By CHRIS TUCKER
Published: 07 September 2013 02:30 PM
Updated: 07 September 2013 02:30 PM
Given his relatively short life, it’s amazing that George Orwell (1903-50) wrote as much as he did — novels, essays, newspaper columns, book reviews, investigative journalism, radio broadcasts and more than 1,700 letters.
And given the turbulent conditions of his life — uncertain finances, almost constant ill health, frequent moves, a near-fatal war wound, a wife dying young, an adopted child to support, cowardly publishers and vindictive political enemies — it’s equally amazing that he got anything done at all.
A Life in Letters is another solid contribution to the Orwell canon by the indefatigable Peter Davison, who spent 17 years editing and annotating the 20 volumes of Orwell’s Complete Works and who, last year, gave us George Orwell Diaries. Again, as with the diaries, we see a rich spectrum of the writer’s life, from the early 1930s when he is researching the harsh conditions in British coal country for The Road to Wigan Pier, to his time spent in Morocco for his health, to his stint with the BBC during World War II and the all-too-brief period of the late 1940s when he at last enjoyed decent earnings from his work.
Amid these glimpses of Orwell as writer, political activist, farmer, husband and father, it’s thrilling to see him birth the ideas that gave him literary immortality. In a January 1944 letter to his agent Leonard Moore, for instance, Orwell cautiously describes his current project as “a fairy story but also a political allegory.” The book, Animal Farm, became one of the iconic literary works of the Cold War, translated into more than 70 languages and selling millions of copies.
A month later, replying to a Bolshevik resister and professor who had sent him an anthology of Russian literature, Orwell closes his letter with astonishing modesty: “I am writing a little squib which might amuse you when it comes out, but it is so not O.K. politically that I don’t feel certain … anyone will publish it.” The squib was Nineteen Eighty-Four.
We also see Orwell developing the sensibility that made him one of the 20th century’s most perceptive cultural critics. In a 1936 letter to Henry Miller, Orwell says he admired the writer’s controversial first novel,Tropic of Cancer, but not his sophomore effort, Black Spring: “I think on the whole you have moved too much away from the ordinary world into a sort of Mickey Mouse universe. … I have a sort of belly to earth attitude and always feel uneasy when I get away from the ordinary world where grass is green, stones hard, etc.”
Whether written to little-known people or to literary stars like Dwight Macdonald, Arthur Koestler and T.S. Eliot (one of many publishers who passed on Animal Farm), Orwell’s letters tend to be grab-bag affairs packed with topics both momentous and mundane. In March 1939, writing from Marrakesh, he darkly warns the art critic Herbert Read that war will bring “a fascising [sic] process” and an authoritarian regime to England. A few days later he asks a friend who is tending his farm whether a favorite goat, Muriel — a name given to the wise goat of Animal Farm — has been mated yet, dryly adding, “It is a most unedifying spectacle, by the way, if you happen to watch it.”
As Davison notes, A Life in Letters has unfortunate gaps. There is understandably little from the Spanish Civil War, where Orwell was seriously wounded and driven out of the country by pro-Soviet Communists. And there are no letters from the five eventful years he spent as an Imperial policeman in Burma, a fertile time that later produced the novel Burmese Days and classic essays like “A Hanging” and “Shooting an Elephant.”
Such lacunae are to be mourned. But with so much else to offer, A Life in Letters belongs on any Orwellite’s shelf.
Dallas writer Chris Tucker is a commentator for KERA-FM (90.1) and a teacher in Richland College’s Emeritus program.
A Life in Letters
Edited by Peter Davison