Ever since John Keats on his deathbed told a friend that he wanted on his gravestone the words, “Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water,” critics and professors of literature have been determined not to miss the next great writer. Yet, as desperately as they struggle not to be caught out, they continue to miss. A case in point is the novelist and journalist Eric Blair, better known by his pen name, George Orwell. Orwell did not find early fame. His first classic book, Down and Out in Paris and London, was turned down by several editors, including T.S. Eliot, who was working for an English publisher. One authority says, “Now that Animal Farm is seen as one of the greatest books of the twentieth century it is remarkable how difficult it was to get it published in England and the USA. There were simple physical problems in England—paper was in very short supply [due to the war]—but other factors conspired to insure that Orwell became so desperate over rejections that he considered publishing the book himself. It took Orwell almost two years to find an American publisher for the book…”
During much of this time, he was earning his living writing for the BBC. He wrote to a woman who was in the process of rejecting him, “The rubbishy feature I was writing for BBC got finished at least.” He was paid 31 pounds ten shillings for the job, about $1500 in today’s money. He continues, “…and now I have to write a pamphlet for the British Council on English cookery. I don’t know why I was such a fool as to let myself in for it—however, it will be quite short so I can probably knock it off in a week. After that I haven’t got any actual tripe to write. When I get away I am going to start a novel. It is six years since I wrote any such thing and it will probably be an awful job to start, but I think with six clear months I can break the back of it.”
He was already suffering from the tuberculosis which was soon to kill him. Down and Out in Paris and London was out of print, although there was some talk of reissuing it. He was now “too weak to make even the slightest exertions,” and he was struggling to finish 1984. He needed someone to type the manuscript but couldn’t get anyone to do the job, so he typed it himself. He tried a new drug for his illness called streptomycin, but had proved allergic to it. He managed to write an essay on George Gissing, a good novelist now forgotten, who Orwell admired. The essay would not be published for ten years.
In January, 1949, he was transferred to a sanitarium. In June, 1984 was published in London and New York. The book sold well, got many laudatory reviews, and was dramatized on radio. “Orwell’s fame was almost instantaneous,” said one biographer. It was too late: six months later he died. Engraved on his headstone was, “Here Lies Eric Arthur Blair,” with birth and death dates. No mention was made of the fact that the body under the headstone had belonged to one of the master satirists of his age.
These thoughts are occasioned by the recent publication in the United States of a selection of his letters, George Orwell: A Lifetime in Letters, edited by the Orwell authority Peter Davison (Liveright 2010.) The letters were chosen from a much larger group available in The Complete Works of George Orwell, which can be found in libraries.
I am one of those who thinks that 1984, the book that made him famous, is not his best work. Some of the characters are not fully realized people, but puppets representing various political positions, and the storyline sometimes wanders. This is a common problem: very few writers have been able to bring off the difficult task of producing a work which is at once a good story and sound criticism, Jonathan Swift being one of those few. I much prefer Orwell’s journalism, which is extremely astute and is usually couched in a simple straight-forward style growing out of the clarity of his thought. Orwell, it must be remembered, had seen a lot of life. He had walked away from his middle-class family and a future in academia or the professions to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, where he was seriously wounded. He had served as an official in Burma, had lived for a few weeks as a hobo, and had worked in Paris as a hotel dishwasher. Orwell had been around, and his grasp on the world was firm.
I have always been a great fan of Orwell. I can’t remember when I first read him—possibly in high school—but I have for years owned his complete journalism in a series of paperbacks which I dip into from time to time. I was therefore very happy to come across this new selection of letters.
What is surprising is not just that the letters are quite long, even discursive, but that Orwell was able to write them at all. His wife had died, leaving him with a baby boy to take care of. Until the late success of his novels, he had always had to turn out a stream of newspaper and magazine articles to support himself, the child and others he helped out from time to time. He was, we remember, fatally ill. Yet he was able, over some 30 years, to write thousands of letters, many of them lengthy, ranging over a great variety of subjects that interested him. These letters display the same clarity of thought as his journalism, and they will reward anyone who enjoys seeing a nimble mind at work.
Why, then, do critics and literary people so often miss? Part of the problem is that very frequently the writer under examination is using standard forms employed by his contemporaries. Shakespeare was writing the same sort of Elizabethan dramas as Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd; to a cursory observer their work might seem much of a piece, with Shakespeare just one of the pack. In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos were both seen by younger critics as the coming people; only Hemingway is still much read. George Orwell was hardly the only writer of his day commenting on the deceptions of Stalinism; it was easy to see him as just one among many.
Another reason why literary people often miss is, in some cases, simple jealousy. Few people set out to be literary critics; mostly they start off hoping to be celebrated novelists or poets; or if not celebrated, at least able to have their stuff published and reviewed. Such people may admire those who have become known and read, but will also envy them. Their feelings are bound to be complex, and sometimes blind them to the luminosity of that small few who have gained something resembling fame.
For a third, it is often difficult to know exactly what it is that gives the work of the superior writer its distinction. Indeed, all over the world professors of literature are busily trying to grasp exactly that; why Alexander Pope is a better poet than Colley Cibber, why Hemingway is read and Dos Passos isn’t.
It is therefore understandable that we do not always recognize the geniuses among us; and that, as in the case of Orwell, we do not always see clearly what is best about their work. I would, therefore, recommend to anyone interested in George Orwell to take as seriously his letters and journalism as his famous novels. They are very good indeed.