During his early youth Eric Blair had, he later wrote, a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts. As he grew older, those unpleasant facts were often in conflict with his biases and predispositions. The result was a hard-won independence, which shaped the life and work of the writer the world knows as George Orwell. Blair was almost 30 years old when he decided to use the pseudonym, but he never legally adopted it. Although he's best known for his novels Animal Farm and 1984, for most of his career (he died in 1950 at the age of 46) Orwell was regarded as one of the finest political and literary essayists of his time.
Christopher Hitchens, a popular author and columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation, believes we should take a serious look at Orwell. His importance to the century just past, and therefore his status as a figure in history, as well as in literature, derives from the extraordinary salience of the subjects he took on and stayed with and never abandoned, Hitchens writes in his new book Why Orwell Matters.
Hitchens' volume is an appreciative but not uncritical look at the work of an author whose concerns about social justice, liberty and equality remain as relevant today as they were when he wrote about them. Orwell, according to Hitchens, repudiated the unthinking imperialism into which he was born through his insightful opposition to fascism and Stalinism, as well as his lifelong concern with those at the lower end of the social scale a population he portrayed in incisive and distinctive prose in The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London. Hitchens explains why Orwell can be read as one of the founders of the discipline of post-colonialism. He demonstrates that Orwell did much more than invent the term cold war ; in a sense, he was an early Cold Warrior. His opposition to imperialism is a strong and consistent theme in his writing and, even during World War II when many disagreed with him, he argued that the war should include decolonization.
Orwell apologized on numerous occasions for his shortcomings in writing fiction. Hitchens says that 1984 is the first and only time that his efforts as a novelist rise to the level of his essays. In addition, he notes that the novel is the only English contribution to the literature of 20th century totalitarianism that can be compared with the works of Solzhenitsyn, Koestler and Silone.
Hitchens shows why Orwell was controversial in his own time and beyond. Surprisingly, much of the criticism aimed at him has come from the political left. But Hitchens guides readers skillfully through the claims of both left and right, much of which he shows to have been misguided. Orwell, the author says, was conservative about many things, but not about politics. The Orwell who emerges from this study is a complex human being. He is not a secular saint, but a man of decency and principle whose willingness to face hard truths continues to enlighten and challenge readers. As Hitchens writes, he added to the richness of English fiction, but learned to concentrate on the essay form. Thus, he faced the competing orthodoxies and despotisms of his day with little more than a battered typewriter and a stubborn personality. Those eager to read or reread Orwell's work should pick up the new Selected Essays, the only hardcover edition available of his literary and political writings. With classic inclusions like "Shooting an Elephant" and "A Nice Cup of Tea," it's the perfect way to honor the author, who would have turned 100 next year.
Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and regular contributor to BookPage.