George Orwell’s America

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During the war he supported Great Britain. “I don’t,” he said, “share the average English intellectual’s hatred of his own country…”

However steadfast, honorable, and commonsensical Orwell’s views, his would have been only one more voice in a crowded era were it not for the extraordinary grace and clarity of his writing. V. S. Pritchett speaks of his “fast, clear, grey, bitter prose with its arguing ring and satirical asides,” but Orwell’s voice is funnier than that, and warmer. “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.” This is true enough to allow Pritchett to call Orwell “the conscience of his generation” without sounding grandiloquent. But it is not conscience alone that gives his writing an appeal that continues to grow when other political tracts of the time are forgotten. And Orwell was aware that there was more to it than politics: “I could not do the work of writing… if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant.… So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information…”

During the boom years… Paris was invaded by such a swarm of artists… debauchees and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen.

It is this love of the particular that informs the views of America collected in this anthology. The hatred of injustice is here; but so, too, is the pleasure in the language, the love of the sharp detail. In the last, and perhaps the most delightful, of these selections, Orwell reminds us of how post-Civil War monopoly capitalism tarnished the old, untrammeled, egalitarian America of the 1840s. But the article is no polemic; it is, rather, an evocation of the America of George Orwell’s fondest imaginings—the free and buoyant land that is more symbol than geographic or political fact but is none the less real for that.

—Richard F. Snow

 

The American Paris

TROPIC OF CANCER [by Henry Miller]… is a story of the American Paris, but not along quite the usual lines, because the Americans who figure in it happen to be people without money. During the boom years, when dollars were plentiful and the exchange-value of the franc was low, Paris was invaded by such a swarm of artists, writers, students, dilettanti, sight-seers, debauchees and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen. In some quarters of the town the so-called artists must actually have outnumbered the working population—indeed, it has been reckoned that in the late ’twenties there were as many as 30,000 painters in Paris, most of them imposters. The populace had grown so hardened to artists that gruffvoiced lesbians in corduroy breeches and young men in Grecian or medieval costume could walk the streets without attracting a glance, and along the Seine banks by Notre Dame it was almost impossible to pick one’s way between the sketching-stools. It was the age of dark horses and neglected genii; the phrase on everybody’s lips was “Quand je serai lancé”. As it turned out, nobody was “lancé”, the slump descended like another Ice Age, the cosmopolitan mob of artists vanished, and the huge Montparnasse cafés which only ten years ago were filled till the small hours by hordes of shrieking poseurs have turned into darkened tombs in which there are not even any ghosts…

—1940

Mark Twain—The Licensed Jester