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Becoming George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy Hardcover – February 4, 2020
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The remarkable transformation of Orwell from journeyman writer to towering icon
Is George Orwell the most influential writer who ever lived? Yes, according to John Rodden’s provocative book about the transformation of a man into a myth. Rodden does not argue that Orwell was the most distinguished man of letters of the last century, nor even the leading novelist of his generation, let alone the greatest imaginative writer of English prose fiction. Yet his influence since his death at midcentury is incomparable. No other writer has aroused so much controversy or contributed so many incessantly quoted words and phrases to our cultural lexicon, from “Big Brother” and “doublethink” to “thoughtcrime” and “Newspeak.” Becoming George Orwell is a pathbreaking tour de force that charts the astonishing passage of a litterateur into a legend.
Rodden presents the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four in a new light, exploring how the man and writer Orwell, born Eric Arthur Blair, came to be overshadowed by the spectral figure associated with nightmare visions of our possible futures. Rodden opens with a discussion of the life and letters, chronicling Orwell’s eccentricities and emotional struggles, followed by an assessment of his chief literary achievements. The second half of the book examines the legend and legacy of Orwell, whom Rodden calls “England’s Prose Laureate,” looking at everything from cyberwarfare to “fake news.” The closing chapters address both Orwell’s enduring relevance to burning contemporary issues and the multiple ironies of his popular reputation, showing how he and his work have become confused with the very dreads and diseases that he fought against throughout his life.
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"As a self-described 'recovering utopian' in tune with his subject’s utopian skepticism, Rodden’s outlook on democratic socialism will resonate with our current political environment. . . . Anyone with an interest in Orwell will appreciate Rodden’s insights and reflections."---Thomas Karel, Library Journal
"[Becoming George Orwell] is a grab-bag of Orwelliana. . . . The chapters can stand on their own or, taken together, form an idiosyncratic biography of a consequential life. To read them is to sit in the presence of a veteran scholar at the peak of his powers"---John J. Miller, National Review
"Rodden’s book keeps alive the spirit of the man and his imagination."---Shelley Walia, The Hindu
"John Rodden, arguably the world’s leading scholar on George Orwell . . . claims that Orwell 'is the most important writer since Shakespeare and the most influential writer who ever lived'. . . . It’s a big claim, but he provides enough evidence to keep literature departments arguing for years."---Dennis Glover, Sydney Morning Herald
"A terrific book. An absolute must for fans of George Orwell."---David Marx, David Marx Book Reviews
“Becoming George Orwell combines biography with attention to literary analysis in a way that is both rare and illuminating. John Rodden has established himself as one of the premier authorities on Orwell.”―Paul A. Cantor, author of Shakespeare’s Roman Trilogy
"The distinguished Orwell scholar John Rodden has written a wide-ranging book that is rich with unexpected and perceptive insights on a powerful and influential writer. With great panache and much imagination, he illuminates Orwell's writings and provides us with a better understanding of what he was and what he has become in the almost seventy years since his death."―Peter Stansky, coauthor of The Unknown Orwell and Orwell: The Transformation
"John Rodden has been a force to be reckoned with in Orwell scholarship for more than thirty years, and Becoming George Orwell is a highly astute and original study."―D. J. Taylor, author of Orwell: The Life
- Publisher : Princeton University Press; Illustrated edition (February 4, 2020)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 384 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0691182744
- ISBN-13 : 978-0691182742
- Item Weight : 1.45 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.9 x 1.4 x 8.6 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #735,480 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #161 in 20th Century Literary Criticism (Books)
- #834 in British & Irish Literary Criticism (Books)
- #3,855 in Author Biographies
- Customer Reviews:
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The theme of this book seems to be the development of Eric Blair into George Orwell into “Orwell”; that is, the iconic writer whom everyone seems to create in their necessary image. The first part is a brief biography of Orwell, focusing on points related to the theme. The second part covers key aspects of his posthumous transition to icon.
Though I enjoyed this book, it does feel like it was written by a guy that’s written a lot of books about Orwell. Maybe because he so conversant with the subject, it reads a bit like bullet points rather than coherent narrative. Still, some of the points he makes are insightful. He talks about “The Hanging” as the only quality essay written under the name of Blair. He makes a strong argument about the importance of the 1954 BBC production of Nineteen Eighty-Four as being crucial to Orwell’s posthumous elevation to the pantheon of great writers. As a Catholic, I enjoyed his crediting Orwell’s being lauded by Commonweal as another crucial part of his success.
On the other hand, as a fan, he’s a bit over-the-top with his belief in the influence of Orwell, and I consider myself a fan as well. Also, though I found his comparison of Orwell to the French writers Malaquais and Camus quite interesting, it read like a lot of work to make a small point. Maybe a good idea that needs to be fleshed out a bit more.
In the end, I don’t know if I’d recommend this to someone who is new to Orwell. On the other hand, someone who has read and liked Orwell is likely to find enough interesting tidbits here to make it worth reading. (P.S. Read the endnotes as you go along. They are worthwhile. I didn’t figure that out until I was well into the book.)
While many parts of this informed examination of Orwell's work and his after-death influences are interesting and valid, the book too often meanders into the author's random thoughts and personal agendas. As examples, a chapter on why the author opposes the current death penalty in Texas and another that reads like his plea to be the assigned editor for a much-needed new annotated text for "Ninety Eighty-Four." Even his own political development from the old days on the commune to being a radical/ socialist to the present as a calm "parliamentary social democrat."
I bought this book to learn more about George Orwell not Professor Rodden.