- The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of ‘St George’ Orwell by John Rodden
Oxford, 478 pp, £22.50, October 1989, ISBN 0 19 503954 8
If George Orwell had died in 1939 before the outbreak of war (something perfectly possible, for in the previous year he suffered a bad haemorrhage and spent nearly six months in a sanatorium), he would be recorded in literary histories of the period as an interesting maverick who wrote some not very successful novels, a lively account of a few hard weeks in Paris, a quirky book about the miners that was somehow combined with an attack on sandalled vegetarian socialists, and another about the Spanish Civil War that some reviewers praised but nobody read. Six hundred of the 1500 print-run for Homage to Catalonia were unsold when Orwell died in January 1950.
Later fame has blurred the fact that few of his contemporaries regarded Orwell’s writing highly in the Thirties, or took his ideas seriously. And this comparative disregard lasted well into the war years. His ‘As I please’ column in Tribune amused and irritated, the articles on boys’ weeklies and vulgar comic postcards were a novel approach to popular culture, but they seemed enjoyable lightweight pieces. When Professor Rodden says that between 1936 and 1939 ‘Orwell’s reputation quickly expanded,’ instancing the large sales of The Road to Wigan Pier, and that ‘for the first time the “Orwell persona” was at issue,’ he is simply mistaken, in part no doubt because he views the English scene from across the Atlantic. The sales were large because the book was a Left Book Club selection, disliked by many members, and you could have attended many literary gatherings in pre-war London without hearing the Orwell persona mentioned. Nor is it right, at least in relation to Britain, to say that the Book of the Month Club selection of Animal Farm was ‘probably the single most significant event for expanding Orwell’s reputation in his lifetime’. If one had to name a year when he was first taken seriously as writer and thinker it would be 1946, after the appearance of Animal Farm in the previous year, and publication of his essays on nationalism, James Burnham, and the totalitarian approach to literature, in the short-lived but influential magazine Polemic.
This is not just nit-picking. That first appreciation of Orwell as an important writer and original thinker was a socio-literary one, and so was the reaction of admiration blended with repulsion when Nineteen Eighty-Four was published. They were a long way from the creation of Orwell as a myth, an icon and an industry that is the subject of Mr Rodden’s book. The details he gives of the Orwell industry are staggering. Early in 1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four began to sell more than fifty thousand copies a day in the US, and in a Harris Poll 27 per cent of Americans claimed to have read it, though Rodden doubts the accuracy of the percentage. In Britain the sales during 1984 were 430,000, with Animal Farm not far behind. By the early Seventies the two books were selling nearly a million copies a year in the UK and the US, with the essays, novels and Homage to Catalonia carried along in their wake. The publisher Tom Rosenthal, totting up the royalties earned during six months by a backlist of Seeker foreign authors including Mishima, Moravia, Svevo, Gide, Colette, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Grass, Böll and half a dozen others, found that the whole lot added up to half Orwell’s earnings in the same period. New editions of four books have just been published, said to be ‘authoritative texts’ although in some the variants from the original editions are very slight. A new biography approved by the Orwell estate is on the way – surprisingly, because it is hard to see what important factual material it could add to Bernard Crick’s book.
Rodden pays particular attention to Orwell’s changing reputation in West Germany and the Soviet Union. In both countries special emphasis has been placed on his last two fictions, with Nineteen Eighty-Four on the best-seller list for a period of nearly two years in the run-up to 1984, and terms from the book like Zweidenken, Doppledenken and die Gedankenpolizei (doublethink and Thought Police) commonly used in the media. In the Soviet Union the changes Rodden charts are very interesting. ‘The Stalin-era Enemy of mankind turns into Comrade Orwell in the Eighties,’ as he puts it. Orwell went through the lackey of Wall Street phrase to the discovery that Nineteen Eighty-Four was really an attack on the United States and the FBI, and that Orwell himself was a good fellow who ‘shared dry crusts with the clochards of Paris’. The present situation, as described by Rodden, is that an unabridged edition of the dystopia is in hand, and some chapters of Animal Farm have been published. That is probably not quite up to date. In a Soviet Union where Robert Conquest was fêted on a recent visit, and his The Great Terror and The Harvest of Sorrow are being serialised, there is not likely to be any flinching at Orwell.
The Orwell industry, then, shows no sign of decline, in part because of his political usefulness. He is handy for radicals who view him as a renegade partly responsible for the failures and defeats of the Left, and equally for right-wingers as a stick with which to beat left-wing parties and movements. Beyond such everyday journalistic considerations is Orwell’s transformation into an icon, the St George of Rodden’s subtitle. An entertaining chapter, ‘If Orwell were alive today ...’ is given to the various assessors of his conjectural post-humous attitudes, and more modest speculators about his possible views on contemporary events. Auden, pronouncing Orwell a true Christian, wondered what he would have said about drugs, trade unions, birth control and student demos. The American ex-Communist Granville Hicks believed that he would have come out against both Stalin and Joe McCarthy, and implied that he would have approved of repentant Communists testifying before the McCarthy Commission.
Such pointless but harmless guesswork is different from Mary McCarthy’s attack when, reviewing Collected Essays, Letters and Journalism, she asked herself (or really her readers) a series of questions. ‘Surely he would have opposed the trial and execution of Eichmann, but where would he be on the war in Vietnam?’ And what about CND? She couldn’t see him on an Aldermaston march or listening to Bob Dylan, the word ‘protest’ would have made him sick, and ‘I can hear him angrily arguing that to oppose the Americans in Vietnam ... is to be “objectively” totalitarian.’ This by no means guileless question-and-answer session (for the questions imply answers by no means favourable to Orwell) was echoed or extended in Britain by Raymond Williams, who turned Orwell’s achievement on its head by postulating an early praiseworthy socialist militant who became in the last books a passive though still radical pessimist, and managed to combine the pessimism with ‘an accommodation to capitalism and with an illusion of the imminence of social democracy’. This is the kind of statement that permits no argument. It doesn’t matter that up to the time of his death Orwell thought and said that he was a socialist, and issued a statement denying that Nineteen Eighty-Four was an attack on Socialism. His ‘illusion’ about social democracy and even more his ‘accommodation to capitalism’ damned him.
We don’t need to speculate about what Orwell might have said about such abstractions, for he said it in ‘Politics and the English Language’ when condemning ‘passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning’. He was used to opponents like Williams, but might have been disconcerted by such friends as Paul Johnson, who believes he would now be a strong Thatcherite, John Wain, who invokes Orwell as an opponent of Arthur Scargill, or in America Norman Podhoretz, who feels sure he would be taking his stand with the ‘neo-conservatives against the Left’. The New York Tribune, Rodden notes, went further and called Orwell the father of neo-conservatism. These intellectual claims to or attacks on Orwell reflect the fact that his name has entered popular mythology. Rodden gives many examples. An Associated Press story, ‘If Orwell were a New Yorker’, invented for him a weekly diary for 1984, with notes on herpes, jogging and women’s skirt lengths. An imaginary interview asked what he thought about the Falklands War. The adjective ‘Orwellian’ is ubiquitous – I came across it while writing this piece in the autobiography of Roy Fuller, no admirer of Orwell.
Various images of Orwell, both literary and personal, are examined in the book’s search for the making of a reputation. Rodden believes that V.S. Pritchett’s obituary in the New Statesman was more important than any other single article in establishing Orwell as an outstanding figure, pointing out that phrases in the article like ‘conscience of his generation’ and terms like ‘Don Quixote’ have become labels almost universally used. He may be right, but it is worth remarking that Orwell’s friends took a different view of the obituary at the time. Almost every admiring phrase seems to contain its implicit qualification, so that Orwell was not just the conscience but the wintry conscience of his generation, and had the ‘guilty conscience of the privileged and educated man’, one ‘more likely to chasten his own side than that of the enemy’. He ‘prided himself on seeing through rackets’ – well, did he see through them or not? And to be called Don Quixote, isn’t that equivalent to being thought a bit ridiculous?
A host of witnesses are called, friendly and otherwise. After Pritchett, Cyril Connolly in Enemies of Promise, Lionel Trilling’s introduction to the first American edition of Homage to Catalonia in the early Fifties, and then the testimonies of the Anarchists’ Orwell, the Tribune writers’ Orwell, the Catholic Tablet’s suggestion that Orwell was at heart their ally, the discovery of radical feminists that he was a sexist contemptuous of feminist ideas who said nasty things about the ‘pansy Left’. There is even a chapter on Orwell in the (American) classroom, emphasising the difficulties of teaching his essays to freshmen, because of the poor writing skills of most students. My own slight experience was the reverse of this. A freshman class in an American college found ‘Boys’ Weeklies’ (Greyfriars and St Jim’s) absorbing, in part perhaps because the material was so strange to them, and wrote well about the essay. They certainly gave Orwell greater attention than they paid to Matthew Arnold.
This thorough socio-critical examination blinks deliberately any question of literary values, and is not designed to change received ideas about Orwell. Those hostile to his attitudes and infuriated by his occasional rash statements will find enough here to confirm their views. For others, myself included, the figure who emerges is pretty much that of the Truly Virtuous Man acclaimed by Trilling, the man called by Richard Rees a religious atheist and a saint who kissed the sores of lepers. This iconic Orwell resembles the actual man as little as does the agent of American imperialism invoked by Soviet demonology, yet St George Orwell gets nearer to the truth than any other image. In a time when so many clerks have been treasonable to their own beliefs, this one was transparently honest even in his moments of absurdity, and he is not made less saintly by his view that sainthood was something for human beings to avoid. A secular Socialist saint, then, one appropriate to the 20th century, and expressing a proper optimistic Socialist view when he said: ‘One must choose between God and Man, and all “radicals” and “progressives”, from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.’