in print, and certainly they still have their devotees. As a child I loved both of them, though I was less pleased by the third of the trilogy, Little Men. That model school where the worst punishment was to have to whack the schoolmaster, on “this hurts me more than it hurts you” principles, was rather difficult to swallow.
Helen’s Babies [by John Habberton] belonged in much the same world as Little Women, and must have been published round about the same date. Then there were Artemus Ward, Bret Harte, and various songs, hymns and ballads, besides poems dealing with the civil war, such as “Barbara Fritchie” (“ ‘Shoot if you must this old grey head, But spare your country’s flag’, she said”) and “Little Gifford of Tennessee”. There were other books so obscure that it hardly seems worth mentioning them, and magazine stories of which I remember nothing except that the old homestead always seemed to have a mortgage on it. There was also Beautiful Joe, the American reply to Black Beauty, of which you might just possibly pick up a copy in a sixpenny box. All the books I have mentioned were written well before 1900, but something of the special American flavour lingered on into this century in, for instance, the Buster Brown coloured supplements, and even in Booth Tarkington’s “Penrod” stories, which will have been written round about 1910. Perhaps there was even a tinge of it in Ernest Thompson Seton’s animal books (Wild Animals I Have Known, etc), which have now fallen from favour but which drew tears from the pre-1914 child as surely as Misunderstood had done from the children of a generation earlier.
Somewhat later my picture of nineteenth-century America was given greater precision by a song which is still fairly well known and which can be found (I think) in the Scottish Students’ Song Book. As usual in these bookless days I cannot get hold of a copy, and I must quote fragments from memory. It begins: