This Day In Literary History
On June 25th, 1903, the legendary English writer George Orwell was born. He was born Eric Arthur Blair in Bengal, India, to an affluent family. His father, Richard Blair, was a civil servant. His mother, Ida, was a Frenchwoman.
When he was a year old, Orwell's mother moved him to England, settling in the town of Henley-on-Thames. As a young boy, Orwell met poet Jacintha Buddicorn. The two children became inseparable.
When they first met, Buddicorn found Orwell standing on his head in a field. When she asked him why he was doing that, Orwell replied "You are noticed more if you stand on your head than if you are right way up."
Orwell and Buddicorn spent a lot of time reading together, writing poetry, and dreaming of becoming famous writers. He also became close to the rest of the Buddicorn family and spent time hunting, fishing, and birdwatching with Jacintha's brother and sister.
While at prep school, Orwell wrote two poems that were published in the local newspaper. He won a scholarship, but during his college years, he proved to be an average student at best.
He co-created and co-edited a college magazine and spent more time writing for it than paying attention to his studies. He dropped out of school due to both his poor academic performance (which made future scholarships unlikely) and his desire to travel to the East.
In October of 1922, Orwell went to Burma, now known as Myanmar, where he joined the Indian Imperial Police. He was posted briefly to Maymyo, then to Myaungmya. By 1924, Orwell was promoted to Assistant District Superintendent and posted to Syriam. In 1925, he went to Insein, home of the second-largest prison in Burma.
A year later, he moved to Moulmein, where his grandmother lived. At the end of 1926, Orwell moved on to Kath, where he contracted Dengue fever. He was allowed to go home to England on leave.
While home and recovering, Orwell decided that he was tired of colonial life and police work. He resigned from the Indian Imperial Police and decided to become a writer. He used his experiences in Burma as the basis of his first novel, Burmese Days, which was published in 1934.
Orwell's first published work was a nonfiction book called Down And Out In London And Paris (1933), an account of his life as a struggling writer, as he worked at menial jobs to support himself while he wrote.
He had moved to Paris in 1928 because of its low cost of living and the bohemian lifestyle that attracted many aspiring writers. In 1929, Orwell fell ill and all of his money was stolen from his room at the boarding house where he lived. He later returned to London and took a job teaching at a boy's school.
Orwell's early books were published by Victor Gollancz, whose publishing house was an outlet for radical and socialist books. Orwell wrote two more novels, A Clergyman's Daughter (1935) and Keep The Aspidistra Flying (1936).
He later disowned these novels, claiming that they weren't his best works - he had just written them to earn money at a time when he was broke. Of the two, Keep The Aspidistra Flying is the better.
It's a grim black comedy about an aspiring poet, Gordon Comstock, who comes from an affluent, respectable family, but believes that in order to be a poet, one must denounce wealth. So, he quits his promising new job as an advertising copywriter and takes a menial job while he writes.
Living in a grubby rented room, he both loves and loathes his new existence. Comstock finally feels like a real poet, but he resents having to work at boring menial jobs to support himself while he writes. His poverty is a frequent source of humiliation, and he soon becomes a deeply neurotic, absurd parody of himself.
Later, Gollancz encouraged Orwell to investigate and write about the depressed social conditions in Northern England, and he went to the poor coal mining town of Wigan, where he lived in a dirty room over a tripe shop.
He met many people and took extensive notes of the living conditions and wages, explored the mine, and spent days in the town's library researching public health records, working conditions in mines, and other data. The result was The Road To Wigan Pier (1937).
The book is divided into two parts. The first part is a straightforward documentary about life in Wigan. The second is Orwell's philosophical attempt to answer the question that if socialism can improve the appalling conditions in Wigan and such places around the world - which it can - then why aren't we all socialists?
Orwell places the blame on the ferocious prejudices of the white Christian middle class against the lower working class, the poor, and other people they associate with socialism, such as blacks, Jews, atheists, hippies, pacifists, and feminists.
He concludes that "The ordinary man may not flinch from a dictatorship of the proletariat, if you offer it tactfully; offer him a dictatorship of the prigs, and he gets ready to fight."
The second section of The Road To Wigan Pier shows the early development of Orwell's personal philosophy and his skill as a satirist, both of which have been misconstrued as endorsements of conservatism or even fascism. He was really a lifelong socialist.
Not long after writing The Road To Wigan Pier, Orwell volunteered to fight General Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War, using his comrades in the Labour Party to get a letter of introduction.
In Spain, Orwell joined the POUM - the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification - which was allied with the Labour Party. The POUM had joined a coalition of leftist factions that supported the Spanish Republican government against the fascists. Another member of the coalition was the Spanish Communist Party.
The Spanish Communist Party was controlled by the Soviet Union, who saw the POUM as a Trotskyist organization and embarked on a campaign to suppress it, first by falsely claiming that the POUM was collaborating with the fascists, then, near the end of the war, outlawing the party and attacking its members.
When Orwell was falsely accused of being a fascist collaborator, he came to hate Soviet communism. He still fought the fascists and was shot in the throat by a sniper. After recovering in a POUM hospital, Orwell and his wife barely managed to escape Spain following the fall of Barcelona.
Orwell's exposure to Soviet communism and its methods of propaganda and oppression, which broke the coalition and caused its members to lose the Spanish Civil War, would have a lasting effect on him and lead him to write his two greatest novels, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
Animal Farm was an anti-Stalinist fable set on a farm where the animals are ruthlessly oppressed and exploited by the humans for whom they toil. So, the pigs Old Major, (who symbolizes Lenin) Napoleon, (Stalin) Snowball, (Trotsky) and Squealer (Soviet propaganda minister Vyacheslav Molotov) orchestrate a violent revolution.
The humans are overthrown and the animals are free, but soon, Napoleon assumes dictatorial power. He establishes totalitarian rule, and the animals' new utopia becomes even more oppressive and miserable than their existence under human rule.
Declared unfit for military service during World War II, (though he supervised broadcasts to India for the BBC to help the war effort) Orwell had completed Animal Farm in 1944, but no publisher would touch it because the Soviet Union was a key member of the Allies.
The highly acclaimed novel was published after the war ended and adapted as an animated British feature film in 1954. It would be adapted again in 1999 as a live-action American TV movie.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, was Orwell's last and greatest novel. Set in Oceania, formerly England, now a dystopic, totalitarian state in the distant future, it tells the story of Winston Smith, a civil servant who works in the propaganda division as a historical revisionist.
Smith keeps a diary of his disillusionment with the regime and its pervasive surveillance and control of the people. He soon embarks on a rebellion. The regime's leader is a mysterious figure known as Big Brother, and he's always watching - literally. His face constantly appears on posters and monitor screens.
The phrase "big brother" was introduced into the English lexicon by Orwell's novel. Other clever touches include names such as the Ministry Of Peace, which deals with war, and the Ministry Of Love, a reeducation center where people are tortured until they submit.
Winston commits the ultimate crime against the sexually repressive regime - he falls in love with a woman and they have a passionate affair. He and the girl try to escape detection but are arrested by the Thought Police, brought to the Ministry of Love and tortured until they denounce each other.
Now reeducated - brainwashed - to be obedient, Winston is readmitted into the state as a citizen. He's calm, happy, and soulless, and as the novel's ominous final sentence observes, "He loved Big Brother."
A masterpiece of science fiction and political allegory, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in June of 1949 to great acclaim. It remains a classic to this day and is often a subject of study for middle and high school English classes.
Orwell managed to complete the novel despite being severely ill with tuberculosis. He also wrote frequently to friends, including his childhood sweetheart Jacintha Buddicorn, who was shocked to learn that the celebrated novelist George Orwell was her childhood sweetheart Eric Blair writing under a pseudonym.
Sadly, Orwell died of tuberculosis in January of 1950, at the age of 46. He'd had numerous lung problems over the years, including chronic bronchitis and pneumonia. He was also a heavy smoker - a habit he took to his grave.
His greatest literary legacy, the classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, would become the bible of anti-communism during the Cold War and still remains a favorite of the right today who appreciate it for all the wrong reasons.
George Orwell was a lifelong socialist who always hoped for a better world where the extremes of wealth and poverty didn't exist and everyone was truly equal. Nineteen Eighty-Four was a warning that even the noblest ideas can become corrupted and perverted if allowed.
Quote Of The Day
"There is only one way to make money at writing, and that is to marry a publisher's daughter." - George Orwell
Today's video features the full length BBC documentary, George Orwell - A Life In Pictures. Enjoy!