He loved the past, hated the present, and dreaded the future.
—Malcolm Muggeridge on George Orwell
Jeffrey Meyers has never had an unpublished opinion. He is the author of over 40 books and is a specialist in literary biography, although he occasionally dabbles in popular culture, writing about the lives of such film celebrities as Gary Cooper and John Huston. Meyers also was the first American scholar to bring the writings of George Orwell to serious academic attention. Now, to cap his career as an Orwell specialist, Meyers has gathered together 21 of his essays and reviews that deal with the man rightly regarded as the most influential English writer of the 20th century.
Orwell: Life and Art has all the strengths and weaknesses of a collection of essays written over a 40-year span: Some are outdated, and, as a whole, they are often repetitious. The same quotations and the same stories are recycled endlessly throughout the volume. In fact, some phrases are repeated word for word. Each essay also has a brief introduction in which Meyers explains its significance. These introductions are often more interesting than the essay that follows. For example, he explains that a piece he had written for The World and I (described as a “high-paying hodge-podge of a magazine”) which dealt with Henry Miller of Tropic of Cancer fame contained a photograph of the wrong Henry Miller. When Meyers protested, the editor told him not to worry, because “no one would know the difference.”
In the introduction to an essay he had written for National Review on Orwell as propagandist, Meyers (after carefully noting that he, himself, is not a conservative) writes that, though he had written 55 reviews for NR and had been praised by William F. Buckley Jr., Buckley had “spiked my criticism” of Evelyn Waugh, Buckley’s hero. Two points: Meyers doesn’t tell the reader what that criticism was or why it was spiked; and, second, editors have a right to publish what they want in their magazines. Meyers has been around long enough to know that.
Where the introductions cast Meyers in an unpleasant light, however, is in his discussion of other biographers of Orwell, all of whom are somehow inferior to him. Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, who wrote the first serious biography of the young Orwell, ruined his chances of being the first scholar to get access to the Orwell archive. Michael Shelden’s authorized biography is “decent, dutiful and dull.” Gordon Bowker’s highly praised life of Orwell is “careless,” while D. J. Taylor’s biography fails to “extract the maximum meaning from the events he describes.” However, it is Bernard Crick, author of the first biography to make use of the Orwell archive, who receives the heaviest blows from Meyers. Crick’s “style is flat and filled with clichés. . . . He plunders previous scholarship without acknowledgment . . . [and is] completely out of his depth as a literary critic.” What makes such criticism interesting is that in Meyers’s own biography, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation (which is a solid piece of work), he cites Crick approximately 40 times in his footnotes. Not bad for someone out of his depth in Orwell scholarship.
Meyers’s knowledge of Orwell’s life and work is unmatched, and many of his judgments and observations are penetrating. Orwell was a strange character. Bowker called him “one of the great misfits of his generation,” a mix of Tory anarchist, political radical, and cultural conservative. He struggled his entire life with a terrible sense of guilt which, Meyers argues, made him “instinctively masochistic.” These qualities, and Orwell’s desire to expiate his sense of guilt, gave his writings the peculiar flavor, a sense of forthright honesty, that made them fascinating.
One of the few Orwell scholars whom Meyers holds in awe, Peter Davison, is discussed in two essays. Davison edited the facsimile edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, an invaluable source for all Orwell scholars, and compiled the 20-volume edition of Orwell’s complete writings, which everyone researching Orwell draws upon. Meyers is lavish in his praise, calling Davison’s work “magisterial . . . definitive.” But then, in a typical Meyers touch, he notes that he “was probably the only one, of the very few reviewers, who read every word” of the 20 volumes. He doesn’t tell how he knows this, by the way. I know of at least two others, and I’ll bet there are more.
After heaping encomiums on Davison, Meyers devotes two paragraphs to the flaws in the edition, prominent among which are, surprisingly, a failure to note Meyers’s many contributions to Orwell studies, such as his first essay on “Orwell as Film Critic,” or his discovery of “Humberto Possenti’s letter protesting Orwell’s libel of French kitchens.” The essay, which appears in Orwell, is insignificant, and Meyers is wrong about his second claim. Possenti’s letter was published in the London Times in 1933 and can be found in the first volume of Orwell’s nonfiction writings, which appeared in 1968.
Meyers divides his collection into two broad areas: Orwell’s life and what Meyers calls his “art,” a division that is largely artificial. The essays vary in quality. One on Orwell’s Burma is little more than a travel piece which tells us nothing important or significant about the five years Orwell spent there as an officer of the Imperial Police. (The piece originally appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, where it belonged.) On the other hand, Meyers’s analysis of the novel Burmese Days, which draws heavily on Orwell’s time in Burma, is instructive, and clearly demonstrates how deeply Orwell’s experiences there turned him into a bitter foe of the concept of empire. While Orwell came to believe that Burmese Days was not worth reprinting, it actually holds up quite well, and, like E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, serves as an example of the guilt-ridden novel of empire.
Meyers is particularly good in his discussion of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, a memoir of his time in Spain. Meyers is right that this was the turning point in Orwell’s life, when, as he told Cyril Connolly, he “at last really believed in Socialism.” Meyers notes that Orwell’s embrace of socialism was as idiosyncratic as the man himself. Orwell believed in a humane socialism with an emphasis on liberty and equality; he had little time for Marxism or Marxists, whom he regarded as little more than power worshippers.
Spain also turned Orwell into a bitter enemy of communism and its fellow-travelers, who he argued had betrayed the revolution in Spain. When Orwell tried to tell what he had seen in Spain, he found that this was politically unacceptable in England. The editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin, rejected Orwell’s articles and reviews on the Spanish Civil War on the grounds that they contradicted the party line. Orwell was outraged. Years later, he was having lunch with Malcolm Muggeridge when he asked to change seats. When Muggeridge asked why, Orwell said that Martin was sitting nearby and he couldn’t abide looking at his corrupt face. Meyers is surely correct that the roots of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four can be found in Orwell’s experiences in Spain. Among other things, Spain taught him that the very concept of historical truth was disappearing, another concern that would find its way into his last two iconic novels, as well as into such essays as “Looking Back on the Spanish War” and “Politics and the English Language.”
One of the most unusual essays is an attempt by Meyers to show that Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows influenced Animal Farm. It is certainly true that Orwell had a fondness for animal stories he had read as a young boy—a particular favorite was The Tale of Pigling Bland by Beatrix Potter—but Meyers fails to demonstrate any connection between Grahame’s charming tale of Mr. Toad and his collection of odd friends and Animal Farm. The essay is also an example of Meyers’s rhetoric leading him into some strange areas. For example, he sees Toad’s fascination with rearranging the furniture in his bedroom to resemble an automobile which he then pretends to drive as an “unmistakable portrayal of masturbation and orgasm”—an example of what Dwight Macdonald called “unconscious parody.”
Meyers’s collection suffers the fate of all such gatherings of previously published material: It is dated, redundant, and unnecessary. If he had reworked the material in light of new discoveries or fresh interpretations of Orwell’s work, it might have had some value. As it stands, Orwell: Life and Art adds little to our understanding of George Orwell and his remarkable literary output.
John P. Rossi, professor emeritus of history at La Salle University, is coauthor of The Cambridge Introduction to George Orwell.