Reconsidering Orwell’s Essays
George Orwell was the greatest essayist of the twentieth century.
Sixty years ago, at the height of his fame as the author of Animal Farm, Orwell published a collection of essays that first revealed to a wide audience his skill in this most difficult of literary forms. Called Critical Essays in England, it was renamed Dickens, Dali, and Others when it appeared in the United States. It wasn’t his first book of essays. An earlier anthology, Inside the Whale, appeared in the early days of World War II but got lost in the dramatic events of the spring of 1940 when Hitler’s legions swept across Western Europe. Inside the Whale was quickly forgotten, although the distinguished literary critic Q. D. Leavis asserted that it showed that Orwell was one of the best prose stylists then writing in English.
Unfortunately for Orwell, writing essays was not financially profitable. For Inside the Whale his advance from his publisher, Victor Gollancz, was just thirty pounds. Orwell said he enjoyed analyzing literary figures but there was no money in it.
In 1952, two years after his death, with Orwell’s popularity growing due to the success of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a new version of his best non-fiction was published in America under the title A Collection of Essays. It was compiled from previously published material culled from both Inside the Whale and Critical Essays, plus an unpublished piece, a remarkable, often unforgettable portrait of his early school days, “Such, Such Were the Joys.” This volume was the work of the young publishing genius Jason Epstein, who had convinced Doubleday that there was a market among upscale readers and college students for quality paperbacks. A Collection of Essays was one of the first and most successful of the Anchor Books series which Epstein started and it remains in print and continues to sell today.
A Collection of Essays consists of fourteen pieces, of which the lead essay, the twenty-thousand word “Such, Such Were the Joys” about Orwell’s traumatic schooldays, could only be published in the United States because of English libel laws. It is also the longest essay Orwell wrote. It has been argued by some Orwell scholars that his unhappy experiences at school influenced his conception of the grim future in Nineteen Eighty-Four. His biographer, Bernard Crick in George Orwell: A Life, dismisses the notion that “Such, Such, Were the Joys” was written just before Orwell began Nineteen Eighty-Four and reflected the tuberculosis that was ravaging him at the time. Crick shows that Orwell began the essay in the early 1940s and thus there was no direct connection to the novel.
Orwell’s portrait of his school, St. Cyprian’s, called Crossgates in the essay, is in a tradition of horror tales of English education. It bears some resemblance to Winston Churchill’s experience at school in his My Early Life: A Roving Commission (1930). Like Churchill, Orwell portrays himself as a frightened little boy, easily intimidated by his classmates, bullied by the teachers, and generally miserable. Neither Churchill nor Orwell admitted learning much at school.
“Such, Such Were the Joys” reveals Orwell’s skill at finding meaning in otherwise trivial events and avoiding the trap of self-pity. He tells how he was accused of some school infraction. He was innocent, but it didn’t matter; he felt guilty. It taught him that you could “commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it … But at any rate this was the great, abiding lesson of my boyhood: that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good.” It was a thought that remained with him for the rest of his life.
The other essays in the 1952 edition had appeared before, and at least two, “Shooting an Elephant” and “Politics and the English Language,” already were well on their way to becoming classics. These two would be anthologized in American high school and college English texts as examples of good prose and would influence a generation of aspiring writers.
The remaining essays are a testament to the breadth of Orwell’s interests. They include interpretations of two controversial individuals, Rudyard Kipling and Mohandas Gandhi; an indictment of the evils of imperialism, “Marrakech”; and two essays that deal with key events in the recent past, “England Your England” and “Looking Back on the Spanish War.” The former is part one of Orwell’s elaboration of the uniqueness of the English national character and his defense of the concept of patriotism he first outlined early in World War II in his monograph The Lion and the Unicorn (1940).
“Looking Back on the Spanish War” is in many ways a summary of Orwell’s controversial analysis of the Spanish Civil War, which he first outlined in Homage to Catalonia (1938). It is a bitter indictment of the failure of the left in England to speak out against Communist treachery in Spain. It also contains the first inkling of Orwell’s fear that the very idea of historical truth was disappearing in the face of lies and propaganda, an idea that would show up in his last two novels. He wrote that he feared that the very idea that history could be truthfully written was fading, along with the idea that such a thing as truth can exist. He wasn’t far off in that, as the deconstructionists have made clear.
“Marrakech” and “Shooting an Elephant” pick up one of Orwell’s favorite themes—the deleterious impact of imperialism not just on the colonial peoples but on the rulers. Christopher Hitchens has noted that there is a side of Orwell that is often missed—as the forerunner of post-colonial studies. “Marrakech” begins with one of Orwell’s most arresting opening lines: “As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.” It is possible that Orwell borrowed the image from his wife, Eileen, who used a similar phrase in a letter to a friend.
There is a certain disjointed quality to “Marrakech,” as if Orwell just cobbled together some thoughts about imperialism. His major theme is the invisibility of the colonized. The Moroccans he sees are the color of the earth. “[W]here the human beings have brown skins their poverty is simply not noticed.”
Orwell ends by watching a parade of Senegalese troops marching by, “their curiously sensitive black faces … glistening with sweat.” As they pass he poses the question that he says every white man must ask himself: “How much longer can we go on kidding these people? How long before they turn their guns in the other direction?” The Europeans wouldn’t have to wait long for their answer.
“Shooting an Elephant” is the essay where Orwell first found his distinctive “voice”—the ability to write a kind of direct, intimate prose that leaves nothing between the writer and the reader. As Orwell says in “Why I Write,” good prose is like a window pane: it hides nothing.
When Orwell shoots the elephant, which he knows is no longer dangerous, he recognizes that he is responding to the will of the Burmese mob. “Here I was, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet … I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.” No one has ever better described the paradox of the link between the ruler and the ruled.
The three essays “Boys’ Weeklies,” “The Art of Donald McGill,” and “Raffles and Miss Blandish” are among the first attempts to subject to serious analysis such popular culture phenomena as comic post cards, the difference between English and American crime stories, and the reading material of English adolescents. Orwell was always suspicious of the desire of intellectuals to denigrate things that the common people cherished as examples of the trivial and useless. He reverts to this theme in Nineteen Eighty-Four with the coral paperweight and the copy book with rich creamy paper that reminds Winston Smith of the lost past. With these essays Orwell could be considered the creator of the modern thoughtful essay about an otherwise ephemeral theme.
“Charles Dickens” and “Inside the Whale” reveal Orwell’s gift for literary criticism. The former is still appreciated by Dickens scholars and remains fresh and vivid today. Orwell told Humphrey House, one of England’s leading Dickens scholars, that he never really studied Dickens but “merely read and enjoyed him.”
Orwell’s insights about things that interested him were always worth noting. Dickens had been dismissed as irrelevant during the crisis of the 1930s as having childish political views. Orwell doesn’t dispute this but notes: “I think that because his moral sense was sound he would have been able to find his bearing in any political or economic milieu.”
Orwell’s Dickens bears a striking resemblance to Orwell himself. When he looked at Dickens, Orwell wrote that he saw 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.” In brief, a perfect portrait of Orwell himself.
“Inside the Whale” is Orwell’s analysis of the literary trends of the 1920s and 1930s. Using the novelist Henry Miller as an example, it is among other things a defense of the concept of art and the artist even when their social and political views are irresponsible. It is typical of the contrarian side of Orwell that he would find something positive to say about a writer who was largely despised and accused of being little better than a pornographer. “Inside the Whale” also contains an insight into why literary tastes changed from the 1920s generation of Eliot, Pound, and Yeats—who were either apolitical or downright reactionary—to the politically engaged Auden-Spender-C. Day Lewis generation of leftwing radicals of the 1930s. While critically sympathetic to the political views of the latter, Orwell noted that the 1920s writers were technically innovative despite their narrow political views. Few leftwing literary critics would have made the same point then and perhaps now. Orwell’s views have been vindicated, as the writers of the 1920s are still seen as innovators while the Auden generation now seems dated.
A Collection of Essays ends with “Why I Write,” a short piece in which Orwell discusses four motivations for writing—sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. He believed that the first three motives outweighed the fourth in his makeup, but events of the twentieth century forced him to try to make political writing into an art. It could be argued that in this he succeeded better than any other writer of his generation.
These essays written between 1936 and 1949 foreshadow the world of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell’s essays are less well known than these two seminal works of fiction but they are equally important for understanding his world view. The origin of many of themes in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four can be found in these essays: distrust of intellectuals, defense of patriotism as the glue that held the various English classes together, the need for a true socialist revolution, suspicion of communism, respect for themes of popular culture, and concern for the idea of truth.
A Collection of Essays deserves to be read today by all interested in the worrisome issues of state power, how ideology can corrupt, and the way propaganda threatens to undermine the traditional concept of truth in the West. No one spelled out these problems better than Orwell. For those not familiar with his work, A Collection of Essays is a great place to begin.
John P. Rossi is a Professor of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia. He has written extensively on Orwell, most recently “Two Irascible Englishmen: Mr. Waugh and Mr. Orwell,” Modern Age: A Quarterly Review, Vol. 47, No. 2, Spring 2005.
Posted: September 29, 2013
The Oral Tradition
Mark Royden Winchell
Volume 22, Number 2 (Winter 1982)