Orwell & the Gramophone Mind

George Orwell’s Animal Farm was published on this day in 1945. Orwell’s book was delayed by the WWII paper shortage and was very nearly a casualty of the war itself, whether by German bombs or British politics. Near the end of June 1944, one of the 100 airborne “doodle bug” bombs directed at London each day destroyed Orwell’s flat. He dug his battered manuscript out of the rubble and, apologizing for its “blitzed” condition, sent it to T. S. Eliot at Faber and Faber for consideration. Eliot’s rejection letter was similar to those received earlier: although the satire reached Swiftian proportions, the West needed all the allies it could get, and Orwell’s political theme could only embarrass or outrage the Soviet Union. Though Orwell had lifelong contempt for such timidity, his book became an instant hit by not being published until the summer of ’45, when the Cold War and Russia-bashing were more popular.

Orwell had fought fascism in Spain, also sticking his neck out there and getting a near-fatal sniper’s bullet in the throat. He had come home with his socialist ideals intact but with his eyes opened to totalitarian politics. He hoped Animal Farm would help combat “the negative influence of the Soviet myth upon the western Socialist movement” and “the servility with which the greater part of the English intelligentsia have swallowed and repeated Russian propaganda.” More than this, he hoped for a larger victory against any politics driven by high-sounding, drum-banging slogans: “The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.”

Orwell was as fiercely patriotic as socialist, and a firm believer in military action. His poor health kept him in the Home Guard in WWII, but he lectured on street fighting and kept a supply of homemade bombs on his fireplace mantle. His fear of the gramophone mind notwithstanding, he lobbied the government to subsidize showings of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator across England during the war. He also argued to dispense guns and grenades to each household, even to create a permanent People’s Army. “That rifle hanging on the wall of the working-class flat or labourer’s cottage,” he wrote, “is the symbol of democracy.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.