Introduction, or Orwell into the Twenty-First Century

By Rodden, John | The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 2014 | Go to article overview

Introduction, or Orwell into the Twenty-First Century


Rodden, John, The Midwest Quarterly


ALTHOUGH HE HAS BEEN DEAD for more than six decades, George Orwell (1903-1950) continues to generate keen interest and intense debate both within the literary academy and the public at large. It could even be argued that he is the best-known literary figure of the twentieth century. Since 2000, three new biographies have appeared (by Jeffrey Meyers, Gordon Bowker, and D.J. Taylor), along with the final volumes of The Complete Works of George Orwell, an exhaustive collection of his writings (in twenty-one tomes, edited by Peter Davison). Special studies and monographs also appear annually.

All this attests to the incontrovertible fact that Eric Blair's boyhood dream ("To be A FAMOUS AUTHOR")--which he voiced repeatedly to an adolescent girlfriend about two decades before he became "George Orwell"--has been realized on a scale beyond even his most extravagant fantasies.

Since his death in January 1950, Orwell has been widely quoted and internationally recognized for his last two books--both of them unique masterpieces. His powerful expose of the betrayal of the idea of revolution, Animal Farm, modeled on the Russian Revolution and cast in the form of a fable, established his literary reputation first in Great Britain and then around the world. His dystopian portrait of a world gone mad, Nineteen Eighty-Four, has haunted generations of readers with its grim portrait of a government controlled by a brutal, all-powerful dictatorship. Both books reveal Orwell's gift for memorable coinages. Phrases and words such as Big Brother, Newspeak, doublethink, and "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others" have entered the cultural lexicon.

The combined sales of Orwell's last two works total more than 50 million copies. They have become standard texts in secondary school and university curricula, making them two of the most popular books of the twentieth century. In a survey carried out by Waterhouse, an English book chain, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four ranked second and third (behind J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings cycle) as the most influential English-language works of the last century.

Nineteen Eighty-Four represents Orwell's chef d'oeuvre. Written between 1946 and late 1948--he changed the original working title, The Last Man in Europe, to a title based on a transposition of the year in which he finished the book--Nineteen Eighty-Four appeared in June 1949, only seven months before his tragic, premature death the following January. By the middle 1950s, its electrifying vision--brought to graphic realization on the "telescreens" of millions of Western moviegoers and television viewers--had turned Orwell into a household name.

The Afterlife: Posthumous Fame

Orwell's afterlife has been astounding and without parallel. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, along with his finest essays, have never been out of print. Some of them, such as "Such, Such Were the Joys" and "Shooting an Elephant," have entered anthologies and are studied in secondary schools and universities around the world. "Politics and the English Language," with its famous six rules for clear prose, has influenced generations of writers.

As the Cold War (the O.E.D. credits him as the first person to coin this term) intensified in the 1950s, Orwell was exalted by the liberals and conservatives (and vilified by the Marxist Left) as an iconic Cold Warrior. His last two books became ideological weapons in the conflict between the West and the Communist world, given that Orwell's strictures on Communism were convenient truncheons with which to bludgeon the fellow-traveling Left. Ever since his experience in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell had profoundly distrusted Communism, and he became prized among anti-Communist conservatives and neoconservatives in Great Britain and the United States, who co-opted his works.

A lull in Orwell's reputation occurred after it had skyrocketed in the mid-1950s, and it leveled off and even dipped in some circles during the next two decades. …

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