Jan 19, 2009, 05:30AM

Orwell's Culture, High or Low

A handsome new two-volume collection of Orwell's essays (Facing Unpleasant Facts and All Art is Propaganda) is a more in-depth look at the master than a typical "greatest hits" book.

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I'm under firm editorial orders NOT to compare "Politics and the English Language" to any politician of any era or any stripe.

Now, this is no small stricture. We revere Orwell for his views on big, abstract nouns like Fascism and Language, and rightly so. Yet "Politics and the English Language" is only one of the 50 essays included in a new two-volume set of Orwell's nonfiction, Facing Unpleasant Facts and All Art is Propaganda, compiled by George Packer and introduced by him and Keith Gessen. In other words, Orwell wrote more than Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but he also wrote more than "Politics" and "Shooting an Elephant."

After all, this was a man who wrote a gruff, loving, absurdly quotable essay of 62 pages on Charles Dickens. ("Dickens had grown up near enough to poverty to be terrified of it.") But this was also a man who, four years earlier, wrote "Bookshop Memories," where he observes "how completely" Dickens had "dropped out of favour."

"Yet it is fairly easy to sell Dickens," adds Orwell. And this was a man, finally, who saw in these circumstances neither contradiction nor cause for sentimentality. Orwell might draw a distinction between Great Expectations and "genuinely popular literature"—his example in the Dickens essay is actually an early production of Sweeney Todd, which "plagiarised quite shamelessly" from Sir Charles—but Orwell refuses to abandon either form. In fact, he regularly engaged with and analyzed film, jazz, comic books, "good bad books," and even some forms of pop culture now put out to pasture.

So, instead of the Orwell you know, here's the Orwell you should.

We might as well start with the sentence you can't escape when tackling Orwell-the-writer. In "Why I Write," Orwell explains, "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it."

Now, here Orwell moves more cautiously here than some will admit—this is certainly not the work of a "pamphleteer," which is how Orwell describes himself in his preceding paragraph—but the rest of the essay still hits upon his chief concerns. The force of pride and patriotism, the struggle between the upper and lower classes, the "message" behind any piece of writing: all appear in "Why I Write." As Orwell puts it earlier in the essay, "The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude."

What's easy to overlook, though, is that Orwell held art to be as flexible a term as politics. His relationship to pop culture meant more than a discussion of Dickens's general appeal; it meant more than gushing about Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (which Orwell did in "Inside the Whale"), and it meant more than reviewing Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (which he did for a London newspaper). It meant his personal experiences with these media, best captured in the "Narrative Essays," as Packer classifies them, of Facing Unpleasant Facts.

"England Your England," otherwise a rather dull entry in this volume, contains some of Orwell's best theorizing on the subject. "To an increasing extent," he writes, "the rich and the poor read the same books, and they also see the same films and listen to the same radio programmes. . . . It is a rather restless, cultureless life, centring round tinned food, Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine."

If Orwell recognized the blandness of modern life, he knew that it still shaped and moved him. In "My Country Right or Left," he reflects on growing up during the Great War: "If I honestly sort out my memories and disregard what I have learned since, I must admit that nothing in the whole war moved me so deeply as the loss of the Titanic had done a few years earlier."

Similar experiences occur throughout Orwell's life, which means they occur throughout his writing. Perhaps the best place to watch the adult Orwell reacting to pop culture is in Packer's lengthy selection from Orwell's diaries written during World War II. At one point, Orwell undertakes "a rough analysis of advertisements in today's issue of the People," a Sunday paper which, according to his calculations, devoted a quarter of its pages to ads. "Of 9 food and drink adverts., 6 are for unnecessary luxuries. Of 29 adverts. for medicines, 19 are for things which are either fraudulent (baldness cured etc.), more or less deleterious (Kruschen Salts, Bile Beans etc.), or of the blackmail type ('Your child's stomach needs magnesia')."

Orwell's diaries, then, reveal an immersive, day-by-day interaction with pop culture, to the point that Orwell starts thinking in and through its terms. He describes one stranger as "a regular comic-paper cartoon of a Jewess."

Now, this isn't surprising. Writing an experiential essay free from pop culture would mean blocking out a solid 80 percent of the surrounding stimuli, no matter how rarefied one's station in life. What is surprising, though, are Orwell's attempts to apply his criticism to pop culture. This, again, is a man who wrote a 62-page essay on Dickens.

But this is also a man who wrote essays on trashy postcards and trashier magazines. And these essays, along with the others in All Art is Propaganda (the "Critical Essays"), show Orwell moving from a catalog of pop culture to an analysis of it.

Two of them merit a longer look. In "The Art of Donald McGill," Orwell examines a popular set of post cards that feature simple sketches and jokes, "not witty but humorous." (Imagine Mad TV captioning New Yorker cartoons.) While these postcards are "distinguishable from all the other kinds by having no artistic pretensions," Orwell suggests that they form "a genre of their own." And Donald McGill, though Orwell seems unsure if he is a real person (he was), stands as "the most representative, the most perfect in the tradition."

Orwell goes on to treat these postcards as, well, a tradition. In fact, he offers a detailed, almost Aristotelian breakdown, separating them into categories—Sex, Home Life, and Inter-working-class Snobbery, among others—and then, under each heading, offering examples and itemized lists of "Conventions" (for example: "[i] All drunken men have optical illusions").

After such careful study—and Orwell balances observations both dry ("a dominant motif in comic post cards is the woman with the stuck-out behind") and incisive ("the McGill post card . . . is not intended as pornography but, a subtler thing, as a skit on pornography")—he abruptly turns to censorship. "In England, the gap between what can be said and what can be printed is rather exceptionally wide." Because of this, Orwell says, "a whole category of humour, integral to our literature till 1800 or thereabouts, has dwindled down to these ill-drawn post cards." These postcards both point to a void and, in however lowbrow a fashion, fill it.

While he finds value in postcards, Orwell admits that they don't tie directly into his pet causes. Another essay, "Boys' Weeklies," reaches more serious conclusions. Orwell's case study is "the boys' twopenny weeklies," built on chunks of cheap fiction, often in 20,000-word increments, about school life. And yet: "The unreality of the Wizard and the Gem is not as artless as it looks."

"Boys' Weeklies" goes on to follow the same structure as "The Art of Donald McGill," starting with an exemplar and then tracing its popularity. While Orwell remains quite funny, he also raises the stakes: "I believe that most people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and that from this point of view the worst books are of the most importance, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life."

Throughout the essay, Orwell keeps a number of analytical threads alive and, somehow, untangled—classic weeklies vs. new ones, boys' vs. women's, and detective stories vs. general audience. He combs through ads and letters-to-the-editor, compares quotations between American and English versions, and regularly reads between the lines. "The [1890s] Boy's Own Paper," he claims, "used to have its correspondence columns full of terrifying warnings against masturbation . . . [and] heavy with homosexual feeling, though no doubt the authors were not fully aware of it."

The most important point, for Orwell, is that these weeklies have survived 30 years without changing their characters or concerns. He expects the weeklies to offer "a perfectly deliberate incitement to wealth-fantasy," but their longevity changes the problem. "Naturally the politics of the Gem and Magnet are Conservative," he writes, "but in a completely pre-1914 style, with no Fascist tinge." This means the boys "get what they are looking for"—cowboys, death-rays, and so forth—"but they get it wrapped up in the illusions which their future employers think suitable for them."

Orwell doesn't always reach such broad conclusions. In "Benefit of Clergy," on Salvador Dali, Orwell suggests that, "in an age like our own, when the artist is an altogether exceptional person, he must be allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility, just as a pregnant woman is." (Orwell also turns to celebrities and their licenses in "Reflections on Gandhi.") In an essay on No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a contemporary crime novel that sold over a million copies, Orwell determines that "evidently there are great numbers of English people who are partly Americanised in language and, one ought to add, in moral outlook."

It's telling that, when discussing No Orchids, Orwell's emphasis lands on the audience and not the author. In each of these essays, Orwell works from the pop artifact to the masses, and this indicates what he's trying to achieve, an analysis more sociological—and Orwell will occasionally use that word—than critical.

This strategy isn't perfect, as Orwell will sometimes explain a situation with a bit of easy-bake Marxism. But it does keep his focus on the ephemeral, allowing him to argue what no one would deny today—that pop culture has a "message" too.

In 1946, Secker & Warburg published Orwell's Critical Essays, which included "The Art of Donald McGill," "Boys' Weeklies," and eight other pieces. Orwell's letters leading up to the publication reveal both his careful editing—"Page 7, lines 13-16. Delete 'bourgeois' and substitute 'middle-class'"—and his squabble with the American publisher over the title. "I don't approve of these catchy titles," says Orwell, "but I should think TO MAKE A SHORT STORY LONG is a just possible title, not completely unconnected with the subject-matter of the book. THE FACE BEHIND THE PAGE is another possible one and refers to something in the text." The reference is to a line in Orwell's essay on Dickens, so perhaps the Americans viewed their final choice as a compromise: Dickens, Dali & Others: Studies in Popular Culture.

When he died, Orwell left behind a notebook, in which he penciled the decidedly uncatchy "Reprintable Essays Etc," containing ideas for another volume of nonfiction. Predictably enough, publishers issued at least a half dozen different collections in the first decade after his death, with 1954's A Collection of Essays coming out on top.

That book remains the primary option today, and this suggests why Packer's new two-volume set is so important. While more comprehensive editions exist, none balance broad selection with mass-market appeal so well as Packer's.

Of course, his edition foregrounds the Orwell We Know. The titles depend on unrepentant individualism (Facing Unpleasant Facts) and habitual overstatement (All Art is Propaganda); their back covers are dominated by large, imposing images of The Author. But these details seem to be mostly for show, a brash invitation in the door. Once inside, you still find Orwell's wide range of interests. In fact, one could pick a theme other than pop culture—childhood, say, or even high-brow culture—and link together Orwell's essays in much the same way. (How else would you explain an essay like "Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool," where Orwell defends Shakespeare from Tolstoy's obscure attack?)

Also, and importantly, these are stylish, handsome books, with artfully worn covers and deckle-edge paper. They feel like something that's been circulating among all the right people. I should add that Packer and Gessen both submit perceptive essays, though, to me, they work best as something to read after Orwell, as a way to process or detox.

So, if you want to take Orwell to the beach, then a second-hand Collection of Essays should fit snuggly between your flip-flops and Coppertone. But, if you want a broader, truer encounter with Orwell—or if you want to lend a bit of bookshelf gravitas to your own comparisons between "Politics and the English Language" and our current political scene—then buy (and read) these books.

  • A really nice essay. I've not read many of Orwell's essays, but I went back and re-read 1984 after reading it at 12 and was really struck by just how well it's written, which kind of surprised me considering how ubiquitous it is. Incidentally, you can read Orwell's diaries in blog format at http://orwelldiaries.wordpress.com/

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