Wednesday, February 13, 2013

`An Utterly Free Man'

“He was neither a first-rank literary critic nor a major novelist, and certainly not an original political thinker; but he was, I now believe, the best English essayist since Hazlitt, perhaps since Dr. Johnson. He was the greatest moral force in English letters during the last several decades: craggy, fiercely polemical, sometimes mistaken, but an utterly free man. In his readiness to stand alone and take on all comers, he was a model for every writer of our age.”

That’s Irving Howe in the January 1969 issue of Harper’s reviewing the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (“As the Bones Know” was published the following year in Decline of the New). Howe precisely delineates Orwell’s virtues and vices as a writer, and in doing so gently marginalizes the fiction. Not once in his ten-page review does he mention Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four, the works that preserve Orwell’s extra-literary reputation. At the dawn of 1984 (the year not the book), an editor at the newspaper where I worked asked if I would write an op-ed piece about Orwell. When I told him I prized the essays but not the novel, he withdrew the suggestion.

What I like about many of Orwell’s essays is their common-sensical aversion to grand theorizing and, on most occasions, sentimentality, coupled with his interest in and respect for the homely and commonplace. All of this, to an American reader, feels quintessentially old-fashioned and English in the best sense. In a comment on a recent post, a reader expresses fondness for “A Nice Cup of Tea,” first published in the Evening Standard in January 1946. My reader cites several passages, including this:

“There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tea leaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns, and sweeping the carpet.”

Here is the following sentence, the last in the essay:

“It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.”

In the immediate postwar period, when food, clothing and most everything else in England were rationed and scarce, Orwell is as practical and bluffly cheery as a housewife. A month later he published another piece in the Evening Standard, “The Moon Under Water,” which takes its name from a favorite pub in London. Again, we see Orwell’s eye and ear for detail and his fondness for working-class life, so rare among avowedly political writers: 

“In the Moon Under Water it is always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano, and even on Christmas Eve and such occasions the singing that happens is of a decorous kind. The barmaids know most of their customers by name, and take a personal interest in everyone. They are all middle-aged women —two of them have their hair dyed in quite surprising shades—and they call everyone `dear,’ irrespective of age or sex. (`Dear,’ not `Ducky’: pubs where the barmaid calls you `ducky’ always have a disagreeable raffish atmosphere.)” 

A preference for quiet and for “decorous” singing is classic Orwell, as is “quite surprising shades” and the anatomizing of “Dear” and “Ducky.” When such observations show up in the work of most writers, the tone is patronizing. “Isn’t that quaint? Isn’t that colorful?” they simper. Howe’s assessment of Orwell the essayist is not without reservations. He praises his “passion to clarify ideas, correct errors, persuade readers, straighten things out in the world and in his mind,” but adds: 

“Part of his limitation as a literary critic is that he shows little taste for the prose of virtuosity: one can’t easily imagine him enjoying Sir Thomas Browne. If some windows should be clear and transparent, why may not others be stained and opaque? Like all critics who are also significant writers themselves, Orwell developed standards that were largely self-justifying: he liked the prose that’s like a window pane because that’s the kind of prose he wrote.” 

In his mention of another Orwell essay, “Bookshop Memories,” Howe lauds its “peculiar sandpapery humor,” a phrase Orwell would have savored. With his comradely decency comes a certain roughness.

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