Max Plowman, Adelphi
April 1940, pp. 316-17
Max Plowman (1883-1941), friend of Orwell, editor of Adelphi 1938-41, author of A Subaltern on the Somme (1928).
Mr Orwell’s title is deceptive, or at least not very explicit. Ostensibly his new book consists of three first-class literary essays: on Charles Dickens, on Boys’ Weeklies and on the writing of Henry Miller (author of Tropic of Cancer, &c. ). But George Orwell has a unitary purpose in selecting these very differing subjects. He wants to examine the nature of the world we live in, and he does it by contrast—by examining peculiar people in order to show the norm. And in his imagination he has no doubt about where the ordinary man is residing to-day:
For the fact is that being inside a whale is a very comfortable, cosy, homelike thought. The historical Jonah, if he can be so-called, was glad enough to escape, but in imagination, in day-dream, countless people have envied him. It is, of course, quite obvious why. The whale’s belly is simply a womb big enough for an adult. There you are, in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the completest indifference, no matter what happens. A storm that would sink all the battleships in the world would hardly reach you as an echo. Even the whale’s own movements would probably be imperceptible to you. He might be wallowing among the surface waves or shooting down into the blackness of the middle seas (a mile deep, according to Herman Melville), but you would never notice the difference. Short of being dead, it is the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility.
Dickens was politically unconscious, and therefore socially irresponsible. The purveyors of popular literature for boys are shown to be sleuth-hounds of irresponsible, die-hard conservatism. Henry Miller is treated as the representative novelist of his time in that he frankly declines responsibility for what he can’t control: he is seen as a representative writer because he is a literary anarchist in a world