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Jeffrey Meyers has never had an unpublished opinion.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Life and Art has all the strengths and weaknesses of a collection of essays written over a 40-year span: Some are outdated, and, as a whole, they are often repetitious.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.