George Orwell’s America

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FOR A WHILE George Orwell thought of calling his novel about life in a totalitarian future The Last Man in Europe. But in the end that title didn’t quite satisfy him, and he chose another simply by reversing the last two digits of the year in which he finished the manuscript. It is a good indication of the book’s enduring power that as the year thus whimsically chosen approached, a score of magazines came out with articles assessing the actual state of the world in 1984 against Orwell’s vision of it in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and offering edgy reassurances that things aren’t quite so bad as he’d predicted.

All this literalistic stir would have surprised and amused Orwell, for he never intended his novel as prophecy. “I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive,” he wrote, “but I believe… that something like it could arrive.” And indeed, the novel’s dismal setting suggests the dusty, played-out, bombed-out London the author knew more than it does a cityscape of the future. Nevertheless, something in the book lifted it out of its slender genre of political satire: to date it has sold more than ten million copies in English alone. Over four hundred thousand were sold in the first year, most of them in the United States, the book’s powerful “Oceania.” Orwell had contributed a regular letter from London to the Partisan Review during World War II, but it wasn’t until 1945 that the success of his cautionary fable Animal Farm made him well known in America, and not until after his death in 1950—a few months after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four—that he became widely read over here. But once established, his reputation has held as steadily in the United States as it has in his native England.

This is fitting, for our country always interested Orwell, and although he never set foot on these shores, he was a thoughtful and perceptive critic of the American scene. He was not a sentimental one nor, as the following selections from his writings demonstrate, did he embrace any accepted wisdom. He scores Mark Twain for being a toady, for instance, and he violated a tacit wartime understanding by speaking out against the American servicemen he saw rattling around London with too much money in their pockets and too much liquor in their bellies. People got mad at him for that, but he was used to people being mad at him. A quiet, personable, retiring man, he could be absolutely ruthless in the fight against social injustice that was his life-long occupation.

“I have had a bloody life a good deal of the time,” he wrote in 1936, “but in some ways an interesting one.” He was born Eric Blair in India in 1903, the son of a civil servant. Shortly after his birth he returned to England with his mother and at eight entered St. Cyprian’s, the preparatory school whose harrowing conditions he described in his famous essay “Such, Such Were the Joys.” From there he went to Eton—“five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery,” he called it—and in 1922 he joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. This was “doing the dirty work of Empire,” and he detested it. He came to see the British raj as nothing more than a brutal money-making machine: “We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies.” He quit after five years, came back to Europe, and set about “writing novels and short stories which no one would publish.”

Gradually he began to build a reputation as a left-wing voice. He was a Socialist—which to him represented nothing more or less than “justice and liberty”—but one who made fellow left-wingers uneasy. He did not admire everyone who worked his side of the political street. “If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt,” he said, “and every vegetarian, teetotaller and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly.”

He wanted a classless society but knew that English class boundaries were almost unbreachable. During a self-imposed exile among the unemployed in bleak mining towns, he wrote: “I cannot get the men to treat me precisely as an equal. They call me either ‘Sir’ or ‘Comrade.’” Orwell preferred the former title: he despised cant from left or right, and found the word comrade “a ridiculous label which, even after long practice, can hardly be mentioned without a gulp of shame.”

He came closest to finding his classless society in 1936 in Spain, fighting on the Aragon Front against Franco with the POUM, a Marxist outfit that was the smallest of the political militias in action there. “Everyone from general to private drew the same pay, ate the same food, wore the same clothes and mingled on terms of complete equality.…” It did not last. In the spring of 1937 Orwell was shot in the throat; when he returned from the hospital he found that the Communist party had accused the POUM of treason, the militia had been declared illegal, its leaders murdered, and his own life put in danger.

He returned to England with a conviction that would put him increasingly at odds with the mass of the British left: tyranny was tyranny no matter where it came from, and it was morally indefensible to deplore Hitler’s methods while condoning Stalin’s.