At the close of May 2003, just three weeks before the centennial anniversary of George Orwell's birth on June 25, the Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed several "experts" under the following headline: "Deconstruct This: George Orwell." I was phoned by a Chronicle staffer as the token "traditionalist," to use her word. The other two interviewees included a well-known Marxist critic of Orwell's work and a leading feminist scholar. Needless to say, I was alone in questioning the project of "deconstructing" Orwell as a way of commemorating him.
Of course, the rise of fashionable trends in literary theory, such as deconstruction, marks the sea change in literary studies and public culture itself since Orwell's day. To many literary academics and most of my students, Orwell and his work seem dated. After all, though he wrote extensively about class conflict and class issues, he never did so in explicitly Marxist terms, let alone with any sophisticated conceptual vocabulary. More problematically, his oeuvre almost completely omits critical discussion of gender and addresses racial matters almost exclusively from the vantage point of Empire and the decline of British imperialism. So his work allegedly suffers from sustained, comprehensive inattention to the present-day mantra of "race, gender, and class." He did not live to see the rise of social and academic movements such as feminism, multiculturalism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, and other forms of literary radicalism that have come to dominate scholarly and intellectual life. As a result, he frequently seems to those in the academy—unfairly, I think—hopelessly irrelevant, even quaint.
That was certainly the conviction of my fellow respondents to the Chronicle (and by implication, the Chronicle staffer herself). Invited "to explain Orwell's enduring significance," the Marxist contributor essentially argued that Orwell possesses no significance today: "Orwell himself doesn't really have much of a developed economic or political thought," he said. "You can use the simple images of freedom and decency that he espoused, and it doesn't matter if you are on the Right, Center, or Left; you can invoke him. So Orwell is used more as a political weapon rather than someone we can critique and analyze." The feminist scholar agreed in the main. "Orwell has an enormous moral authority" that is largely unjustified, she said. "He was granted a kind of moral authority beyond anything he deserved."
And yet, however much I might protest the misfortune, indeed the arguable absurdity, of commemorating a writer's legacy by "deconstructing" him—or even worse, the aim of "explaining his enduring significance" by dismissing him as intellectually simplistic and morally inconsequential—my colleagues' statements in the Chronicle prove nonetheless quite illuminating in a sociological sense. "George Orwell has been dead for more than 50 years," the Chronicle introduction began, "but his work and ideas continue to reverberate in political debates on both the Right and the Left." The subtitle of the article mused: "What Would George Say Now?" Such reveries constitute the abiding, apparently near-irresistible, preoccupation of participants in what I have elsewhere called the intellectual "game" of W.W.G.O.D.? (What Would George Orwell Do?).
Without question, it is sociologically significant—if, admittedly, often intellectually embarrassing—that this game is still being played, even long after the Orwell centennial of 2003. For instance, the US presidential election campaign of 2008 witnessed Democratic objections to their opponents' "insidious Newspeak" and "doublespeak" (e.g., right-wing references to "Obama bin Laden") and Republican charges of their adversaries' "vacuous Orwellian rhetoric" (e.g., Obama's allegedly empty speechifying).
Blared incessantly on the airwaves and mouthed repetitively by "duck speaking" podcasters and talking heads, Orwell's coinages from Nineteen Eighty-Four are omnipresent. Battle-certified from the Cold War to today's culture wars, his neologisms are still bandied about freely because they are lodged securely in the cultural imagination. And that is partly why the question of "What would George say now?" remains so current.
Yet the status of the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four as a literary prophet does not alone account for the persistent longing and lament "If Orwell Were Alive Today . . ." It needs emphasis that it is the subject of Orwell himself and his would-be verdicts—and not only the historical accuracy of Nineteen Eighty-Four set against the much-publicized "countdown" to his "doomsdate"—that has occasioned widespread discussion. For until the 1980s, the speculations as to "where Orwell would have stood" were advanced chiefly by intellectuals engaged with "the man" and familiar with not just Nineteen Eighty-Four but with his entire life's work. "What would Orwell have said about this crisis?" they asked. "What would his politics be today?" Numerous "old friends" implied that Orwell would have gone the way that they did. In Britain, within a few years of Orwell's death, as Raymond Williams once remarked, "Father new George Orwell" had become a tired joke.
But neither intellectuals nor journalists nor the reading public have tired of speculating about Orwell's posthumous politics—and the cultural significance of this compulsion is revealing. Scarcely a major Anglo-American issue has gone by since his death in January 1950 that has not moved someone to muse, "If Orwell Were Alive Today . . ." Orwell's enduring radiance as a literary figure is perhaps best exemplified by the insistent recurrence of this conditional headline, variously voiced as regret, wish, challenge, and tactic.
Of course, in at least one sense, questions about a man's posthumous politics are manifestly absurd. The fact is that Orwell has been dead for almost six decades, and it is impossible to extrapolate from an author's writings what he would say about events after his death. But what is futile can nevertheless sometimes be enlightening, at least for sociological purposes—and sometimes precisely because of its obvious futility. Many observers continue to pose questions about Orwell into the twenty-first century. That they do so—even while frequently admitting straight off that their conjectures are frivolous—testifies to the durable appeal of the Orwell persona and the ongoing relevance of Orwell's work. The recurrence of the question has helped keep Orwell's reputation "alive" and controversial—and illustrates, more generally, the rhetorical advantages of claiming a sizable figure's mantle and the crucial influence of news events on a reputation's shape and size. Both as an early postwar Cold Warrior and a present-day Culture Warrior, Orwell has proven to be, as he once remarked of Dickens, "a writer well worth stealing."
Or rather, more accurately worded: "Orwell"—the amulet, not the author—has proven "a writer well worth stealing." Increasingly so in the decades since the man's death at midcentury; as the Marxist scholar interviewed by the Chronicle rightly observed, "What we have is not Orwell the person or the author, but Orwell in quotations marks, Orwell the image or myth."
Indeed. That claim has been precisely my own contention for more than a quarter-century in my studies of Orwell's reputation. I have been equally concerned with Orwell the man and writer and with "Orwell" the cultural icon and historical talisman. And particularly with "Orwell" the "ideological superweapon" in the pundits' wars—whether cold or cultural—of words. Moreover, I have also been concerned with literary matters, intrinsic to Orwell's prose achievement, particularly his lucid style and distinctive, indeed pioneering, "plain man" persona.
That is to say, I have sought to maintain a careful balance between context and text. Throughout my work on Orwell and the rhetoric of reception, I have addressed the power-laden psychodynamics and contingent, conditional, social process from which literary works emerge. At the same time, I have emphasized the "objective" formal elements of the work itself, including those particular genres, styles, and properties of specific texts. Although biographers and scholars have chronicled, with near-definitive thoroughness, the life of Eric Blair a.k.a. George Orwell, the story of the unique afterlife of "Orwell"—not the man or writer or even the persona or literary personality, but the world-historical individual and universal metaphor for issues in the Zeitgeist ranging from language abuse to privacy invasion to totalitarian evil and far more—contains numerous intriguing chapters still untold. Chiefly devoted to "Orwell," this study presents a broad cross-selection of them.
A word or two about my title for the book is warranted here. First, I call it The Unexamined Orwell—but it might also be more precisely (if pedantically) rubricated: The Unexamined "Orwell." (Moreover, that frequently voiced yearning "If Orwell Were Alive Today" might instead be phrased "If 'Orwell' Were Alive Today.") For the fact is that "Orwell"—the myth, not the man or writer—is the object of readers' ceaseless fascination today. It is he whom newscasters exalt as a prophet, whom intellectuals invest with political (and moral) authority, and whom readers conscript in the blogosphere and in letters to the editor. It is the mantle of "Orwell" that polemically minded critics shamelessly snatch, his grave that they ruthlessly rob, his coffin that they surreptitiously shift to the Left or Right.
And, lo and behold! this entity—"Orwell"—is indeed "alive today." In fact, he occupies a secure place in our culture that his intellectual contemporaries—and even noteworthy successors who have only recently passed away—no longer do (or never did). His significance is not just historical: both his life and his work still exert a shaping influence on contemporary culture. Almost six decades after his death, his very name wields a rhetorical and political force still sufficient to stimulate public argument.
Secondly, this book devotes attention to "the unexamined Orwell." The choice of adjective is quite deliberate: I am not proposing to unveil an "unknown Orwell." That task has already been adroitly handled in a biography of that title by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, a groundbreaking study that first disclosed the figure of Eric Blair behind the famous George Orwell. Nor am I addressing a "neglected Orwell," for some of the themes and topics that I am raising here have already been touched on—and sometimes written about at length—by numerous scholars and intellectuals, including myself. Rather, this study attends to the "unobserved" Orwell/"Orwell," presenting scenes from both his "unexamined" (or perhaps "under-examined") life and posthumous reputation.
Unexamined? I am well aware of the paradox here: in certain respects, both Orwell and "Orwell" have been overexamined. As I have already suggested, critics as well as journalists have speculated endlessly about what Orwell might have said or done "if he had lived." They have played W.W.G.O.D., or what one PBS-TV commentator dubbed "that intriguing parlor game" of guessing where Orwell would have stood on issues ranging from McCarthyism and the Vietnam War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Such speculation about his posthumous politics is only one example of the "over-examined" Orwell: both magazines and scholarly journals have been inundated—particularly during the two peaks of his reputation in recent decades, the mid-1980s and 2002–2003—with disputes about issues ranging from his (often scathing) criticism of fellow socialists to his literary intentions in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
And yet, all major writers receive selective, sometimes incongruous critical (and press) attention, with certain aspects of their lives and work scrutinized, and others little-studied. This book aspires to disclose an as-yet "unexamined" Orwell by furnishing fresh perspectives on him and his work, either by challenging broadly accepted appraisals of his achievement or pursuing new lines of inquiry about it. My concern is not to view Orwell within a single cohesive frame or to impose any monolithic, unified interpretation on his life and legacy, but rather to honor the diverse historical projects and critical idioms in which he and his work are discussed, many of which cut across several academic disciplines and intersect one another—often at strange angles. Some chapters explore biographical and literary sources of Orwell's work; others relocate him in the context of cultural history via comparisons with his intellectual coevals and successors; and still other chapters examine his reputation and impact beyond the boundaries of Ingsoc and Oceania (e.g., in "Orwell's Reich," a.k.a. the former East Germany). My hope is that these wide-ranging chapters will prompt other readers to reexamine Orwell and his legacy anew, thereby stimulating still further investigation of his rich corpus and ambiguous heritage.
Each chapter exhibits a distinctive "reception scene" of Orwell. As in my previous studies of his reputation, I am concerned throughout to show how these diverse scenes represent case studies in literary and political reception as cultural history. Here again, my hope is that telling the story of a person's "afterlife" may be considered a modest contribution to the craft and criticism of biography, suggesting how we might profitably "extend" the traditional "Life and Times" biography in valuable new directions. Each chapter of the book highlights a dimension of the "afterlife and times" of "Orwell," showing not just his virtuoso costume changes but also illustrating how the man and writer ballooned into a world-historical actor who has seemed to bestride every major post-World War II issue. It was this outsized figure who prompted PBS-TV to title a centennial special in 2003 The Orwell Century.
So this book stages eighteen scenes starring "Orwell" as it considers the man, the writer, the literary personality, and the cultural icon. The spotlight in Part 1 dwells on the multifaceted afterlife of "Orwell" in scenes that convey the panorama of American intellectual history. I am especially concerned in this section with the obsession among intellectuals to propose literary candidates as "Orwell's successor." Titled "If the Mantle Fits . . . ," Part 1 addresses from different vantage points the conditions and contingencies that have given rise to Orwell's unique status among intellectuals. Each of the five chapters in Part 1 is devoted to a prominent postwar intellectual: the selection includes a trio of leading cultural critics associated with Partisan Review, a distinguished literary quarterly that became the house organ of a left-wing group of mainly Jewish writers and critics who became known as the New York Intellectuals; and two other naturalized Americans: the British expatriate Christopher Hitchens, who received American citizenship in 2007; and John Lukacs, the Hungarian-born historian. Each of these men—Dwight Macdonald, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Hitchens, and Lukacs—has been nominated "The American Orwell." (Or better, in the latter two cases: "the 'Anglo-American' Orwell" and "the 'Hungarian-American' Orwell.") Each chapter addresses the similarities and differences between Orwell and his admirers as it pursues the disputes about Orwell's legacy and the biographical issues raised by the comparisons.
Yet my task here is not to engage in an exhaustive comparative analysis, but rather to showcase this quite diverse quintet from an angle that mutually illuminates both their work and Orwell's legacy. All five of them are important political intellectuals in their own right. Nonetheless, however original, productive, and influential their lives and works have been, none of them has achieved that consummation of stylistic brilliance, independence of mind, literary range, topical diversity, and moral authority that distinguishes Orwell's oeuvre. As a result, they may occasionally seem to dwell in Orwell's long shadow. Still, I do not intend to reduce them to mere epigones, let alone disciples or acolytes of Orwell—even though it is also undeniable that these five critics occasionally crossed the line from admiration to impassioned identification with, if not "claiming" of, Orwell.
In Part 2, titled "Politics and the German Language," we shift to "Orwell" in Germany—where he is an astoundingly pervasive presence, in English as well as in German. Building on several scenes in a previous study devoted to this titanic, Teutonic, indeed sometimes Wagnerian figure, Part 2 further examines his status in the former East Germany and post-reunification Germany in light of my personal experience there. I concentrate on the role and relevance of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the now-defunct German Democratic Republic (GDR), the Communist-ruled state that proudly proclaimed itself das bessere Deutschland (the better Germany). The scenes range from the place of "Orwell" in the eastern German mentalité to the GDR regime's shocking abridgment of personal freedoms in the self-proclaimed "Land of Reading," a.k.a. the "Land of Little Brother." One chapter highlights the fate of several well-known GDR dissidents who were imprisoned because they had dared to read and circulate Orwell's work before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989—and even sponsored an Orwell centenary conference ("Books That Led to Jail") held in Berlin in 2003. Two other chapters deal with the ways in which official Party orthodoxies were communicated to school pupils through Ministry of Education textbooks in mathematics and geography, respectively. The closing chapter concerns the misfortune of a gifted female athlete who violated official GDR goodthink and paid a heavy price. Many of these and other stories emerged from my classroom visits to the region's schools, or from my conversations with graduates and erstwhile faculty in the GDR educational system.
Titled "The Un(der)examined Orwell," Part 3 addresses the myths about the man and writer, repeatedly traversing that fuzzy borderland that Erik Erikson famously characterized (in his distinguished study of Luther) "half-legend, half-history." The section opens with a pair of inquiries into the life and work of "the un(der)examined Orwell." Chapter 11 addresses Orwell biography, investigating what I conclude is the "more than half-legendary" encounter between Orwell and Ernest Hemingway in liberated Paris in March 1945. This storied "un-meeting" has been enshrined in both men's literary biographies and in numerous scholarly and journalistic articles. As we shall see, however, the details have been "rectified" to fit the literary imagination: the biographical facts have disappeared "down the memory hole."
By contrast, chapter 12 is a source study focusing on Orwell's work, primarily Animal Farm. It argues that a possible folkloric inspiration for two centerpieces of Orwell's allegorical fable whose historical referents have never been established—Sugarcandy Mountain and "Beasts of England"—can be confirmed via compelling circumstantial evidence. I suggest that Eric Blair was "Tramping toward Animal Farm" in his twenties, as it were, and that a famous American hobo ballad ("The Big Rock Candy Mountains") engendered aspects of both Old Major's beast hymn and Moses the raven's alpine apparition.
Orwell's widely taught essay, "Politics and the English Language" (1946), is the subject of chapter 13, where I argue that it is actually unsuitable for classroom composition courses—at least for beginning students. Despite the essay's firm place in American college composition classrooms as a revered prose model, my contention is that it is far too sophisticated to serve as an accessible guide for most young writers. Sadly, given the low level of cultural literacy and verbal ability commanded by many college freshmen, and certainly the vast majority of high school pupils, Orwell's essay should be reserved for more advanced students—though it doubtless can be profitably read by the general reader who seeks to overcome poor composition habits and aspires to write "prose like a window pane."
Our attention in the next two chapters shifts to issues of genre and rhetoric in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Here we are concerned with exploring aspects of literary and rhetorical theory not commonly posed about Orwell's work, specifically as they pertain to "narratology" and to the genre of utopia, respectively. "George Orwell, Literary Theorist?" addresses the rhetoric of narrative, using selected extracts from Nineteen Eighty-Four to illustrate how narratives function as arguments—that is, to show "how stories convince us." The succeeding chapter, "The Architectonics of Room 101," looks at the narrative elements in the utopian genre, drawing from a wide range of literary works, including Nineteen Eighty-Four. Here my aim is to illustrate how the utopia and anti-utopia reposition the structural elements of prose fiction in a hierarchy of priority different from that prevailing in formalist fiction. If we can recognize how the utopia emphasizes theme and setting, and consequently traffics in familiar plot conventions and stock characters, we can better appreciate what it is attempting to do—and what Orwell did so magnificently in his "didactic fantasies," Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four—rather than devalue the genre tout court by applying criteria foreign to both its aesthetics and architectonics.
The next pair of chapters pursue a literary phantom, stepping beyond the unexamined Orwell in the Neverland of the "unimagined" Orwell. Titled "The Review Orwell Never Wrote?" chapter 14 witnesses the author of "Confessions of a Book Reviewer" taking on a challenging assignment: Orwell, who enjoyed book reviewing and had much to say about literary biography, reviews the biographies devoted to his own life and legacy. If we accept him at his word—that only he could write his own life and that he would never do so—what might he nonetheless have had to say about the biographies that others have written about him? Since Orwell's scattered reviews include some impressionistic criteria for how biographies should be written, I propose to conduct a thought experiment whereby we apply his criteria to the Orwell biographies themselves.
The penultimate chapter, "The Life Orwell Never Lived?" issues forth in another thought experiment, an exercise in what might be termed "virtual biography" that is prompted by the publication of Orwell's collected letters (Orwell: A Life in Letters (2010), edited by Peter Davison). The volume, which I call "the autobiography that Orwell vowed he would never write," includes a heretofore unpublished letter written to her cousin by Jacintha Buddicom, a teenage sweetheart of Eric Blair, which shows the relationship to have been far more serious than originally supposed. For instance, Blair apparently never applied for admission to Oxford and instead enlisted in the Indian Imperial Police because Jacintha rejected him, and on his 1927 return home, Eric proposed marriage to Jacintha, who demurred and thereafter suffered a "lifetime of regrets at turning [Eric] away." Such revelations provoke endless speculation. Indeed, we could reimagine Orwell's entire life and work on the basis of this (and other) new information about Jacintha's role in it. As I note at the close of chapter 17: "Her significance thus shifts from the minor status of forgotten, platonic friend to the role of leading lady—as potential wife and/or unrequited lover and soul mate."
Part 3 closes with a chapter devoted to "The Centenarian, Our Contemporary," presented in the form of an edited NPR radio interview that originally aired in May 2003 during the run-up to his June 25 centennial, and just as the US-led invasion of Iraq entered its concluding days. The interview captures an important moment in Orwell's reception history—and in the historiography of the "If Orwell Were Alive Today" conjectures—and suggests how readers are responding to Orwell and "Orwell" in the twenty-first century. By and large, however, they—much like Orwell's intellectual "successors," who are profiled in Part 1—have resisted the urge to "convert" Orwell to their political positions, let alone participated in the "game" of "If Orwell Were Alive Today"—quite unlike the me-doth-protest-too-much author of the present study.
For in the conclusion, I return—and succumb—to that irresistible interrogative, doubtlessly proving the truth of Oscar Wilde's dictum that "one can resist anything except temptation." In a closing meditation on "Orwell," I indulge wantonly in speculation about his posthumous politics, imagining his "counterfactual afterlives" since 1950. In defiance of the plain fact that Eric Blair suffered poor health throughout his short life of forty-six years, I take the conjectures well past his biblical allotment of three score and ten, musing about the politics of the "The Centenarian, Our Contemporary" even into his eleventh decade. In pursuing this ostensibly outlandish exercise, however, my sincere aim is to take up the so-called game of "If Orwell Were Alive Today" seriously and honestly. I do not simply toss off knee-jerk impressions about "where Orwell would have stood" on events since his death. Rather, I consider the governing themes and contexts of his work, and I assess the value and shortcomings of historians' common tools, such as counterfactuals and historical analogies. Approached with an insistence on concrete supporting evidence, my hope is that such an engagement in the "game" can yield both deeper insight into "Orwell" and serve as a case study in both intellectual history and the sociology of culture. For the fact is that the sociological phenomenon of "Orwell" holds the mirror up to us—indeed it represents "Big Brother Watching Us"—and thus discloses much about ourselves.