Irving Howe, Nation
4 February 1950, pp. 110-11
Irving Howe (b. 1920), Professor of English at the City University of New York, author of Sherwood Anderson (1951), William Faulkner (1952) and Politics and the Novel (1957).
In at least one sense George Orwell works within a major strand of English literary tradition. Like Defoe or Dickens before him, he assumes in his writing that there exists a social world external to and decisively impinging on our consciousness. Consequently he examines carefully social relations and status, for once he succeeds in showing ‘what happens’ to his characters within the social world, the reader may be able to surmise what is also happening inside the characters. It need hardly be added that the dominant strategy of modern writing, whether for ontological or internal literary considerations, is quite different from the one Orwell employs.
I make these unoriginal observations merely to indicate why Orwell’s three republished novels, Down and Out in Paris and London1, Burmese Days, and Coming Up for Air, are not likely to receive the kind of reception they should in this country. The general public will not find in them the titillations of his recent political allegories, and serious readers may pass them by as ‘mere journalism’ which does not satisfy the current taste for psychology, myth, or that hazy marsh known as ‘morality. ’ Yet I wish to suggest that Down and Out and Burmese Days are Orwell’s best works of fiction and deserve a larger readership than his more sensational books.
In his attitude Orwell is primarily a journalist, a term which in America is taken as a kind of depreciation, perhaps because we have so few good journalists. But Orwell is a first-rate journalist: he has a large gift for the observation of significant details, he is genuinely curious about people, and he is capable of making those limited generalizations of insight which, while not social theory, often tell us
Down and Out in Paris and London is not a novel.