All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays

All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays

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by George Orwell, Keith Gessen
     
 

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As a critic, George Orwell cast a wide net. Equally at home discussing Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin, he moved back and forth across the porous borders between essay and journalism, high art and low. A frequent commentator on literature, language, film, and drama throughout his career, Orwell turned increasingly to the critical essay in the 1940s, when his

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Overview

As a critic, George Orwell cast a wide net. Equally at home discussing Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin, he moved back and forth across the porous borders between essay and journalism, high art and low. A frequent commentator on literature, language, film, and drama throughout his career, Orwell turned increasingly to the critical essay in the 1940s, when his most important experiences were behind him and some of his most incisive writing lay ahead.

All Art Is Propaganda follows Orwell as he demonstrates in piece after piece how intent analysis of a work or body of work gives rise to trenchant aesthetic and philosophical commentary. With masterpieces such as "Politics and the English Language" and "Rudyard Kipling" and gems such as "Good Bad Books," here is an unrivaled education in, as George Packer puts it, "how to be interesting, line after line."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Before he was a renowned novelist, George Orwell was a masterful essayist. Spanning the 1940s, this companion to Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays showcases Orwell in an often unexpected cavalcade of observations on diverse subjects-in the literary field alone as varied as T. S. Eliot, Charles Dickens, Henry Miller, Graham Greene and Kipling. But since this is Orwell, the book takes on a range of subjects with gusto: power and bully worship and the deleterious influence of Catholicism on literature. Orwell's withering observations on professional academic criticism ("Politics and the English Language") are tempered by his sly "Confessions of a Book Reviewer" ("constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever") and "Good Bad Books" (the "supreme example" being Uncle Tom's Cabin). Not to be overlooked is a freewheeling take on the naughty postcards of Donald McGill. Overall, this collection highlights the work of a writer who always put his money where his mouth was, reiterating frequently the importance of clarity of expression in enabling independent thought. (Oct. 13)

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Kirkus Reviews
The second of two volumes of the British author's essays, compiled by journalist George Packer. Orwell the critic is not quite the equal of his counterpart, the chronicler of people, places and political occurrences and institutions. Still, this somewhat uneven volume offers four superlative examples of this consummate realist's keen scrutiny of cultural touchstones and trends, milestones and minutiae. "Charles Dickens" is a long, heartfelt tribute that nevertheless eschews sentimentalizing the ultimate sentimentalist. Contrasting Dickens's fiction and reportage with similar work from fellow Victorians (e.g., Thackeray, Trollope, Charles Reade), Orwell painstakingly identifies the sources and the enduring strengths of Dickens's indomitable humanitarian sensibility and stubborn sense of social responsibility. "Inside the Whale" evaluates Henry Miller's renegade masterpiece Tropic of Cancer as a cheeky response to 19th-century rustic idealism, and a groundbreaking dramatization of the impact of expatriate experience on modern prose style. A penetrating comparison of two very different literary masters ("Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool") interprets the Russian author's criticism of Shakespeare as expressive of "the quarrel between the religious and the humanist attitudes towards life." Then there's the great 1945 essay "Politics and the English Language." In ringing tones that ought to shame every public figure who plays fast and loose with verifiable fact, Orwell gathers apropos anecdotal evidence of the manipulative imprecision of political language at its most recklessly dishonest, concluding, with soulful brevity and wit, that "the great enemy of clear language is insincerity." Elsewhere, hecasts a skeptical eye on Salvador Dali's puckish amorality and Gandhi's hard-won saintliness, finds low-brow entertainment value in the work of a smutty postcard artist and asks uncomfortable questions about hopeful utopian visions ("Can Socialists Be Happy?"). More often appreciative and ruminative than critical-but that's OK.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780151013555
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
10/13/2008
Edition description:
First
Pages:
416
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Charles Dickens

Inside the Whale, March 11, 1940

Inside the Whale and Other Essays was published in London by Victor Gollancz Ltd on March 11, 1940. It contained three essays: "Charles Dickens," "Boys’ Weeklies," and "Inside the Whale."

1

Dickens is one of those writers who are well worth stealing. Even the burial of his body in Westminster Abbey was a species of theft, if you come to think of it.

When Chesterton wrote his introductions to the Everyman Edition of Dickens’s works, it seemed quite natural to him to credit Dickens with his own highly individual brand of medievalism, and more recently a Marxist writer, Mr. T. A. Jackson,1 has made spirited efforts to turn Dickens into a bloodthirsty revolutionary. The Marxist claims him as "almost" a Marxist, the Catholic claims him as "almost" a Catholic, and both claim him as a champion of the proletariat (or "the poor," as Chesterton would have put it). On the other hand, Nadezhda Krupskaya, in her little book on Lenin, relates that towards the end of his life Lenin went to see a dramatised version of The Cricket on the Hearth, and found Dickens’s "middle-class sentimentality" so intolerable that he walked out in the middle of a scene.

Taking "middle-class" to mean what Krupskaya might be expected to mean by it, this was probably a truer judgment than those of Chesterton and Jackson. But it is worth noticing that the dislike of Dickens implied in this remark is something unusual. Plenty of people have found him unreadable, but very few seem to have felt any hostility towards the general spirit of his work. Some years ago Mr. Bechhofer Roberts published a full-length attack on Dickens in the form of a novel (This Side Idolatry), but it was a merely personal attack, concerned for the most part with Dickens’s treatment of his wife. It dealt with incidents which not one in a thousand of Dickens’s readers would ever hear about, and which no more invalidate his work than the second-best bed invalidates Hamlet. All that the book really demonstrated was that a writer’s literary personality has little or nothing to do with his private character. It is quite possible that in private life Dickens was just the kind of insensitive egoist that Mr. Bechhofer Roberts makes him appear. But in his published work there is implied a personality quite different from this, a personality which has won him far more friends than enemies. It might well have been otherwise, for even if Dickens was a bourgeois, he was certainly a subversive writer, a radical, one might truthfully say a rebel. Everyone who has read widely in his work has felt this. Gissing, for instance, the best of the writers on Dickens, was anything but a radical himself, and he disapproved of this strain in Dickens and wished it were not there, but it never occurred to him to deny it. In Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked have swallowed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself. In its attitude towards Dickens the English public has always been a little like the elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a delightful tickling. Before I was ten years old I was having Dickens ladled down my throat by schoolmasters in whom even at that age I could see a strong resemblance to Mr. Creakle, and one knows without needing to be told that lawyers delight in Serjeant Buzfuz and that Little Dorrit is a favourite in the Home Office. Dickens seems to have succeeded in attacking everybody and antagonizing nobody. Naturally this makes one wonder whether after all there was something unreal in his attack upon society. Where exactly does he stand, socially, morally and politically? As usual, one can define his position more easily if one starts by deciding what he was not.

In the first place he was not, as Messrs. Chesterton and Jackson seem to imply, a "proletarian" writer. To begin with, he does not write about the proletariat, in which he merely resembles the overwhelming majority of novelists, past and present. If you look for the working classes in fiction, and especially English fiction, all you find is a hole. This statement needs qualifying, perhaps. For reasons that are easy enough to see, the agricultural labourer (in England a proletarian) gets a fairly good showing in fiction, and a great deal has been written about criminals, derelicts and, more recently, the working-class intelligentsia. But the ordinary town proletariat, the people who make the wheels go round, have always been ignored by novelists. When they do find their way between the covers of a book, it is nearly always as objects of pity or as comic relief. The central action of Dickens’s stories almost invariably takes place in middle-class surroundings. If one examines his novels in detail one finds that his real subject-matter is the London commercial bourgeoisie and their hangers-on—lawyers, clerks, tradesmen, innkeepers, small craftsmen and servants. He has no portrait of an agricultural worker, and only one (Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times) of an industrial worker. The Plornishes in Little Dorrit are probably his best picture of a working-class family—the Peggottys, for instance, hardly belong to the working class—but on the whole he is not successful with this type of character. If you ask any ordinary reader which of Dickens’s proletarian characters he can remember, the three he is almost certain to mention are Bill Sikes, Sam Weller and Mrs. Gamp. A burglar, a valet and a drunken midwife—not exactly a representative cross-section of the English working class.

Copyright © George Orwell

Compilation copyright © 2008 by The Estate of the late Sonia Brownell Orwell

Foreword copyright © 2008 by George Packer

Introduction copyright © 2008 by Keith Gessen

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