Why I Write (Penguin Great Ideas)
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About the Author
In 1936, he was commissioned by Victor Gollancz to visit areas of mass unemployment in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) is a powerful description of the poverty he saw there. At the end of 1936 Orwell went to Spain to fight for the Republicans and was wounded, and Homage to Catalonia is his account of the civil war. He was admitted to a sanatorium in 1938 and from then on was never fully fit. He spent six months in Morocco and there wrote Coming Up for Air. During the Second World War he served in the Home Guard and worked for the BBC Eastern Service from 1941 to 1943. As literary editor of the Tribune he contributed a regular page of political and literary commentary, and he also wrote for the Observer and later for the Manchester Evening News. His unique political allegory, Animal Farm, was published in 1945, and it was this novel, together with Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which brought him world-wide fame.
George Orwell died in London in January 1950. A few days before, Desmond MacCarthy had sent him a message of greeting in which he wrote: 'You have made an indelible mark on English literature . . . you are among the few memorable writers of your generation.'
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.
I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child's habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life. Nevertheless the volume of serious - i.e. seriously intended - writing which I produced all through my childhood and boyhood would not amount to half a dozen pages. I wrote my first poem at the age of four or five, my mother taking it down to dictation.
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If you are familiar with Orwell at all, you've probably already read "Politics and the English Language," although it's always worth a reread. I had also previously read "The Lion and the Unicorn" and "Why I Write." I can't recall having read "A Hanging," which is the earliest of these essays, dating from 1931. The other three essays are from the 1940s and all reflect having been written during or immediately after the war. "A Hanging" would seem to be a memoir of an incident from Orwell's time with British police force in Burma, although that's not made explicit. It should actually have been placed before rather than after "The Lion and the Unicorn" because it provides some context for Orwell's views on British India as expressed in that essay.
"The Lion and Unicorn" is the longest and most interesting of the four essays. Apparently written in the fall of 1940, it presents Orwell's understanding of what constitutes the essence of English society and how that essence can be preserved during what he hoped was an imminent transition to socialism. It is a product of its time when the crisis caused by the fall of France, the evacuation from Dunkirk, and the German bombing of London made it seem likely that dramatic political change would have to occur in England or else the war would be lost to Germany. With hindsight, Orwell underestimated the ability of the traditional political order to weather the storm and win the war. Still, it makes interesting reading in light of Labor's unexpected (to most observers) win in the 1945 election.
There are other more comprehensive collections of Orwell's essays available but this one certainly is a reasonable introduction to important aspects of his political outlook. Note that only two of the four essays fit the title. Neither "The Lion and the Unicorn" nor "A Hanging" has anything to do with writing.
In spite of this mystery, the book is a good introduction to Orwell, the essayist. One gets a taste of him early on in 1931, during the physical and psychological pounding of the Blitz (1940), and in his full maturity in 1946.
In "The Hanging," the young Orwell expresses his moral revulsion at capital punishment. As a policeman in Burma, he had to watch the hanging of a Hindu man. The crime for which the man is being executed is never named. Thus, we are forced to concentrate on the act of hanging a human being, rather than the execution of a criminal. Orwell writes, "I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide." (p. 98)
The long essay, "The Lion and the Unicorn," was written in 1940 as German planes were bombing London. This brings Orwell to reflect on patriotism and its inexplicable strength throughout Britain's highly stratified society. His essay is partly an analysis of three economic/social systems---capitalism, socialism, and fascism---in a time of war. He concludes that England will survive only if it undergoes a socialistic revolution.
In "Why I Write," Orwell admits that he writes for political reasons. In fact, he believes that all good books are political. His goal is to make political writing into an art.
"Politics and the English Language" may be one of his most famous essays. I find it reprinted in different collections of Orwell's essays. Here he is most specific in telling us what makes writing good or bad. He lists several bad practices: dying metaphors, operators or verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. But he targets lack of sincerity as the worse culprit. He calls it "the enemy of clear language." And, as in "Why I Write," he reminds us that "all issues are political issues." He concludes by helpfully providing us with these six rules:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Orwell confesses that if we look back through his essay, we can probably catch him breaking his own rules. But the point is not to be fastidious, but to work towards clarity of speech. He writes, "If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy."