George Orwell: The Critical Heritage

By Jeffrey Meyers | Go to book overview

71.

Eric Bentley, Saturday Review of Literature

11 May 1946, p. 11

Eric Bentley (b. 1916), drama critic and former Professor of English at Columbia University; author of The Playwright as Thinker (1946) and Bernard Shaw (1947).

This book introduces to the American public a very talented English critic. Talented and symptomatic, George Orwell’s career seems to have been a brave attempt to live down his Anglo-Indian and Etonian background (the Etonian part of which was all too vividly described in Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise). As policeman, school-teacher, bum, Spanish Loyalist, Home Guardsman, radical editor, and foreign correspondent for a Conservative paper he has kept himself on the go and, like another Koestler, has sought experiences which would bring him close to the central events of our time.

How has he come through? With flying colors, some will say, as a champion of liberty and of everything that is of good report. Personally I find the outcome more complex and more ambiguous.

The theme of Dickens, Dali and Others I take to be that in the past forty years—the span of Mr Orwell’s lifetime—a vast revolution has taken place in Western life, that Mr Orwell is painfully aware of all its characteristics and complications, and that he is very angry because many people are so little aware of the revolution that they can go on living—culturally at least—in a nineteenth-century world that has no ‘objective’ existence. Mr Orwell’s anger is all the greater because he too prefers nineteenth-century values and wishes we could really get back to them.

In protest against his background Mr Orwell is a radical, but as the product of his background he is embarrassed by radicalism. To some extent this embarrassment is a good thing, since it makes Mr Orwell acutely aware of silliness and eccentricity on the left. And it has driven him to adopt a splendid forthrightness of manner; his style is a model

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