Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Homage to My Intellectual Big Brother

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Homage to My Intellectual Big Brother

Article excerpt

Rooming with George

THIS ESSAY REPRESENTS a salute of thanks to George Orwell, my "big brother"--I deliberately lower-case the allusion--for his invaluable contribution to my life. My title also nods to Orwell's classic memoir of his months fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia (1938). I have no confidence that he would acknowledge me as an intellectual or spiritual sibling, but I want to pay "homage to Orwell" because of my incalculable debt to him. For like so many other writers and critics of my generation--and especially generations previous to mine stretching all the way back to the early post-World War II era--I have felt a compelling affinity to Orwell. In my case, the feeling has run so deep that I have not only devoted a substantial part of my mature energies to studying Orwell's life and work, and in particular to an examination of his multifaceted reputation and unique legacy, but also to meeting and interviewing numerous men and women of earlier generations who have been similarly influenced and felt a comparable kinship.

Yet my debt to Orwell is not only political or intellectual, but also intensely, even intimately personal. For he has introduced me to what Irving Howe, another strong admirer of Orwell, unforgettably termed "the world of our fathers" in a best-selling historical study of that title. Now that I am firmly embedded in middle age, having lived more than a decade longer than Orwell himself, I often ponder: What has prompted me to identify with Orwell so deeply? What is the nature of our own (Anglo-American?) "special relationship"? Why has he exerted such a dramatic impact on my life? Indeed a student once said to me after a lecture about Orwell's essays: "Was it true that George Orwell was your college roommate? I heard from several friends that he was."

The answers are difficult to formulate, or at times even to fathom. But let me here discuss two comprehensive ways in which I discovered a second self--the Orwell within myself--through my ever-deepening acquaintance with my intellectual big brother.

Passport to the Past

First, with regard to "the world of my fathers," Orwell was the intellectual Beatrice who accompanied me on the exciting, if uncertain and often baffling, journey to what Henry James famously described as "the visitable past." In his 1908 preface to The Aspern Papers, James speaks about a vista of history just beyond the horizon of our memories, the past of the immediately preceding generations that is fast receding yet still accessible because its living witnesses are still alive. James writes:

    I delight in a palpable imaginable visitable past--in the nearer
   distances and the clearer mysteries. It contains the marks and
   signs of a world we may reach over to as by making a long arm
   we grasp an object at the other end of our own table.
          The table is the one, the common expanse, and where
   we lean so stretching, we find it firm and continuous. That, to
   my imagination, is the past fragrant of all, or of almost all, the
   poetry of the thing outlived and lost and gone, and yet in which
   the precious element of closeness, telling so of connexions
   but tasting so of differences, remains appreciable. With [each
   additional] move back, the element of the appreciable shrinks--just
   as the charm of looking over a garden-wall into another
   garden breaks down when successions of walls appear, (xxiv) 

James, like Orwell, possessed a distinctly tactile sense of the past. He acknowledged that his imagination embraced most readily the recent past, the world of his fathers and mothers, a past that was almost a felt experience and could be "grasped" like "an object," a stretch of history still imbued with the wealth of associations of his life and times. James adds that the artist must "catch" hold of the past at just the "right" moment in order to extract its nectar of nuances, flavored by a waning intensity:

    We are divided of course between liking to feel the past strange
   and liking to feel it familiar; the difficulty is, for intensity, to
   it at the moment when the scales of the balance hang with the
   right evenness. … 
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