Orwell: The Authorized Biography

Michael Shelden
New York: Harper Collins, 1991; 497 pp.

The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of "St. George" Orwell

John Rodden
Oxford University Press, 1989; 478 pp.

William Jones
History and Philosophy
Montana State University

Reaching a judgement on the proper place of George Orwell's writings in the canon of Twentieth Century Literature has remained an attractive problem for more writers and critics than one would care to count, let alone read. And despite the already crowded shelf of books on the life and work of the paradoxical Englishman, new studies of Orwell continue to appear. But what can be said about him that is truly "new"? The biography is by now quite familiar in its outlines. Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 in British India, attended school in England at St. Cyprian's and Eton, made a false start down his father's path as an Indian Imperial Policeman in Burma, returned home to "go native in his own country" (V.S. Pritchett's phrase), failed to make his mark as a novelist (under the name "George Orwell"), turned increasingly to political writing, fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and nearly died of a neck wound, returned to England once more and wrote about Spain, watched Europe blow itself to pieces for several years, and wrote two enormously popular books--Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four--and then he died in 1950. Since then, he has become an adjective ("Orwellian"), a year (1984), and, as a literary and political "figure," the focus of innumerable squabbles among intellectuals and critics in the United States and Great Britain.

In their recently published books, John Rodden and Michael Shelden confront and respond to the various received images of their subject in quite different ways. Rodden's The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of "St. George" Orwell makes direct use of these heaped up images of Orwell as its subject and its source material. By contrast, Michael Shelden's Orwell: The Authorized Biography attempts to attract consumers away from the earlier products of the Orwell industry by presenting a fund of new material on Orwell in the context of a traditional narrative biographical treatment. In short, Rodden intelligently and painstakingly recycles the existing Orwell scholarship while Shelden tries to drive down its value. These two recent Orwell books bear looking into for directly and indirectly they tell us a great deal not only about the long-contested status of their subject but also about how writers and publishers manufacture and market literary status in general.

As Rodden's book on the reception of Orwell's writings testifies, even a mediocre Orwell book or article can become the focus of an intense political or scholarly debate. Few literary figures of the past half-century, save perhaps Alexander Solzhenitsyn, have provoked so many well-publicized claims, arguments, counter arguments and sub(rosa)arguments--and Solzhenitsyn has had the advantage of being able to take part in discussions of his work. Orwell's literary fate, or reputation, the term Rodden prefers, has long been in the hands of interested others. For the past forty years, armies of friends, relations, critics, and scholars have struggled for literary and political possession of Orwell's corpus as if he were some modern-day Patroclus. As Rodden explains, the combatants in the various Orwell debates have frequently been themselves "figures" in the highly politicized conversations of Cold War-era scholarship and criticism in the humanities.

Rodden discusses the turf battles over Orwell by means of what he identifies as the writer's four "dominant historical images": The Rebel, The Common Man, The Prophet, and The Saint. But these images are not so rigid and confining as they might first appear, for Rodden also differentiates the reception of Orwell's work by looking at the national, gender, political, religious, and generational affiliations of his critics. For example, Rodden shows how the divergent verdicts of literary critics on Orwell have often indicated important shifts in the balance of intellectual clout in the United States. One of the most influential early opinions was that of Lionel Trilling, whose well-known introduction to the 1952 edition of Orwell's Homage to Catalonia eulogized the book's author as the anticommunist man of truth. Some years later, Irving Howe praised both the nightmarish intensity of Nineteen Eighty-Four and its author's combative democratic socialism. The stream of commentary on Orwell and his work continued through the early 1980s, and the typical goal of these writings was to claim Orwell for one political or cultural purpose or another. Rodden recounts how, as 1984 approached, there appeared a stunning number of books, essays, and articles on the writer who had given that year peculiar significance. Amid the general chorus of praise for Orwell and his books, Daphne Patai's The Orwell Mystique sounded a sharply critical note, offering a negative evaluation of Orwell's status as a "figure for our times" by arguing that he had served above all as a model of the Cold War "cult of frustrated masculinity." Patai contended that the Englishman's stories inevitably retreat into despair and misogyny. Rodden complains with some justification that Patai's book was at times reductive in its critical focus and also anachronistic in its political judgments, but he could have made it clearer that, for instance, Trilling's 1952 praise for Orwell's 1938 book on the Spanish Civil War was no less so. Nevertheless, Rodden recognizes that The Orwell Mystique had a double significance: feminist voices had transformed the continuing canon debate and Orwell could still serve as an important focus for that debate.

As Rodden argues, Orwell's status in the United States as a figure to admire and emulate has not drawn many hostile critics like Patai until relatively recently. In Great Britain, however, Orwell's status has long been a matter of controversy especially on the political left. Several books and essays by E.P. Thompson, Terry Eagleton, and Raymond Williams constitute virtually a genre of Anglo-Marxist cultural and literary criticism in which taking on Orwell becomes a test of the current condition of the critic's radicalism. Williams in particular had to confront Orwell's writings and reputation in every one of his own projects: novels, political essays, studies of popular culture, and left-wing criticism of the left. Rodden also explores the British New Left's general rejection of Orwell, in which Williams played a difficult and important role.

Rodden takes up each of the various Orwells in turn and lucidly explains how Orwell--alive or dead, but especially dead--became the front man for numerous antagonistic political and literary opinions: socialist, antisocialist, modernist, antimodernist, liberal, conservative, neo-conservative, feminist, anti-feminist, elitist, anti-elite, imperialist, anti-imperialist. Few modern writers could have served such a divided and quarrelsome readership as Orwell has, and Rodden tries gamely to allow each faction its say. Unfortunately, the burden imposed by his daunting agenda of titles, writers, and issues often slows the pace of Rodden's analysis to that of a dutiful trudge. But when Rodden gets interested in a particular debate, the book moves with a livelier step. His nuanced though generally critical assessment of Raymond Williams' changing stance with regard to Orwell ably connects that history with the larger story of the postwar British Left--in both its old and new variants. He also offers a persuasive analysis of how and why Orwell became such a central figure for the "New York intellectuals" of Partisan Review and its various offspring, and how these writers in turn helped to legitimate both a politically anticommunist Orwell and a stylistically "truthful" Orwell.

In a section that will be of interest to those involved in current debates about the canon, Rodden discusses how Orwell's novels and essays took their place on the required reading lists of secondary schools and colleges in Great Britain and the United States--unevenly and only gradually, he concludes. This portion of the book includes some sensible remarks on how the canon may be shaped less by political intellectuals than it is by literary academics, two groups which overlap but are by no means congruent. The former group has both loved and hated Orwell; the latter has often simply found him second-rate. Rodden also argues, albeit anecdotally, that graduate English Departments in the United States still resist Orwell's entry into the list of "major" authors. This section indicates, moreover, that Orwell's place in the university classroom as a model of clear writing style depends more on a handful of his essays than on his fiction. Even the two best-known Orwell novels rarely make it to college. For economic as well as pedagogic reasons, Animal Farm turns up in the junior or senior high school curriculum. It takes little time to read, opens itself to simple and reductive interpretations, and even poorer school districts often have dozens of dogeared copies of it around. On the other hand, Nineteen Eighty-Four has had a tough time even in the secondary schools. It must seem awfully long to many students, and it is certainly not a lively tale. (Of course, millions of people have read it, but how many have reread it?) It also offends many parents and taxpayers. Rodden's account raises the question of whether or not the canonization of "St. George" could be revoked by a combination of cautious school boards, fluctuating local budgets, and the editors of The Norton Reader.

The Politics of Literary Reputation offers a remarkably comprehensive study of Orwell reception. Perhaps the only Orwell that Rodden might have attended to in greater detail--or could now, given recent political changes in Europe--is the Orwell that we often hear was so admired in Eastern European countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Rodden, or if he is not able, someone else with sufficient linguistic versatility could generate a valuable account of Orwell reception among dissenting students and workers, and reformist intellectuals. Another Orwell who is too much absent from the book is Rodden's. But Rodden finally tips his hand. Often so judiciously restrained in his comments on Orwell and his critics, Rodden concludes with a passage in which he reveals himself as one more reader who shares the generally positive image of Orwell as a straightforward writer in a crooked age. Rodden's Orwell is the writer who "spoke in a voice so plain and so insistent that he has continued to command the world's attention."

Michael Shelden's new "authorized" biography of Orwell begins where Rodden's book ends--with a reference to Orwell's "voice." Shelden describes it as "one of the most compelling in the history of English prose," and his biography emphasizes Orwell's development as a writer. Shelden keeps his discussions of the existing body of work about Orwell to a minimum, but he does recognize the need to explain the existence of yet another biography. He argues that the previous biographies especially Bernard Crick's George Orwell: A Life and Peter Stansky's and William Abrahams' pair of volumes, The Unknown Orwell and Orwell: The Transformation are either badly written or incomplete. Unfortunately, by mentioning only the scholarly and not the larger political context of his own book's appearance, Shelden misses what could have been an additional and perhaps more compelling reason for a new Orwell biography: the end of the Cold War. As Rodden documents and others have long argued, Orwell was perhaps the quintessential Cold War literary figure in the West, and clearer or at least more evident understanding of that fact would have added a useful dimension to the story that Shelden tells. Instead, Shelden simply asserts Orwell's greatness and reputation, and chooses to focus on descriptive accuracy and narrative detail rather than debates about reception, interpretation, and significance. But given Shelden's interests and his skill as a narrator of events, his choice is justified, and it turns out to be a shrewd choice as well.

Shelden likes Orwell a lot. He is well aware of his subject's flaws, but his discussions of them do not get in the way of what is a very admiring portrait. But this is not in itself a criticism of Shelden's book. In fact, likely because he cares so deeply about his subject, he has unearthed a great deal of new source material, and he carefully corrects many errors of detail in the existing accounts of Orwell's life. His research in the archives and in interviews has been both thoughtful and meticulous. The value of this labor shows up most effectively in the early chapters on Orwell's family, education, and career as an Imperial Policeman in Burma. In Shelden's chapter on the Burmese years, Orwell appears as a capable and mature young official, and not as the odd man out of Crick's biography. Shelden proves that Orwell's postings in Burma gave him a great deal of responsibility and authority, and that his performance on the job indicated no obvious disenchantment with his work. He also gives far more attention than previous biographers have to Eileen O'Shaughnessy, the vital and intelligent woman who was married to Orwell during the financially lean but adventurous years before he achieved fame as a writer. On the other hand, Shelden describes Sonia Brownell, Orwell's second wife, as a self-indulgent opportunist.

Throughout the book, Shelden really does have some new things to say about Orwell, and he fills in many of the blanks left by biographers who were not so enterprising in their search for source materials. But the issue of whether these new pieces of information significantly alter the story told in previous biographies is moot. Shelden's Orwell diligently corrects their errors and omissions, but it does not supplant the earlier versions of Orwell's life; it simply takes its place as their newest rival. Moreover, Shelden's view of Orwell as a writer differs little from the American Standard Version: one part Trilling's truth-teller, one part Howe's feisty leftist, two parts glazier of prose-like-a-windowpane.

Nevertheless, Orwell deserves a wide audience. It certainly aims for one. As a mercy to his ideal general reader, Shelden mostly keeps to the events and achievements of his subject's fascinating life and relegates the labors of correcting the errors and misinterpretations of rival accounts to the endnotes. The book's select bibliography is more than adequate for its intended audience, and it inadvertently gives its author yet another boost in the contest for "best Orwell biography": by means of a typographical error, the bibliography lists poor Bernard Crick--whose biography of Orwell is the clearest target of Shelden's effort--as the title of a book by Cyril Connolly (whose most recent biographer is... Michael Shelden). Orwell is weakest when Shelden takes up the chore of analyzing Orwell's style. He would have done better not to pause for Freshman Composition explanations of just why Orwell chose precisely this word or that analogy. I would be willing to bet that most readers of Orwell have already completed such a course of instruction. But for the most part, Shelden's book tells its story well, and for those who know little about Orwell or who simply like to indulge their desire for the culturally suspect and theoretically outmoded pleasures of literary biography, Orwell should not be a disappointment.

Both Rodden and Shelden merit praise for their solid contributions to Orwell scholarship. If Shelden's primary aim was to provide a better researched and more readable alternative to Bernard Crick's George Orwell: A Life, he has largely achieved his goal. But for all its virtues, Shelden's Orwell contains few surprises for those who have already read Orwell's books or the biographies of Orwell by Crick, George Woodcock, or Stansky and Abrahams. And even though Shelden's Orwell adds measurably to our knowledge of Orwell's life, it will have little if any impact on the critical assessment of Orwell's writings. Rodden's The Politics of Literary Reputation will have far less appeal to the general reading public, but it stands as an equally important addition to Orwell scholarship. Finally, in their different ways, the two books offer further evidence that many of those who pay much attention to Orwell's writings sooner or later give in to the urge to fashion a usable version of him, one who meets the literary, political, pedagogic, or publishing needs of the moment--an Orwell of one's own. And as the publication of Rodden's and Shelden's books by major presses attests, at least the market value of Orwell has not diminished noticeably. The Orwell that sells will continue to attract scholarly interest.

As for the larger question of Orwell's stature as a "figure for our times," even scholars from beyond the circles of literary criticism and biography keep finding reasons to talk about Orwell. And one of them has bothered to do something neither Shelden nor Rodden does very well--that is, make a clear, sound argument for Orwell's continuing importance. In his book of essays on liberalism, contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), Richard Rorty offered his own high estimation of Orwell's worth, describing him as a writer who remains unsurpassed because he recognized and articulated better than anyone else of his time or ours (and the clocks are still striking thirteen, Rorty argues) both the dangers and possibilities of modern politics. Even the events of 1989 and 1991 have not rendered Orwell's depictions of modern political cruelty superfluous. For the time being, Orwell's writings remain important, though neither he nor his words can be regarded any longer as sacrosanct.

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