George Orwell: A Centennial Tribute

by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

© 2003 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.


George Orwell, who was born a full century ago this year and died over half a century ago, still speaks to us in 2003 with a recognizably modern voice.  When we turn to Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, or Dickens, we are wrapped in the aura of times far different from our own, as completely gone as the worlds of the Greeks and the Romans.  But Orwell is one of us.  He knew the horrors of the twentieth century: the rants of the dictators, the totalitarian societies they unleashed, the wars of unparalleled bloodshed.  He also took pains to be an uncompromisingly honest man and writer, whether or not his political interests were served by speaking the truth.  Orwell's honesty is not the whole foundation for his greatness, but in my view it is a prime ingredient.


Orwell's words are often fought over by the Left and the Right on the political spectrum.  This is mainly because he is an author very much worth appropriating to one's cause.  Many on the Right appeal to Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell's last and greatest novels, as warnings concerning totalitarianism, but show no awareness of anything else this author wrote.[1]  Many on the Left complain as if personally injured when conservatives cite Orwell to bolster conservative positions.  It is clearly true that Orwell was a man of leftist ideology; anyone who could write a work like The Lion and The Unicorn amidst World War II, claiming that only a socialist England could win the war, was clearly no soul mate of William F. Buckley Jr..  Nevertheless, given Orwell's tendency to refuse to toe party lines, and to speak his mind, it is just as clear that his agreements with today's conservatives would be many, including:


·        agreeing with conservatives against Russian style totalitarianism— going so far as to say that given a choice between Russia and America, “everyone knows in his heart that we should choose America,”[2] and writing to a friend that, “for people like ourselves, who suppose that something has gone very wrong with the Soviet Union, I consider that willingness to criticise Russia and Stalin is the test of intellectual honesty.”[3]

·        agreeing with conservatives in the necessity for the death penalty, “for there are some people whom it is simply not safe to leave alive,” although he also expresses the discomfort that, I submit, foreshadows the popular modern elitist position against capital punishment under any circumstances;[4]

·        standing against pacifists, as he did in World War II, when he condemned them as helpful to the enemy: “The notion that you can somehow defeat violence by submitting to it is simply a flight from fact. . . . [I]t is only possible to people who have money and guns between themselves and reality.”[5] One is also tempted on the evidence of a remark like this to believe that Orwell foresaw the rise of so-called political correctness:


“There are people who are convinced of the wickedness both of armies and of police forces, but who are nevertheless much more intolerant and inquisitorial in outlook than the average person who believes that it is necessary to use violence in certain circumstances. They will not say to somebody else, ‘Do this, that and the other or you will go to prison,’ but they will, if they can, get inside his brain and dictate his thoughts for him in the minutest particulars.”[6]


Orwell is also intriguing for his occasional blind spots. For instance, he stated on more than one occasion that belief in an afterlife was effectively non-existent, at least among people he had encountered.[7] This may be understandable given the circles in which the author presumably traveled and his times; indeed, my recent readings of some works by Dean John William Burgon, the steadfast 19th century defender of the Traditional Text of the Bible, offered a vivid contrast between an age when the verities of Christianity were still generally accepted in Britain[8] and the general loss of religious belief there by Orwell’s time. But when Orwell reinterprets past figures such as Jonathan Swift as showing “no sign of having any religious beliefs” or “believ[ing] seriously in life after death”[9]—despite Swift’s being a prominent churchman, and his producing writings like “Tale of a Tub” and “Prayers for Stella”—, should we not suspect his other, similar observations on the grounds that Orwell may be unconsciously coloring them because of his own outlook of non-belief? (That Orwell considered his contemporary C.S. Lewis, whose religious beliefs could not be so easily minimized, an author of little merit[10] may have been a corollary of this kind of literary criticism, where either an author who is indisputably great must disbelieve [Swift], or if he believes he cannot be of any value [Lewis].) But here also, Orwell’s skeptical outlook regarding Christian belief matches the “modern” spirit, since writings concerning Christianity’s doctrines and scriptures, even of many who claim to be within the church, have taken on a similar lack of reverence. On occasion, we even find that Orwell understands orthodox Christian doctrine better than those who claim the title of Christianity, as when he responds to a Catholic reader who objected to a reviewer’s treatment of saints but who also asserted that Christ’s very existence was “a matter of indifference” (Orwell’s words).  It would have been enough for many another non-Christian writer to have agreed with the indifference and passed on, but characteristically Orwell corrects the reader’s historical ignorance, going on to opine that the modern decay of belief in life after death leaves a chasm in our social order because our western conceptions of good and evil depend on said belief.[11]


To say that there are many such moments of candor in George Orwell’s work would perhaps be an understatement. The sureness of touch is, however, not as consistent throughout the fiction as it is in the journalism and essays. The two final novels, Animal Farm and 1984, have rightly been acclaimed almost since their initial appearance in print, but even allowing for the development of Orwell’s style that these show, their predecessors do not generally reach the same high level, as their author himself seems to have realized.[12] Coming Up for Air, which is freshest in my mind because it’s the Orwell novel I most recently read, is a good example, with typically fine touches but also a seriously imbalanced middle section consisting of boyhood reminiscences by the protagonist, George Bowling.  Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell’s first novel, contains very vivid sketches of life among the poor, but also suffers from structural flaws, including the attempt to pack what should have been two different books into one; Orwell biographer Michael Shelden opines that “an older, more experienced writer” than Orwell was at the time “would have chosen to focus on a dishwasher’s life in Paris or a tramp’s life in London and would not have tried to crowd the two lives into one short book . . . .”[13]


But perhaps we should be grateful for the some of the crowding Orwell did; in less than forty seven years of life, he wrote some of the most brilliant literature of the twentieth century, amidst bouts of ill health and while scratching out a living with his pen in unrewarding tasks such as writing broadcast talks for the BBC during World War II. He had also served in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma in the 1920s, and later managed to fight on the Republican (anti-Franco) side in the Spanish Civil War, getting shot in the throat by an enemy sniper but surviving.  After seeing his reputation rising steadily in the 1940s, he found the strength to complete 1984 while his health began to erode for the last time, and he died of pulmonary tuberculosis on January 21, 1950.[14] Strangely enough, this non-believer took pains to state in his will that he wished to be buried “according to the rites of the Church of England,” and his headstone, which according to his wishes bears only his given name of “Eric Arthur Blair,”[15] contains no clue that underneath lies a writer who under his pseudonym achieved worldwide stature.


As shown by the preceding sentences, the events in the life of the man called Orwell are easily summarized. Less easily condensed are the views he articulated, and I have mentioned that writers both on the right and the left have attempted to lay claim to aspects of Orwell’s thought. Because Orwell is a writer so richly worth claiming, I have not hesitated to do the same myself above in listing my perceptions of his points of agreement with conservatives. Perhaps one hallmark of excellence in an author is his continuing ability to speak relevantly to succeeding generations, and I think I cannot do better in closing this brief attempt at evaluating and paying tribute to Orwell than by quoting the man himself:






Gems like these, which were chosen at random, could easily be multiplied, but should be enough to establish that Orwell is far more than simply the author of 1984.    Orwell is more than just a “man of one book” (or two if we count Animal Farm); it is our loss if we ignore the other writings of a man dead now more than fifty years, but whose concerns in many ways remain as close as our own shadow.


(May 25, 2003)


[1] For example, a praiseworthy recent book documenting liberals’ positions on the Cold War has two entries indexed for “Orwell, George”; on p. 101 we find, “As George Orwell described so well in 1984 . . .”, and on p. 179, “Almost as if taking a leaf from George Orwell’s 1984 . . .”! Another conservative author has three references to Orwell, showing a great deal of familiarity with the same novel (there are references to Emmanuel Goldstein and to the continuous state of war, as well as direct quotes)—but, again, there is nothing but 1984 cited.

[2] “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus,” in Sonia Orwell & Ian Angus, eds., George Orwell: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. 4 (Boston: Nonpariel/David R. Godine, 2000 [reprint of 1968 ed. by Harcourt, Brace, & World]), p. 398. (Subsequent citations of this edition will appear as CEJL, followed by volume number and page number.)

[3] Letter to John Middleton Murry (5 August 1944), CEJL, 3:203 (emphasis in source). Orwell was concerned enough about Communism to keep a private notebook of persons he suspected to be “crypto” Communists; see Michael Shelden, Orwell: The Authorized Biography (NY: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 509-11.

[4] “As I Please” (3 November 1944), CEJL, 3:267.

[5] “No, Not One,” CEJL, 2: 170.

[6] “Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool,” CEJL, 4:301.

[7] See, for example, his “As I Please” columns for 3 March 1944 (CEJL 3:101-3) and 14 April 1944 (CEJL 3:121-2).

[8] Though this was fast declining; Burgon himself protests against “the impatient self-sufficiency of these last days, which is for breaking away from the old restraints” (Burgon, The Revision Revised [1883; reprint by Dean Burgon Society Press, n.d.], p. xxv. Among these “restraints” were the Authorized Version of the Bible, which was revised in a way that Burgon protested vigorously (op. cit.), and the Church of England’s Lectionary, which was replaced in 1870 by an entirely new one that Burgon claimed would “recommend itself to none but the lovers of novelty,--the impatient,--and the enemies of Divine Truth” (Burgon, The Last Twelve Verses of the Gospel According to S. Mark [1871; reprint by Dean Burgon Society Press, 2002], p. 200 and note “h”). I cannot help believing that the rot that had reached the established church by Burgon’s day, and manifested itself in such displays of “novelty,” resulted in the condition of the Church of England by Orwell’s time as an institution almost no one took seriously—much like the state religion of ancient Rome, which sophisticates like Lucretius and Pliny the Younger could not take at face value.

[9] “Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels,” CEJL 4:212.

[10] See the “As I Please” column for 27 October 1944 (CEJL 3:263-5) for Orwell’s scathing review of Lewis’ Beyond Personality, which includes strong exception to one critic’s comparison of The Screwtape Letters to Pilgrim’s Progress (“I think most of us would hesitate a long time before equating Mr Lewis with Bunyan”). Cf. also Orwell’s letter to Sir Richard Rees, Bt, of 28 July 1949 (CEJL 4:504-5) for an incidental mention of Lewis; incidentally, Orwell here doubts that people in general make “aesthetic judgments” on writers, but rather that works are “judged on political grounds which are then given an aesthetic disguise”—which ironically seems (to me at least) to give a good reason for his own inability to see any merit in Lewis.

[11] “As I Please,” 3 March 1944 (CEJL 3:101-3).

[12] Note his statement that Animal Farm was the first book in which he consciously tried to combine political and artistic purpose into one work, admitting that where he did not write with a political purpose, he “wrote lifeless books” (“Why I Write” [CEJL 1:7]).

[13] Shelden, Orwell, p. 196.

[14] Ian Angus, “Appendix II: Chronology,” in CEJL 4:521.

[15] For the details on the funeral and headstone, see Shelden, Orwell, pp. 527-8.

[16] “As I Please,” 9 June 1944 (CEJL 3:169-70).

[17] “Funny, But Not Vulgar” (CEJL 3:284).

[18] Coming Up for Air (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1950), p. 23.

[19] Down and Out in Paris and London (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1961), p. 117.

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