Every Intellectual's Big Brother

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Every Intellectual's Big Brother

George Orwell's Literary Siblings

By John Rodden

John Rodden uses the concept of reception history to shed new light on the way the memory of George Orwell has shaped and been shaped by the intellectuals of the last fifty years.

Thomas F. Staley, series editor

2006

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6 x 9 | 280 pp. | 18 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-72618-5

George Orwell has been embraced, adopted, and co-opted by everyone from the far left to the neoconservatives. Each succeeding generation of Anglo-American intellectuals has felt compelled to engage the life, work, and cultural afterlife of Orwell, who is considered by many to have been the foremost political writer of the twentieth century. Every Intellectual's Big Brother explores the ways in which numerous disparate groups, Orwell's intellectual "siblings," have adapted their views of Orwell to fit their own agendas and how in doing so they have changed our perceptions of Orwell himself. By examining the politics of literary reception as a dimension of cultural history, John Rodden gives us a better understanding of Orwell's unique and enduring role in Anglo-American intellectual life.

In Part One, Rodden opens the book with a section titled "Their Orwell, Left and Right," which focuses on Orwell's reception by several important literary circles of the latter half of the twentieth century. Beginning with Orwell's own contemporaries, Rodden addresses the ways various intellectual groups of the 1950s responded to Orwell. Rodden then moves on in Part Two to what he calls the "Orwell Confraternity Today," those contemporary intellectuals who have, in various ways, identified themselves with or reacted against Orwell. The author concludes by examining how Orwell's status as an object of admiration and detraction has complicated the way in which he has been perceived by readers since his death.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Prologue. "Orwell" Still Lives
  • Introduction. George Orwell and His Intellectual Progeny
  • Part One. Their Orwell, Left and Right
  • Chapter One. "Not One of Us?" Orwell and the London Left of the 1930s and '40s
  • Chapter Two. "A Moral Genius": Orwell and the Movement Writers of the 1950s
  • Chapter Three. "London Letter" from a Family Cousin: The New York Intellectuals' Adoption of Orwell
  • Chapter Four. "A Leftist by Accident?": Orwell and the American Cultural Conservatives
  • Chapter Five. Does Orwell Matter? Between Fraternity and Fratricide at the Nation
  • Part Two. Orwell's Literary Siblings Today
  • Chapter Six. Iraq, the Internet, and "the Big O" in 2003: A Centennial Report
  • Chapter Seven. The Man within the Writings
  • Chapter Eight. Unlessons from My Intellectual Big Brother
  • Epilogue. On the Ethics of Literary Reputation
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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I

George Orwell (1903-1950) was the foremost political writer of the twentieth century and the widely acknowledged contemporary master of plain English prose. The following chapters orbit around Orwell's intellectual legacy and cultural impact, focusing especially on his deep and ongoing influence on the generations of Anglo-American intellectuals that followed him.

My chief intention in this study is to explore the politics of Orwell's reception history as a dimension of cultural history, thereby to understand his unique and enduring role in Anglo-American intellectual life. Orwell's reception in the mid- to late twentieth century is the subject of Part One of this book, in which I take the story of his complex heritage slightly further than I have in my previous two studies of his reputation and legacy. Each of these five chapters focuses on one or more literary circles in London or America and shows how networks of interpersonal and institutional influence acted to burnish and expand Orwell's reputation. Key nodal points in these networks are the little magazines and literary quarterlies (e.g., Partisan Review, politics, Dissent, Modern Age, and Nation), whose editors or prominent contributors identified with Orwell and promoted his work. I am especially interested in the ideologically conditioned responses to Orwell by these intellectuals, in their political affinities with other writers and thinkers, and in the close, impassioned, even familial relationship—ranging from reverence to reproach—that so many of them openly displayed toward Orwell.

Chapter One addresses the 1930s and '40s, discussing Orwell's distinctive "outsider" relationship to the London Left. Orwell was "not one of us," as an English leftist derided Orwell, whom he excluded from the rather cliquish Oxbridge-educated Left intelligentsia of their day. This chapter thereby highlights the exemplary value of Orwell's life and work as a case study in the sociology of intellectuals. The chapter locates Orwell within an intellectual milieu but determines that Orwell was an "outsider" from the so-called Auden group of the 1930s intellectuals and intelligentsia. The argument relies on a close analysis of Orwell's personal as well as his political history in order to understand his independent stance and his views on the social function of a writer-intellectual.

Chapter Two is the lone section to address Orwell's reputation among an intellectual group that consisted primarily of poets and novelists: the Movement writers of the 1950s (e.g., John Wain, Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, Donald Davie). The chapter highlights the image of Orwell as a writer and man of letters (rather than a political intellectual), giving attention to his specifically literary qualities as well as his ideological influence. Here again, we are reminded how intellectuals bent Orwell and his work to their own aspirations. They projected a man and writer in whom they wanted to believe; they reconfigured a figure that could meet their professional and private needs.

We move across the Atlantic to New York in Chapter Three, examining the elder two generations of the intellectual circle known as the New York Intellectuals, a highbrow, chiefly Jewish group clustered around Partisan Review (for which Orwell wrote a wartime and early postwar "London Letter"). Norman Podhoretz famously dubbed them "The Family," and he and others viewed Orwell proudly as their English cousin. Our focus is on Orwell's reception by a leading member of this New York group: Irving Howe, a prominent PR contributor, editor of Dissent, editorial board member of politics, and arguably the leading member of the second generation of the New York Intellectuals. As we shall see, Orwell's work was immediately accorded an enthusiastic reception by Howe and other Partisan Review writers. (Orwell was even honored with the first Partisan Review Award in 1949.) The lavish tributes from reviewers of the first editions of his American works—from intellectuals such as Lionel Trilling, Diana Trilling, Philip Rahv, and Podhoretz, among many others—exerted decisive influence on the development of his American reputation throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

Chapter Four is devoted to Orwell's reception by Russell Kirk, the best-known and most articulate voice of a much smaller literary-intellectual group, the American cultural conservatives associated with the literary quarterly Modern Age, which Kirk founded in 1957. Here too, Orwell's positive reception by American conservatives (the John Birch Society accorded him the dubious honor of selecting "1984" as the last four digits of its national phone number) served to highlight his image as the West's leading literary cold warrior of the postwar era.

Part One closes with an in-depth look in Chapter Five at Orwell's history of reception at the Nation. The chapter focuses particularly on the response of onetime Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens, a British expatriate active on the American intellectual scene who has often been touted (or reviled) as Orwell's intellectual successor. I suggest that Hitchens, who strongly identifies with Orwell and has authored Why Orwell Matters (2002), exemplifies a way of becoming the Orwell of one's generation as the twenty-first century unfolds.6

"The Orwell Confraternity Today" is the subject of Part Two. Its cornerstone is a series of edited interviews7 woven together to form Chapters Six and Seven, which in toto amount to a collective family portrait of Orwell's much younger siblings, i.e., of more than a dozen intellectuals and scholars who have strongly identified with Orwell and studied his work carefully. Their relative distance—whether a development attributable to intellectual independence or isolation—from the kinds of circles, networks, and coteries that we saw in earlier chapters is not just a reflection of Orwell's changing reputation, but also of the altered conditions of intellectual life in the twenty-first century. Nowadays, if one embraces Orwell, one does so largely on one's own, without the benefit and guidance of a group of like-minded thinking people who help form one's intellectual life. In a sense, the readers of Orwell featured in these chapters testify that single individuals, rather than groups around a literary hub such as a small magazine, are Orwell's siblings—and sometimes indeed sibling rivals—today.

Part Two of Every Intellectual's Big Brother ends on a very personal note in Chapter Eight, in which I attempt to speak in autobiographical terms about Orwell's role in my own intellectual life. Here and elsewhere in the book, I also elaborate on the figurative language of intellectuals' "fraternal" relationship to Orwell, whether as his literary siblings or his intellectual progeny. Like me, numerous other intellectuals have embraced one or both stances toward Orwell, or alternated between them, reflecting not just the usually personal relationships that his literary persona invites, but also the kinds of writers and intellectuals who are powerfully attracted to him. The chapter also addresses the difficult challenge posed today for those who would seek to enter the tradition of the intellectual and man of letters that Orwell exemplified. I argue that, in order to embrace this tradition fully, one needs today to "adopt" an intellectual "big brother" (or "big sister") who will strengthen one's commitment to engage issues of wide public concern seriously—and thereby fortify one's resistance to academic careerism, literary professionalism, scholarly overspecialization, and both polemics ad hominem and punditry ad nauseam.

In the Epilogue, I take up an issue raised by Orwell's still-prominent, still-controversial reputation: the moral dimension of his status as an intellectual object of admiration—and detraction. Orwell's reputation has been claimed by those who seek to use him for the legitimation and sanction of all kinds of divergent political and intellectual programs. This process has led to a sometimes blind and uncritical fetishism of Orwell and his work. Yet, at the same time, there is a similar process in the cultural politics of reputation that focuses on discrediting Orwell. Are there principles by which one can assess Orwell's roles as a literary model and even as a cultural hero—and, by implication, those of any writer? Might we begin to formulate an ethics of admiration, so to speak, for our historical figures? This closing meditation addresses these and other questions, all of which are raised by Orwell's special place in Western intellectual life since his death in January 1950.8

II

Unlike in the case of my previous two studies of Orwell's heritage, I have chosen in this book to limit my inquiry to Orwell's reception within selected Anglo-American intellectual circles. My reasons are threefold. First, British and American intellectuals have responded with the greatest insight and passion to Orwell's life and work, and their reception has determined the emergence of his reputation and has conditioned the course of his wider influence in popular culture. I have been particularly interested in Orwell's reception among readers in intellectual circles, rather than the reception of unaffiliated (or even loosely affiliated) intellectual readers who responded strongly to Orwell's work and decisively shaped his reputation (such as V. S. Pritchett in Britain and Edmund Wilson in the United States). Rather, readers prominent within their intellectual groups—whom I have elsewhere termed authoritative voices—are conceptually advantageous for the study of reception. For they are usually so positioned within a group that their personal responses can be interpreted, using information about their reference group affiliations, to represent far more than a private, idiosyncratic response.

But a second concern has also governed my choice of reception scenes, involving a factor particular to Orwell's own case: the politics of reception. Orwell was "a political animal," a man who "could not blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry," as his friend Cyril Connolly once remarked. It is not surprising, therefore, that Orwell has elicited politically motivated responses from readers—especially from intellectuals who have strongly identified (or disagreed) with him. Indeed, Orwell's politicized heritage is a minor political issue in its own right, and I have been especially interested in the Left/Right battles for his mantle, whether the issues have centered on ideological or cultural politics. As a result, this book illustrates Orwell's politically ambidextrous reception (and the frequent confusions about his life and work) via reception scenes from a range of political perspectives, all of them featuring readers who have claimed (or disclaimed) Orwell as a forerunner or model (or anti-model).

Third, while I have retained my previous books' conception of a "scenic" approach to Orwell's legacy, I am interested not just in the politics of reception but also in the ethics of reception. The shift from a politics of reception to an ethics of reception signifies that I am concerned not just with linguistic strategies or with ideology or with the social psychology of reader response, but with the status of claims to (and disavowals of) Orwell's legacy. In my earlier studies of Orwell, I discussed extensively the rhetoric and aesthetics of literary reputation. Here I am concerned with the ethics of admiration and detraction, or what could more broadly be termed reception ethics.

III

All this attests to the fact that Orwell has been a notable presence for several generations of readers now. His nondescript pseudonym, drawn from a placid English river, is known throughout the world as a synonym for decency—just as the adjective Orwellian is widely perceived to mean "tyrannical," even "totalitarian." This familiarity with Orwell's life and work owes much to the powerful engagement with him by the intellectuals featured in these pages—his literary siblings—and it is through the filter of their lives and literary responses that we value him today as we do.

Whether we admire or reprove Orwell, he is part of our common cultural life.

All of us are, in some sense, his intellectual progeny.

By John Rodden

John Rodden, of Austin, Texas, has taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Texas at Austin.

"Anybody who toils in the rewarding vineyard of Orwell studies will continually find, more to his pleasure than his discomfort, that John Rodden has been there before him, both tilling the soil and refreshing it."
—Christopher Hitchens, journalist, literary critic, and author of more than a dozen books, including Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, Why Orwell Matters, and Letters to a Young Contrarian

"A first-class addition to the growing literature on Orwell's literary significance. Rodden brilliantly demonstrates how Orwell influenced such disparate writers as Irving Howe, John Wain, Kingsley Martin, and Norman Podhoretz. His chapters on Howe and Wain alone are by themselves a major contribution to our understanding of the significance of these two important writers. The book is also an excellent overview of the intellectual currents in the Anglo-American literary world during the last half century. Both the specialist in Orwell studies and the educated general reader will find new insights into the impact that Orwell's writings have had."
—John Rossi, Professor of History, La Salle University