Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation
By Jeffrey Meyers
380 pages, $29.95
It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something
... the face of a man who is generously angry--in other words, of
a nineteenth century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated
with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are
now contending for our souls." This is George Orwell writing in
1939 on Charles Dickens, but these words could just as well describe
Orwell may have felt hated by the smelly little orthodoxies of
his time, but since his death his soul has been up for grabs. For
the non-Communist left, Orwell has been the exemplar of small "s"
socialist decency; for the right, a prophet against totalitarianism.
What other writer could unite Christopher Hitchens and Norman Podhoretz
under the same banner?
But Orwell was sui generis, and his own fiercely guarded
independence has meant that
he can be read any number of ways--and appropriated for just about
any cause. While those on the left ignore at their own peril his often
cutting remarks about the orthodox left-wingers of his own time, right-wing
critics like Podhoretz and Hilton Kramer do more damage to Orwell
when they trot out fatuous exercises of the "if Orwell were alive
today" variety when bashing the left. The reason Orwell was such an
effective writer and thinker was that he wrote not in the service
of dogmatic imperatives, but rather of his own hard-headed opinions,
which often annoyed his nominal allies on the left. "A writer cannot
be a loyal member of any political party," he once wrote.
Orwell's union card, January
Any biographer of Orwell has to take into account the often conflicting
impulses that made up his sometimes maddening character. He is a
hard subject to pin down. The Road to Wigan Pier so infuriated
its publisher, Victor Gollancz, because of its vituperative asides
on socialists that he wrote an introduction alerting the reader
to Orwell's rather eccentric opinions about the left. "He is at
one and the same time an extreme intellectual and a violent intellectual,"
Gollancz noted. "Similarly he is a frightful snob ... and a genuine
hater of every form of snobbery." So just who was Orwell?
He was clearly his own man. Or many men, as Jeffrey Meyers writes
in his new biography, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation:
"Orwell never could--perhaps never wanted to--resolve the contradictions
of his elusive character: Etonian prole, anti-colonial policeman,
bourgeois bum, Tory anarchist, Leftist critic of the Left, puritanical
lecher, kindly autocrat."
This is a perceptive remark in an otherwise uninspired biography,
one filled with the usual glib hallmarks of Meyers' style. A depressingly
industrious biographer, Meyers has made a career writing superficially
learned literary biographies. Despite the book jacket's promise
of "research into unpublished material in the Orwell archive in
London," and the availability of the massive 20-volume edition of
Orwell's collected works, this is a largely superfluous work that
adds little to our knowledge of Orwell's life.
Born Eric Blair in colonial Burma in 1903, the young Orwell was
soon shipped home with his mother to England, where he lived a comfortable
life as a member of the "lower-upper middle class," as he once described
it. Schooled at St. Cyprian's and Eton, Orwell graduated without
many prospects; he was a horrid student. Instead of the usual Oxbridge
route of his peers (like Anthony Powell and Cyril Connolly) Orwell
opted for the Burma police force, following his father's footsteps.
He was to spend seven years there, witnessing first-hand the brutalities
of empire; upon his return to England in 1927, he wanted nothing
to do with a society founded on imperialism and oppression. As he
wrote in one autobiographical passage in Wigan Pier: "I felt
that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism, but from every
form of man's dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to
get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their
side against the tyrants." He threw his lot in with the downtrodden
and tramped around East London and Paris, changing his name to George
Orwell upon publication in 1933 of his first book, Down and Out
in Paris and London, a semi-documentary account of his time
as member of the bohemian demi-monde.
By the '30s, the Orwell we know was beginning to emerge: passionate,
obsessed with politics, preoccupied with the state of England and
the rise of fascism in Europe. These latter two concerns produced
his two most famous works of nonfiction, The Road to Wigan Pier
and Homage to Catalonia. In the biography's account of Orwell's
time as a militiaman in Spain, where he was nearly killed after
taking a bullet in the throat, Meyers benefits from some new material--most
importantly an arrest warrant that proves the Communists were after
Orwell. This will no doubt please neocon revisionists like Ronald
Radosh, who will use it to further cast doubt on the Republicans'
cause--which Orwell passionately believed in, despite the Communist
Nonetheless, Spain was a chastening experience for Orwell. Unlike
other writers who took up the Republican cause but were mere observers
(like W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender) Orwell experienced ideological
warfare first-hand, and bitterly attacked Auden and Spender as mere
hand-wringers. Orwell came home a bitter foe of Communism, and blamed
the left-wing press profusely for their distortions of the Spanish
cause. But his belief in his own brand of socialism remained undimmed.
During World War II, he broadcast regularly for the BBC, and wrote
some his finest essays, including "The Lion and the Unicorn," where
he outlined his views on England and socialism. In 1945 Orwell's
satire Animal Farm was published, prompting his friend William
Empson to write, "You must expect to be misunderstood on a large
And misunderstood he was. Animal Farm and its successor,
1984, may be the two most talked-about books of the 20th
century. Yet no less than five publishing houses rejected the manuscript
of the former. Orwell had to contend with a reservoir of pro-Soviet
sentiment, which reached its high-water mark after the Allied defeat
of the Nazis. Of all people, even the self-described Anglo-Catholic
royalist T.S. Eliot declined to publish the novel at Faber and Faber,
telling Orwell "that this was not the right point of view from which
to criticize the political situation at the present time."
Eventually, of course, Animal Farm was a commercial and
critical smash, getting a boost in the American press from Edmund
Wilson and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. After this success, Orwell completed
1984 on Jura, a remote island off the coast of Scotland.
He ruined his health there, nearly drowning in a boating accident;
recurring bouts of bronchitis developed into tuberculosis, which
ultimately killed him in 1950. But not before Orwell finished the
novel, perhaps the best thing ever written on totalitarianism (both
Nazi and Soviet) and certainly one of the most haunting and poignant.
And yet today his legacy is still contested. Intellectuals still
debate his every move--witness the recent contretemps over the list
of fellow travelers Orwell compiled before his death. Alexander
Cockburn harrumphed and spit bullets at Orwell in the pages of The
Nation, calling him an outright snitch who did real damage to
the ranks of the left, and contending that he provided "moral cover
for all the Namers of Names who came after him." To be sure, cold
warriors applauded the publicity for Orwell with a "see, he really
was one of us" arrogance that misses the mark. What Orwell compiled
was in many ways a bitchy catalogue of gossip and speculation--yes,
marred by remarks that are crudely racist and homophobic to contemporary
tastes--that he traded with his friend (and later literary executor)
Richard Rees. If anything, the list proves Orwell was insecure and
a little neurotic, two qualities that are hardly surprising to anyone
familiar with his work. (Of the list, Orwell noted "it isn't very
sensational.") It was a question of degree, something Cockburn seemingly
did not, on the evidence of his columns, take into account.
In the end, unlike two other contemporaries, Ignazio Silone and
Arthur Koestler, both of whom have been tarred by recent scandals,
Orwell's reputation still stands high and will likely continue to.
It is impossibly hard to damn him--partly because he was forthright
about his own faults. Biographers love him: There is yet another
life of Orwell in the works. But Orwell himself once told a housekeeper
that he was the only person who could adequately write his biography.
He was probably right.
Matthew Price is associate editor of Lingua Franca.