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George Orwell: A Life in Letters
edited by peter davison
liveright, 524 pages, $35

When, in her book Treason, Ann Coulter cited George Orwell in support of her denunciation of liberals as traitors, her readers probably didn’t even blink. Like thousands of high school students every year, they had read the antitotalitarian classics Animal Farm and 1984, or at least recognized ­Orwell as the source of “Thought Police” and “Big Brother,” and assumed that he stood on the right as an enemy of Big Government. 

But to think Orwell’s anticommunism aligned him with conservatism is to confuse having a common enemy with sharing a philosophy. Yes, in 1947 Orwell wrote of Russia to one of his publishers, “For quite 15 years I have regarded that regime with plain horror,” and once he grumbled to another writer, Julian Symons, “I particularly hate that trick of sucking up to the left cliques by perpetually attacking America, while relying on America to feed & protect us.” Most of all, as the British government sought to mobilize writers to counter the anti-British propaganda of the Soviets in the late forties, Orwell offered one official “a list of journalists & writers who in my opinion are crypto-Communists, fellow-travelers or inclined that way and should not be trusted as propagandists.”

But Orwell also claimed that “it is futile to be ‘anti-Fascist’ while attempting to preserve capitalism. Fascism after all is only a development of capitalism.” And consider this: “After having a fairly good look at British industrialism at its worst, i.e. in the mining areas, I came to the conclusion that it is a duty to work for Socialism . . . . About the same time I became infected with a horror of totalitarianism, which indeed I already had in the form of hostility towards the Catholic Church.” 

Capitalism as fascism, Catholicism as totalitarianism—Orwell utters these equations with flat assurance, as if they were obvious truths that he didn’t even need to examine. ­Orwell could hate communism, but fear free markets and religion, too.

These quotations come from Orwell’s letters and appear in this readable and illuminating collection, nearly all of the letters taken from previous volumes of letters and other biographical materials plus a few recent discoveries, the whole geared to interested laypersons. Most of the letters cover but a dozen years, from his involvement in the Spanish Civil War in early 1937 to his death in January 1950, the period in which Orwell became a leading intellectual in Europe, a short period given his historic stature in the ideological debates of the century.

The editor, Orwell specialist Peter Davison, adds helpful annotations, inserts pertinent letters to and from others besides Orwell, and provides capsule biographies of ninety-three correspondents, the best-known including Dwight Macdonald, ­Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, and ­Herbert Read. The result is a human picture for a wider audience of the man and his ideas. In it we find dealings with editors, life in a farmhouse in the Outer Hebrides, exchanges with childhood friends, and coping with the tuberculosis that would kill him at age forty-six.

The events vary from the dramatic to the mundane, from getting shot in the throat by a Fascist sniper in Spain to obtaining more tea in the spare postwar economy; and from the coldly political to the frankly sentimental, from assessing people on the ideological spectrum (“that man’s a fellow traveler. I can smell them”) to the weakening forty-three-year-old struggling to compose 1984 but charmed each morning by his toddling adopted son.

We have irreverent sallies—“I have always felt that he [Pontius ­Pilate] has had a raw deal”—and pathetic appeals such as this offer of marriage in 1946 to a younger woman: “I thought from your appearance that you were not only lonely and unhappy, but also a person who lived chiefly through the intellect and might become interested in a man who was much older and not much good physically . . . . What I am really asking you is whether you would like to be the widow of a literary man.” Occasionally, a jarring dramatic irony surfaces, such as this last message from his first wife as she prepares for routine surgery in 1945:

     I’m just going to have the operation, already enema’d, injected (with morphia in the right arm which is a nuisance), cleaned & packed up like a precious image in cotton wool & bandages. When its [sic] over I’ll add a note to this & get it off quickly.

Minutes after the anesthesia began, her heart stopped.

The most important subplot in this “life in letters,” however, isn’t personal. It’s the political situation that helped transform Orwell from aspiring writer into an acute psycho-political analyst of the age. Before the Spanish Civil War, he was known as an interesting author with some colonial experience in Burma. Orwell himself recalled in 1947 that he didn’t become much interested in politics until 1935, rather late for a man whose corpus is a monument against tyranny. Indeed, the change didn’t commence until the late 1930s, and thirty pages of letters from July 1937 to June 1938 document it. 

The reason wasn’t Hitler or Franco, not the Stalinists, his bullet wound, the crumbling British Empire, or anything in his private life. It was, instead, what he heard from his fellow intellectuals upon his return from Spain. Orwell had joined the socialist organization POUM, which had split from the Spanish ­communists, and he witnessed the Stalinist faction ­undermine and criminalize it (they regarded it as Trotskyist), targeting leaders for assassination or imprisonment, including Orwell himself. 

Escaping Spain, he was dismayed to find the British intelligentsia repeating the mendacious Communist party line that accused the POUM of helping the Fascists. After reading one report in the British press, Orwell wrote to its author, “I have been trying to get the truth about certain aspects of the May fighting in Barcelona. I see that in the New Statesman of May 22nd you state that the P.O.U.M. partisans attacked the Government with tanks and guns ‘stolen from government arsenals.’ I was, of course, in Barcelona throughout the fighting, and though I cannot answer for tanks I know as well as one can be certain about such a thing that no guns were firing anywhere.” Orwell proceeds with his eyewitness evidence, and learns later from the author that the source of the story was the Russian ambassador.

There lies the contrast that sent Orwell into a slow burn for the rest of his life: representations in the press versus what he saw and heard with his own eyes and ears. Orwell had left for Spain believing in British intellectuals as forces of enlightenment, only to find them a year later echoing a smear campaign (because of their commitment to the Soviet Union). In one letter he exclaims, “The accounts of the Barcelona riots in May, which I had the misfortune to be involved in, beat everything I have ever seen for lying.” 

When he offered to correct the record, editors balked and leftists maligned, as in this statement by the head of the Communist Party of Great Britain, quoted in a note by ­Davison: “Here is George Orwell, a disillusioned little middle-class boy who, seeing through imperialism, decided to discover what Socialism had to offer . . . a late imperialist policeman . . . . If ever snobbery had its hallmark placed upon it, it is by Mr Orwell.” Orwell termed it “a campaign of organized libel,” and he consulted an attorney to consider ­legal action. 

This was a different kind of battle. When he went to Spain, he knew that fascists and capitalists brutalize and exploit, but now he realized that communists and intellectuals lie and disparage, and a new mission took hold: “I hope I shall get a chance to write the truth about what I have seen.” 

The enemy here wasn’t Stalin or Franco, but left-wing commentators willing to manipulate the truth for putatively higher ends. Orwell couldn’t go along—his BBC boss explained in a confidential 1943 report (Davison includes a portion) that the man was “transparently honest, incapable of subterfuge,” while an official in the Labour Party declared just after Orwell’s death, “The only thing I can be quite certain of is, that up to his last day George was a man of utter integrity.” Hence the crusade against Newspeak, censorship, and clever intellectuals who dismantle historical memory and obscure ­objective truth. 

This volume provides the personal background for it, showing that the coercion, mendacity, and torture taking place in make-believe settings had a counterpart in the real experience of a brave man who, whether we agree with him or not, made the most of his chance.

Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.