George Orwell: The Critical Heritage

By Jeffrey Meyers | Go to book overview
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Isaac Rosenfeld, Commentary

June 1956, pp. 589-91

Isaac Rosenfeld (1919-56), American critic and novelist, author of A Passage from Home (1947) and An Age of Enormity (1962). Commentary is a monthly magazine of cultural affairs published by the American Jewish Committee.

It is strange that the fair, bland, decent, fresh-butter wholesome Orwell of the essays should have been such a terror in his fiction. One after another, the heroes of his novels come in for a thorough shellacking, a savage going-over hideous to behold; such, at least, is the lot of the central characters of Burmese Days, Coming Up for Air, 1984, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. This violence is quite uncalled for; his Florys, George Bowlings, Winstons, and Gordons are ordinary men, neither conspicuously noble nor sale type. As far as I can see, his only grievance against them was that they did not measure up to the old-school definition of a gentleman. This remark may seem a bit unfair, as Orwell was always riding charges against old-school stuffiness—not in the manner of a St George, but in a casual and unpretentious way, flying only the colors of human decency.

But he was ahead of his age in being conservative, and this quality of his went largely unnoticed during his lifetime; he combined the gentlemanly with the democratic, an oxymoron typical of conservatism. Orwell detested the snobbery and class ground on which the definition of the gentleman stood, but the concept itself was a different matter, and in the greater part of his literary career he behaved in perfect accordance with it. Hence the fairness, the unassuming and disarming honesty of the writing, which we have come to regard as characteristic. Nor was the gentlemanly, as Orwell entertained it, such a narrow notion. The gentleman was for him the private citizen and irreducible unit of social life, more or less as John Stuart Mill thought of him, the free man of free mind and cultivation, whose continued existence was essential to the health of a democracy. Taken in this


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