Orwell Matters

By Pritchard, William H. | The Hudson Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Orwell Matters


Pritchard, William H., The Hudson Review


GEORGE ORWELL WOULD HAVE BEEN 100 THIS YEAR, and among events taking note of that fact is a conference at Wellesley College in which his "legacy and enduring influence" will be explored. The flyer for the conference gives a list of "central developments" in the twentieth century that Orwell engaged with, including imperialism, the Cold War and the bomb, totalitarian superstates, mass culture and the media age. From the list of presenters that includes well-known cultural and political critics at different ends of the spectrum-Jeane Kirkpatrick and Susan Sontag, Robert Conquest and Todd Gitlin-one guesses that Orwell's status as a sage to be trusted or rejected will occupy stage front and center. Over the past few decades, beginning perhaps with Mary McCarthy's question about whether he would have supported or condemned American actions in Vietnam, there has been a tendency to judge the man and writer in terms mainly political. This tendency showed itself most recently in the accusations by Alexander Cockburn in The Nation that Orwell was a "snitch," inasmuch as he provided the British government after the second World War with a list of men and women he knew or suspected were Communist party members or fellow travelers. In this view, Orwell was a major figure in "the fanatical antiCommunist left" Cockburn has spent much energy in ridiculing and contemning.

Mary McCarthy's 1968 essay "The Writing on the Wall," in which she raised the subject of Orwell and Vietnam, was a review of Orwell's four-volume Collected Journalism, Essays and Letters; thirty years later, Peter Davison's magnificent editing, in twenty volumes, of the Complete Works prompted Cockburn's "snitch" charge. Since Davison's great edition there has been a solid biography of Orwell by Jeffrey Meyers (Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation, 2000); then just last year, a short defense of him by Christopher Hitchens1 and a massive one-volume edition of his essays.2 Centenary gatherings like the one at Wellesley will continue the conversation-argument about the nature and value of Orwell's politics and will further air the question of how deleterious were his supposed prejudices. (Cockburn accuses him of having written "mini-diatribes about blacks, homosexuals, and Jews" and further claims as fact "his crusty dislike of pansies, vegetarians, peaceniks, women in tweed skirts and others athwart the British Way.") Whether comparable attention will be paid to Orwell's prowess as a writer, in particular his contributions to the criticism of literature and culture, is in doubt.

Hitchens' vigorous defense and vindication of Orwell consists of an introduction and ten shortish chapters that examine his hero's credentials in relation to various matters and groups: "Orwell and Empire," "Orwell and the Left," "Orwell and the Right," "Orwell and the Feminists," and so forth. There is a chapter on the "list" and a chapter on the novels; there is however little consideration of Orwell as a literary critic. Hitchens' book feels as if it were written very swiftly indeed: there is no index and the order of the chapters doesn't follow any discernible logic. As usual there is abundant self-display: references to "my Tory brother Peter," or "my dear friend" Salman Rushdie grate just a bit, as does the end of his dedication to the worthy Robert Conquest, "founder of 'the united front against bullshit.'" Nevertheless Hitchens is always invigorating, and his admiration and affection for Orwell are patent throughout the book. Although in his introduction he sets himself against the notion of "St. George"-"an object of sickly veneration and sentimental overpraise, employed to stultify schoolchildren with his insufferable rightness and purity"-his major onslaught is reserved for those critics of Orwell from the Left who, if not quite so venal as Alexander Cockburn, show an "apparent lack of generosity" in their estimation of the man and his contribution. Hitchens cites chapter and verse of such ungenerosities from E. …

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