Irving Howe, Harper’s
January 1969, pp. 97-103
Renoir said he painted with his penis. Had they troubled to think about it, Balzac might have said he wrote with his guts, Conrad with his nerves, Jane Austen with her eyebrows, George Orwell, however, wrote with his bones. To read again his essays, together with previously uncollected journalism and unpublished letters, as they have been brought together in this superb four-volume collection, is to encounter the bone-weariness, and bone-courage, of a writer who lived through every public disaster of his time: the Depression, Hitlerism, Franco’s victory in Spain, Stalinism, the collapse of bourgeois England in the Thirties. Even when he wanted to pull back to his novels and even when he lay sick with tuberculosis, Orwell kept summoning those energies of combat and resources of irritation which made him so powerful a fighter against the cant of his age. His bones would not let him rest.
For a whole generation—mine—Orwell was an intellectual hero. He stormed against those English writers who were ready to yield to Hitler; he fought almost single-handed against those who blinded themselves to the evils of Stalin. More than any other English intellectual of our age, he embodied the values of personal independence and a fiercely democratic radicalism. Yet, just because for years I have intensely admired him, I hesitated to return to him. One learns to fear the disappointment of fallen heroes and lapsed enthusiasms.
I was wrong to hesitate. Reading through these four large volumes— the sheer pleasure of it can’t be overstated—has convinced me that Orwell was an even better writer than I had supposed. He was neither a first-rank literary critic nor a major novelist, and certainly not an original political thinker; but he was, I now believe, the best English essayist since Hazlitt, perhaps since Dr Johnson. He was the greatest moral force in English letters during the last several decades: craggy, fiercely polemical, sometimes mistaken, but an utterly free man. In his readiness to stand alone and take on all comers, he was a model for every writer of our age. And when my students ask, ‘Whom shall I read in order to write better?’ I answer, ‘Orwell, the master of the plain