The Unexamined Orwell
A new book examines the legendary status the "1984" author has achieved since his death
BY ADAM KIRSCH
If you were to make a list of all the adjectives that have been used to describe George Orwell, the most popular would be ethical ones: words like honest, decent, trustworthy. These are the qualities that have guaranteed Orwell, who died in 1950 at the age of forty-six, such an extraordinary intellectual afterlife. More than a novelist or journalist or essayist or literary critic, Orwell has become an icon of intellectual integrity -- one of the few writers to live through the 1930s, Auden's "low, dishonest decade," and emerge with his political and moral instincts uncorrupted. On the left, he's admired for his genuine socialist principles and personal egalitarianism; on the right, he's admired for the instinctive patriotism and love of English tradition that made him one of the best commentators on the World War II years. And to everyone who writes and thinks about politics, Orwell is the writer who most elegantly exposed the horror of totalitarianism and the degradation of language under the pressure of ideology. No wonder that, as John Rodden writes in "The Unexamined Orwell" (University of Texas Press), " scarcely a major Anglo-American issue has gone by since his death in January 1950 that has not moved someone to muse, 'If Orwell Were Alive Today,'" -- or, more reverently still, "W.W.G.O.D.?"
For that very reason, however, just about the last word you could apply to the man born Eric Blair is "unexamined." He is the subject of numerous biographies and studies, and one of the rare twentieth-century authors to have been honored with a full-dress Collected Works -- a twenty-two-volume set. Of course, Rodden, who is the author of several books about Orwell's work and influence, knows this perfectly well. What he objects to is the way Orwell is too often replaced in the public imagination by " 'Orwell,' the myth, not the man or the writer" -- the image Rodden also refers to as "St. George." The purpose of this collection of essays is not so much to debunk the Orwell legend as to offer "fresh perspectives on him and his work, either by challenging broadly accepted appraisals of his achievement or pursuing new lines of inquiry about it."
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