It’s no secret that George Orwell distrusted authority. “Big Brother is Watching You,” the slogan from his classic novel, “1984,” seems just as creepy and timely now as it did 63 years ago. But the man who wrote those words used to be part of the overclass: Before becoming a writer Orwell was a colonial policeman in Burma. Before that, the future chronicler of the lives of Britain’s poor was an Eton boy from a wealthy family that earned its fortune in the opium trade. At 25, he quit the service and moved to Paris to pursue a life on the page. But even then he struggled to tamp down the native anti-Semitism and a distaste for the working class he was to spend his life studying.
Orwell seems to have created the identity that has outlived him out of sheer force of will. Born Eric Arthur Blair, he took the name George Orwell just before the publication of his first book, “Down and Out in Paris and London,” in 1933. In 1936, he enlisted on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, where he was shot in the throat by Fascists and nearly shot in the back by Communists. In his essays, journalism and fiction, Orwell was an uncompromising champion of truth and opponent of corrupt power. His diaries, now published for the first time, reveal the inner workings of one of the 20th century’s keenest minds.
In his introduction to “Diaries,” Christopher Hitchens writes, “Read with care, these diaries from the years 1931 to 1949 can greatly enrich our understanding of how Orwell transmuted the raw material of everyday experience into some of his best-known novels and polemics. They also furnish us with a more intimate picture of a man who, committed to the struggles of the mechanized and ‘modern’ world, was also drawn by the rhythms of the wild, the rural and the remote.”
“Down and Out in Paris and London”
Like the careers of many writers, Orwell’s was launched out of personal misery and hardship. Inspired by the menial labor he took on in order to fund his writing career, Orwell’s first book, “Down and Out in Paris and London,” was nearly titled “Confessions of a Dishwasher.” (Fortunately, his publisher talked him out of that one.) A blend of memoir, reportage and fiction, “Down and Out” marks the beginning of a lifelong mission to shine a light on the benighted lives of the working class.
“The Road to Wigan Pier”
Orwell sharpened and expanded his obsession with the poor in his following work of nonfiction, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” which documents lives in Northern England. The diaries during this period reveal traces of his own comfortable upbringing within his outrage at the living conditions he witnesses. On March 25, 1936 he writes, “I think the dirtiest interiors I see, more than any of the various kinds of squalor–the piles of unwashed crocks, the scraps of miscellaneous food all over the lino-topped table, the dreadful rug mats with the crumbs of years trodden into them–the things that oppress me most are the scraps of newspaper that are scattered all over the floor.”
“Homage to Catalonia”
Some of Orwell’s most intense personal experiences came as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War, though much of the record has been lost. In 1937 the Communist police raided his Barcelona hotel, and the diaries they confiscated now likely reside in the archives of the Russian secret police in Moscow. What does survive is his personal account, “Homage to Catalonia,” a customarily pointed critique of both sides in the war.
In the seven-year span in which Orwell wrote “Down and Out,” “Wigan Pier” and “Homage,” he also wrote four novels: “Burmese Days,” “A Clergyman’s Daughter,” “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” and “Coming Up for Air.” But none had the force of “Animal Farm,” the dystopian fantasy he would write six years later. Born from his time in Spain, this eviscerating indictment of the Stalin era had domestic inspirations, as well. As the diaries reveal, Orwell was an avid gardener and caretaker of farm animals–Muriel, the wise, literate goat in “Animal Farm,” was named after Orwell’s first goat.
“Big Brother is Watching You.” The phrase has a powerful ring even for those who haven’t read George Orwell’s masterwork, “1984,” a dark vision of a future in which people’s very thoughts are controlled by the state. The title was an anagram of the year he completed it, 1948, though Orwell would not live long enough to see how prescient his book was. His last diary entries are from 1949, written in the Cranham Sanatorium in Gloucester, where he was being treated for the final stages of the tuberculosis that had long plagued him. Perhaps fittingly, as Christopher Hitchens notes, Orwell “barely survived into the first month of the second half of the 20th century, dying of the sort of poverty-induced disease that might have killed a character out of Dickens.”
While perhaps best known for his novels and personal narratives, Orwell was also a great essayist, wherein he was able to distill his polemics into their purest form. The posthumously collected “Essays” draw from various editions whose titles speak for themselves: “A Kind of Compulsion” (1903–36), “Facing Unpleasant Facts” (1937–39), “A Patriot After All” (1940–41), “All Propaganda Is Lies” (1941–42), “Keeping Our Little Corner Clean”(1942–43), “Two Wasted Years” (1943), “I Have Tried to Tell the Truth” (1943–44), “I Belong to the Left” (1945), “Smothered Under Journalism” (1946), “It Is What I Think” (1947–48) and “Our Job Is to Make Life Worth Living” (1949–50).