Like most American high school students, I read Animal Farm and 1984, but it wasn't until I read George Orwell's nonfiction many years later that I fully appreciated his achievement as both a writer and a man. A close friend told me that I must read Down and Out in Paris and London. He was right. After finishing it, I quickly read Homage to Catalonia, The Road to Wigan Pier, and a collection of Orwell's essays. In the span of a few months, George Orwell vaulted to a high place among my favorite writers.
I admire many things about Orwell. He's easily one of the finest prose stylists in the English language. Concise, direct, unaffectedly cordial, Orwell's style perfectly suited his mission. He astutely observed his surroundings. He was a keen student of human nature. And he had a gift for making the foreign familiar, for explaining things and bringing home to the reader with the well-chosen, often poetic detail, a situation's deeper significance.
A novelist's character can only be gleaned at a remove, if at all. But nonfiction, with its opportunities for reflection and commentary, often places the writer's beliefs alongside the events being described. It's especially true of Orwell's nonfiction books, all of which blend firsthand accounts with reportage, thus making them memoir as much as journalism.
In these works, as well as in his essays, hardly a page goes by in which you don't get a sense of Orwell's decency, his hatred of bullies, his desire for fair-play, his love of clarity and, by implication, his hatred of lies, i.e. "Doublespeak." George Orwell was one of those people whose moral compass unerringly pointed due north. He was the kind of guy who pulls over to help you change a flat tire. If he'd been a musician he would've been Woody Guthrie, an actor Jimmy Stewart, a lawyer Joseph Welch. It's not a requisite of great writers, but Orwell was a good man.
And he was a man of action.
After graduating from Eton, he chose to forgo Oxford or Cambridge and instead joined the Imperial Police in Burma. It was a mistake, but a valuable one that would fundamentally and forever fix his worldview. After five years of meritorious service, Orwell resigned, disillusioned and feeling guilty: he had not only seen the inherent injustice of imperialism, he had been its tool. He channeled this experience into one of his earliest novels, Burmese Days, as well as two of his finest essays, "A Hanging" and "Shooting an Elephant." In the latter, Orwell relates the incident which first produced this epiphany; it's a kind of a confession that contains the germ of a credo:
And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd–seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.
From then on, Orwell dedicates himself to the fight against imperialism, fascism, and socio-economic exploitation–a fight he will wage with his feet, a rifle, and, most effectively, with a pen.
In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell explores realms of the downtrodden on either side of the English Channel. With many an eye-opening revelation, he takes you inside the working worlds of French hotels and restaurants. In Paris, Orwell slaved as a plongeur, which is a scullion, dishwasher, and gofer–or, as Orwell makes clear, a slave to a slave, since even a busboy outranked him. Granted, he describes Parisian venues of the 1930s with their strict hierarchies, but many of his experiences and insights transcend the city and era, like this one:
The moral is, never be sorry for a waiter. Sometimes when you sit in a restaurant, still stuffing yourself half an hour after closing time, you feel that the tired waiter at your side must surely be despising you. But he is not. He is not thinking as he looks at you, "What an overfed lout"; he is thinking, "One day, when I have saved enough money, I shall be able to imitate that man." He is ministering to a kind of pleasure he thoroughly understands and admires. And that is why waiters are seldom Socialists, have no effective trade union, and will work twelve hours a day–they work fifteen hours, seven days a week, in many cafés. They are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.
Wanting to find out about the lives of London's nomadic homeless, or tramps, Orwell ditched his identity, his clean clothes, and much of his pride in order to literally walk among them. And only through such a total immersion could he have been able to disclose the details of an almost subterranean social stratum, a world of "kips" (flophouses) and "spikes" (public workhouses, the 1930s equivalent of today's homeless shelters), screevers (pavement artists) and organ grinders, "skilly" (oatmeal in a tin cup) and "bread and marg" (short for margarine.)
When a writing assignment took him to northwest England's industrial and coal mining regions in order to publicize dreadful working and living conditions, Orwell could have stayed in comfortable hotels while he pieced together enough material from interviews of social workers and labor leaders. But a secondhand approach would never do. Instead, he lived in the same squalid housing as those he researched (how does a boarding house over a tripe shop grab you?) And then, of course, he went down in the coal mines, vividly portraying the work's grueling rigors and many dangers, as well as decrying the miners' exploitation by their callous employers.
Here are three passages from Orwell's extended mining description in the resulting book, The Road to Wigan Pier. Like a director, he begins close up, zooms in further, then zooms out for the total context:
Before I had been down a mine I had vaguely imagined the miner stepping out of the cage and getting to work on a ledge of coal a few yards away. I had not realised that before he even gets to work he may have to creep through passages as long as from London Bridge to Oxford Circus. In the beginning, of course, a mine shaft is sunk somewhere near a seam of coal. But as that seam is worked out and fresh seams are followed up, the workings get further and further from the pit bottom. If it is a mile from the pit bottom to the coal face, that is probably an average distance; three miles is a fairly normal one; there are even said to be a few mines where it is as much as five miles. But these distances bear no relation to distances above ground. For in all that mile or three miles as it may be, there is hardly anywhere outside the main road, and not many places even there, where a man can stand upright.
At the start to walk stooping is rather a joke, but it is a joke that soon wears off. I am handicapped by being exceptionally tall, but when the roof falls to four feet or less it is a tough job for anybody except a dwarf or a child. You have not only got to bend double, you have also to keep your head up all the while so as to see the beams and girders and dodge them when they come. You have, therefore, a constant crick in the neck, but this is nothing to the pain in your knees and thighs. After half a mile it becomes (I am not exaggerating) an unbearable agony. You begin to wonder whether you will ever get to the end–still more, how on earth you are going to get back. Your pace grows slower and slower. You come to a stretch of a couple of hundred yards where it is all exceptionally low and you have to work yourself along in a squatting position.... Ducking the beams becomes more and more of an effort, and sometimes you forget to duck. You try walking head down as the miners do, and then you bang your backbone. Even the miners bang their backbones fairly often. This is the reason why in very hot mines, where it is necessary to go about half naked, most of the miners have what they call "buttons down the back"–that is, a permanent scab on each vertebra.
After this vividly rendered underground odyssey, Orwell states: "You have gone a mile and taken the best part of an hour; a miner would do it in not much more than twenty minutes." But then he steps back. The perspective shifts. The voice changes from investigative reporter to people's champion–no blustering harangue, just a reasonable but insistent judgment:
It may seem that I am exaggerating, though no one who has been down an old-fashioned pit (most of the pits in England are old-fashioned) and actually gone as far as the coal face, is likely to say so. But what I want to emphasise is this. Here is this frightful business of crawling to and fro, which to any normal person is a hard day's work in itself; and it is not part of the miner's work at all, it is merely an extra, like the City man's daily ride in the Tube. The miner does that journey to and fro, and sandwiched in between there are seven and a half hours of savage work. I have never travelled more than a mile to the coal face; but often it is three miles, in which case I and most people other than coal-miners would never get there at all. This is the kind of point that one is always liable to miss. When you think of a coal-mine you think of depth, heat, darkness, blackened figures hacking at walls of coal; you don't think, necessarily, of those miles of creeping to and fro. There is the question of time, also. A miner's working shift of seven and a half hours does not sound very long, but one has got to add on to it at least an hour a day for "travelling," more often two hours and sometimes three. Of course, the "travelling" is not technically work and the miner is not paid for it; but it is as like work as makes no difference.
Not content to lob a few op-eds at Franco and the generalissimo's fellow fascists from the safety of his armchair in England, Orwell went to Spain, joined a section of the Republican Army, and spent over a year in the trenches with a rifle in his hands before a sniper's bullet through the throat ended his tour as a soldier and nearly ended his life.
In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell recorded his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. As he always does, he not only describes nitty-gritty details (which make his books so interesting), but takes a step back to look at the big picture. For its depiction of an infantryman's life in the line, as well as an analysis of the war's political complexities and the often internecine strife in Republican Barcelona, Homage to Catalonia is considered one of the finest combat memoirs and most important nonfiction works of the 20th century.
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In reading much of Orwell's nonfiction, I often feel a strong sense of fellowship with him. Some of it comes from shared sensibilities and sympathies–no doubt part of Orwell's draw for many readers. Another part, of course, comes from also being a writer. But the greatest share stems from similar formative experiences.
Like Orwell, I went to a boys-only high school in which the wealthy students were fawned upon while blue-collar kids such as myself were merely tolerated. When I read Orwell's autobiographical essay, "Such, such were the joys," about his middle school experiences, I found myself nodding with retroactive understanding; now I could see how it was sheer economics: the wealthy boys' families could afford to make donations over and above tuition and one day many of the boys themselves would contribute to the alumni fund.
On the lighter side, I too worked in restaurants, albeit as bartender, a far more enjoyable station than the lowly plongeur. Nevertheless, it was how I earned my living for several years and I gleaned many a pearl concerning life in what is now called the service industry (a term Orwell would've dissected with relish.)
More profoundly, I feel a fellowship with Orwell as a former soldier, particularly as an infantryman and a volunteer. I'm not ashamed to say that I'm glad I never saw combat. I take pride in having voluntarily chosen to be an active duty infantry officer–no trivial commitment–and I can repeat Milton's famous line with justifiable satisfaction: "They also serve who only stand and wait."
But another formative experience which I share with Orwell is disillusionment. Orwell's occurred while he served in the Imperial Police in Burma and his time as an infantryman came later; the two were concurrent for me.
More than most, I believed in the commissioning oath I took "to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic." When I arrived at my unit, the 25th Infantry Division, in early 1990, the media buzzed with the issue of flag-burning. On a field exercise with my rifle platoon, several soldiers asked me what I thought about the topic. I told them that while I had no desire to burn an American flag, I served to protect any citizen's right to do so. As an expression of free speech, I said, such freedom is what makes America different. I added that if you burned a nation's flag elsewhere in the world, a big black car might pull up next to you a few days later and you'd never be seen again.
I was assigned to the 5th Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment in the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. In January 1991, when Operation Desert Shield escalated into Desert Storm, I was deployed at Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas at what was then the Joint Readiness Training Center, a kind of tactical testing installation for infantry units. With the onset of full-fledged hostilities, the deployment was canceled. For the next few days until I headed back to Schofield Barracks, I watched CNN in one of the recreation rooms. I recall how formidable the Iraqi military looked, at least by the numbers relentlessly presented on the news. My personal dread was abetted from knowing where much of Iraq's capabilities originated: the United States.
The news showed reactions at home. Around the country, Americans burned Iraqi flags. A popular T-shirt sprang up overnight depicting an image of crosshairs superimposed on Saddam Hussein. As I watched enraged Americans on TV, I realized that they had no idea who this beret-clad tyrant was. It was collective amnesia. Iraq had fought a protracted war against Iran, the country that barged into American living rooms in 1979 with the Shah's overthrow and the 444-day U.S. hostage crisis. Through it all, America had backed Hussein, pouring billions of dollars worth of funds and materiel into Iraq to assist the war against our enemy, Iran. No one remembered.
And then I watched President George Bush's speech of January 16th, 1991, announcing the onset of war. He portrayed Kuwait as a meek, peace-loving backwater, Iraq's "small and helpless neighbor." At no point did he ever use the word "oil". The closest he came to the heart of the matter was when he quoted a soldier: "Listen to Master Sergeant J. P. Kendall of the 82nd Airborne: 'We're here for more than just the price of a gallon of gas. What we're doing is going to chart the future of the world for the next 100 years. It's better to deal with this guy now than 5 years from now.'"
It was a startling wake-up call (the tragic irony of Master Sergeant Kendall's naive comment would come twelve years later.) Gravely disillusioned, I realized that I could be sent across the globe to risk my life and my soldiers' lives not to "protect and defend" the Constitution but an elite coterie's shares of the Exxon Mobil Corporation. And against whom would we risk making the ultimate sacrifice? Saddam Hussein, another in a long line of despotic puppets backed and supported by America; Saddam Hussein, who had been on C.I.A. payroll since 1959 with his involvement in an attempt to assassinate then-Iraqi leader General Abd al-Karim Qasim.
After a most earnest apprenticeship in the profession of arms–four years of Reserve Officers' Training Corps; attendance at U.S. Army Ranger School, Air Assault School, and Airborne School; graduating on the Commandant's List at the Infantry Officer Basic Course; earning the Expert Infantryman's Badge on my first try–I decided to walk away. After six years of feeling sure that I wanted to pursue a career as a soldier, I was suddenly sure that I wanted to quit while I was ahead.
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George Orwell's real name was Eric Blair. He was born on June 25, 1903 and died January 21, 1950. His entire life coincided with the most violent five decades in world history. He saw murder become mechanized and killing carried out at volumes to beggar understanding. His half-century's innovations included the concentration camp, totalitarianism, and the atom bomb. It was humankind's nadir. Unflinchingly, he pointed out the terrible and the unjust. He gave us grim warnings for the future, most notably his dystopian classic, 1984. But he never lost hope. He never grew callous. Disillusionment didn't make him disinterested. He never stopped standing up to bullies and demagogues. He put his money where his mouth was by heading to Spain to fight Franco while Europe and America foolishly looked the other way. And he continued to speak for those who didn't have a voice, achieving lasting literary excellence along the way in three different genres.
Orwell wouldn't have considered himself a hero, but that's exactly what he was.