I’ve just finished Christopher Hitchens’s short book, Why Orwell Matters, and will say a few words about it for readers who might be interested. My verdict: it’s worth a read, but only if you a) like Christopher Hitchens and, more important, b) have read a lot of Orwell.
If anyone has served as a role model for Hitchens, it’s Orwell. Orwell (born Eric Blair) was a man of action who served as a policeman in Burma and fought in the Spanish Civil war, was a wonderful writer with a clear and direct prose style (Orwell is to the essay what Hemingway was to the short story), and had a deep interest in politics, presenting uncompromising—and usually liberal—views to the public. Orwell had a keen ear for bullshit (just read his essay “Politics and the English Language”), constantly alerting readers when their leaders were duping them. You’ll recognize these as qualities of Hitchens as well.
Orwell has fallen into disrepute among some writers and intellectuals, and Hitchens’s book is his attempt to refurbish Orwell’s reputation. Much of the book lays out critics’ gripes against Orwell—critics who include some of Hitchens’s friends, like Salman Rushdie and Edward Said—and then dismantles them. Here Hitchens is on solid ground: many of the critics either haven’t read Orwell closely enough, or pull the disreputable stunt of putting the words of Orwell’s characters into his own mouth. There are ten chapters, each defending one aspect of Orwell’s writing—the left, the empire, women, America, and so on. Most are good, but some (e.g., “Deconstructing the Post-modernists”) are thin and tendentious. He freely admits Orwell’s problems, which include his wavering between conservative and liberal stands, but defends him ably, disposing of the charge that Orwell compiled a list of communist intellectuals for the British government.
For Hitchens, then, Orwell matters because he was a man of clarity and principle. As he says in the last chapter:
The disputes and debates and combats in which George Orwell took part are receding into history, but the manner in which he conducted himself as a writer and participant has a reasonable chance of remaining as a historical example of its own.
But I think it’s fair to add, and it’s not a slight on Hitchens, that for him Orwell matters because Hitchens matters—and vice versa.
To benefit from this book, though, you’ll have to have read a lot of Orwell, or you’ll have no context for Hitchens’s analysis. And by “a lot of Orwell,” I mean at least Animal Farm, 1984, Down and Out in Paris and London (or The Road to Wigan Pier), and a good dollop of Orwell’s collected essays. Surprisingly, I found a lot of these online for free. Hitchens does take up Orwell’s fiction, but most of it, save 1984, is decidedly inferior and can be skipped. I highly recommend all the books I’ve just listed, as well as the four volumes of Orwell’s collected essays, which many, including myself, consider his finest writing. The best essays are also online for free, but I especially urge you to read these (click the links to see them):
A Hanging (has one unforgettable scene)
Charles Dickens (some of the best stuff ever written on Dickens)
How the Poor Die (from Orwell’s time in a French hospital)
Inside the Whale (perhaps his most famous essay on politics and literature)
Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool (Orwell wasn’t good at fiction—except for 1984 and Animal Farm—but he was a great literary critic. Here’s an example.)
Politics and the English Language (my favorite Orwell essay, it’s about how to write clearly and how politicians don’t—on purpose. I give this piece to my students to teach them how to write)
Reflections on Gandhi (Orwell at his most curmudgeonly, taking the mickey out of an Indian saint. I disagree with much of what he says here but recommend it nonetheless). Note that in the link the title is wrong and “Gandhi” is misspelled. This makes me worry about these online essays and recommend that you take them from the library.)
Shooting an Elephant (from Orwell’s days as a policeman in Burma. Superb prose here!)
Such, Such Were the Joys (Orwell’s analysis of his horrible days at boarding school. A classic)
The Lion and the Unicorn (a wonderful piece on English politics)
The Spike (a “spike” is a temporary lodging for vagrants and hobos. Posing as a tramp, Orwell took to the road and produced this famous report)
and, finally, Why I Write (Orwell’s manifesto)
If you’re still dubious about Orwell, just read the short piece Shooting an Elephant. If you don’t want more after that, there’s no hope for you!
Surprisingly, Hitchens doesn’t mention one of the most important reasons why Orwell matters: he was one of our finest prose stylists. He had a great respect for the English language and used it to write some of the finest essays ever produced in that tongue. Reading Orwell will not only give you the pleasure of many lascivious sentences, but, if you pay attention, will do wonders for your own writing.