George Orwell: The Critical Heritage

By Jeffrey Meyers | Go to book overview
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Henry Popkin, Commonweal

23 March 1956, pp. 650-1

Henry Popkin (b. 1924), Professor of English at the State University of New York in Buffalo; drama critic and editor.

Published twenty years ago in England, this interesting, minor early novel of George Orwell’s is now appearing here for the first time. The time that has passed since it was written has not quite given it the character of an historical vignette. Chronologically, we may be, right now, almost midway between 1934, when the novel begins, and 1984, the year that Orwell did so much to make famous, but we have not yet achieved nearly half the horrors of that catastrophic year to come. Orwell’s hero, Gordon Comstock, has to choose between earning a living and maintaining his integrity; even in the atomic age, such a choice has not become exotic or far-fetched. Witness Clifford Odets’ melodramatic restatement of the same issue, The Big Knife, filmed only several months ago.1

Still, a certain notable development of the last few years has called into question the particular terms in which Orwell has stated Gordon’s dilemma. At the beginning of the novel, Gordon has persuaded himself that he is somehow more independent if he clerks in a rather abysmal lending library than if he writes advertising copy. Either way he panders to mass culture, but it takes him the whole length of the novel to discover that it is pointless to insist on the difference between selling out in an advertising agency and staying pure in a bookstore.

But now, in 1956, the various arms of mass culture are amalgamating. Gordon’s bête noire, the advertising industry, has expanded its operations. Over here, in addition to running election campaigns, it supervises television entertainment for many of the people who used to frequent Gordon’s shabby haven, the lowbrow lending library. A Gordon Comstock in our decade would be much more overwhelmed

1 Clifford Odets (1906-63), American playwright, wrote The Big Knife in 1949.


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