The short life -- and lasting influence -- of George Orwell
George Orwell was a man of strong opinions. His early school life taught him the reality of caste in England. His time as a police officer in Burma affected his views of colonialism. His life eking out a living as a transient cemented his views of the haves and have-nots. And his experience fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War showed that when it came to opposing authoritarianism and fascism, he was right there in the front of the class.
Eric Arthur Blair was born in India in 1903, the son of a British civil servant. He took up writing at an early age, publishing his first work (a poem) at the age of 11. Although he was a brilliant student, his parents couldn't afford a university education, so Blair joined the India Imperial Police Force. Five years later, he returned to England intent on making it as a writer. He was fearful that his first book, "Down and Out in Paris and London" (1933) would embarrass his family, so he adopted the pseudonym George Orwell.
While he was working on his second novel, he took a job in a second-hand bookshop. He didn't like it much. Here's a passage from "Bookshop Memories":
"Many of the people who came to us were the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, the dear old lady who 'wants a book for an invalid' (a very common demand, that), and the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately, she doesn't remember the title or the author's name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover." [We can relate.] Orwell said his time in a bookshop caused him to lose his love of books. [We can't relate.]
During World War II, Orwell worked for the BBC as a propagandist to advance the country's national interest. He loathed this part of his job, describing the BBC's atmosphere as "something halfway between a girls' school and a lunatic asylum, and all we are doing at present is useless, or slightly worse than useless." He resigned in 1943.
It was after the war, and near the end of his life, he wrote "Animal Farm" (1945) and "1984" (1949). "Animal Farm" was an anti-Soviet satire. "1984" offered a bleak version of a world where government controlled every detail of a person's life, down to their private thoughts -- a place we would now call "Orwellian." (Orwell also added to the English language "Big Brother," "Thought Police," "Newspeak," "doublethink," "thoughtcrime" and "groupthink.")
Language had a special importance for Orewell. His essay, Politics and the English Language, warned us about "ugly and inaccurate" English that enabled oppressive ideology, and that vague or meaningless language was meant to hide the truth. He argued that language should not naturally evolve over time, but should be "an instrument wihch we shape for our own purposes." To write well is to be able to think clearly and engage in political discourse. He railed against cliches, dying metaphors and pretentious or meaningless language. It's a powerful essay that resonates yet today. We recommend it.
Orwell was never in good health. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1938, when there were no effective treatments for the disease. He died from it in 1950. A statue of him unveiled in 2017 is inscribed, "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."
The enduring popularity of his books is a testament to his talent. First British editions of "1984" and "Animal Farm," can be had in collectible condition for around $3,000 for the former and $6,000 or so for the latter.