The Unexamined Orwell


The year 1984 is just a memory, but the catchwords of George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four still routinely pepper public discussions of topics ranging from government surveillance and privacy invasion to language corruption and bureaucratese. Orwell's work pervades the cultural imagination, while others of his literary generation are long forgotten. Exploring this astonishing afterlife has become the scholarly vocation of John Rodden, who is now the leading authority on the reception, impact, and ...

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The Unexamined Orwell

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The year 1984 is just a memory, but the catchwords of George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four still routinely pepper public discussions of topics ranging from government surveillance and privacy invasion to language corruption and bureaucratese. Orwell's work pervades the cultural imagination, while others of his literary generation are long forgotten. Exploring this astonishing afterlife has become the scholarly vocation of John Rodden, who is now the leading authority on the reception, impact, and reinvention of George Orwell—the man and writer—as well as of "Orwell" the cultural icon and historical talisman.

In The Unexamined Orwell, Rodden delves into dimensions of Orwell's life and legacy that have escaped the critical glare. Rodden discusses how several leading American intellectuals have earned the title of Orwell's "successor," including Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, Irving Howe, Christopher Hitchens, and John Lukacs. He then turns to Germany and focuses on the role and relevance of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the now-defunct communist nation of East Germany. Rodden also addresses myths that have grown up around Orwell's life, including his "more than half-legendary" encounter with Ernest Hemingway in liberated Paris in March 1945, and analyzes literary issues such as his utopian sensibility and his prose style. Finally, Rodden poses the endlessly debated question, "What Would George Orwell Do?," and speculates about how the prophet of Nineteen Eighty-Four would have reacted to world events. In so doing, Rodden shows how our responses to this question reveal much about our culture's ongoing need to reappropriate "Orwell."

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Can there be anything new to say about George Orwell? Longtime Orwell scholar Rodden (communication studies, Univ. of Texas, Austin) thinks there is, but his book largely recycles themes from two of his previous works, Scenes from an Afterlife and Every Intellectual's Big Brother. Yet he does add new perspectives in these 18 chapters (he calls them "reception scenes"), or case studies, on Orwell's literary afterlife. He discusses the work of five writers considered successors to Orwell, politically and culturally: Dwight MacDonald, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Christopher Hitchens, and John Lukacs; he takes a close look at Orwell's impact in East Germany (how its totalitarian world replicated Nineteen Eighty-Four). In the final section, a bit of a miscellany, Rodden examines some of the Orwell myths that have endured (e.g., did Hemingway really rescue Orwell in Paris in 1945?—probably not), assesses utopian fiction, proposes how Orwell might have reviewed his own biographies, and, most interestingly, considers "The Life Orwell Never Lived?" VERDICT Rodden's writing is always accessible to both scholars and general readers. This collection, however, does not break much new ground and will primarily appeal to those who collect everything written about Orwell. With extensive notes.—Thomas A. Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA
The Barnes & Noble Review

If you were to make a list of all the adjectives that have been used to describe George Orwell, the most popular would be ethical ones: words like honest, decent, trustworthy. These are the qualities that have guaranteed Orwell, who died in 1950 at the age of forty-six, such an extraordinary intellectual afterlife. More than a novelist or journalist or essayist or literary critic, Orwell has become an icon of intellectual integrity—one of the few writers to live through the 1930s, Auden's "low, dishonest decade," and emerge with his political and moral instincts uncorrupted. On the left, he's admired for his genuine socialist principles and personal egalitarianism; on the right, he's admired for the instinctive patriotism and love of English tradition that made him one of the best commentators on the World War II years. And to everyone who writes and thinks about politics, Orwell is the writer who most elegantly exposed the horror of totalitarianism and the degradation of language under the pressure of ideology. No wonder that, as Jonathan Rodden writes in The Unexamined Orwell, "scarcely a major Anglo-American issue has gone by since his death in January 1950 that has not moved someone to muse, 'If Orwell Were Alive Today,' "—or, more reverently still, "W.W.G.O.D.?"

For that very reason, however, just about the last word you could apply to the man born Eric Blair is "unexamined." He is the subject of numerous biographies and studies, and one of the rare twentieth-century authors to have been honored with a full-dress Collected Works—a twenty-two-volume set. Of course, Rodden, who is the author of several books about Orwell's work and influence, knows this perfectly well. What he objects to is the way Orwell is too often replaced in the public imagination by " 'Orwell,' the myth, not the man or the writer"—the image Rodden also refers to as "St. George." The purpose of this collection of essays is not so much to debunk the Orwell legend as to offer "fresh perspectives on him and his work, either by challenging broadly accepted appraisals of his achievement or pursuing new lines of inquiry about it."

This mission statement allows Rodden to range widely, resulting in a pleasantly miscellaneous book. In the first section, titled "If the Mantle Fits...," Rodden profiles a number of intellectuals who have been considered successors to Orwell. None of them resembles Orwell all that closely: Lionel Trilling is more exclusively literary, Dwight Macdonald less accomplished, John Lukacs more conservative, and Christopher Hitchens generally far less serious. What unites them is, first, a noble contrarianism—the ability to see when their own political "side" was wrong and to say so publicly—and second, an intense admiration for Orwell as thinker and stylist.

If these writers are Orwellesque, the culture of East Germany, to which Rodden turns in the book's second section, deserves the more familiar epithet Orwellian. His quotations from East German math textbooks, for instance, read like parodies of the propaganda in 1984: "Workers in the GDR water industry presented 10 water pumps, valued at 40,000 marks, to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, so that the irrigation lines destroyed by US bombers could be repaired. What was the total value of the gift?" Of course, life in Communist East Germany was like 1984 for the simple reason that Orwell patterned his dystopia after Communist Russia. No wonder, Rodden writes, that East Germans who managed to get their hands on illegal copies of 1984 "recalled their astonishment that an Englishman...could describe with such accuracy the regime of terror that they had experienced."

In the third section of The Unexamined Orwell, Rodden turns to Orwell's life and work, discussing his experience teaching "Politics and the English Language" to young students and examining the tradition of utopian fiction 1984 subverts. The liveliest of these essays, however, are the ones in which Rodden examines lingering biographical mysteries in this well-documented life. Did Ernest Hemingway really meet Orwell in liberated Paris in 1945, and did Orwell borrow a pistol from Papa to defend himself against unnamed assassins? Was the character of Julia in 1984 based on Orwell's early love Jacintha Buddicom, as she vehemently claimed? Rodden can't give the last word on these and other biographical disputes. But the very fact that so many people want to assert their claims on and about Orwell is a measure of how much he continues to matter to us, more than 60 years after his death.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for

Reviewer: Adam Kirsch

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780292725584
  • Publisher: University of Texas Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2011
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

JOHN RODDEN has taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author or editor of Every Intellectual’s Big Brother: George Orwell’s Literary Siblings; The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of St. George Orwell; Scenes from an Afterlife: The Legacy of George Orwell; Understanding Animal Farm in Historical Context; and George Orwell: Into The Twenty-First Century, among other books.
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Table of Contents

Introduction. Afterthoughts on His Afterlives

Part One. If the Mantle Fits . . .
Chapter 1. Virtuous Men? or "The American Orwell" (I)
Chapter 2. "Dear Dwight," or "The American Orwell" (II)
Chapter 3. "St. Irving"? or "The American Orwell" (III)
Chapter 4. Fellow Contrarians? or "The (Anglo-)American Orwell" (IV)
Chapter 5. "True Patriot and Traditionalist," or the (Hungarian-)American Orwell (V)

Part Two. Politics and the German Language
Chapter 6. The (Un-rosy) State of Orwellian Unlearning
Chapter 7. Books That Led to Miniluv
Chapter 8. 2 + 2 = 5?
Chapter 9. Behind the Wall, or How the Eurasian Reich Viewed Oceania
Chapter 10. Revenge of the Thought Police

Part Three. The Un(der)examined Orwell
Chapter 11. Did Papa Rescue St. George?
Chapter 12. Big Rock (Sugar)candy Mountain?
Chapter 13. Literacy and the English Language
Chapter 14. George Orwell, Literary Theorist?
Chapter 15. The Architectonics of Room 101
Chapter 16. The Review Orwell Never Wrote?
Chapter 17. The Life Orwell Never Lived?
Chapter 18. The Centenarian, Our Contemporary

Conclusion. If He Had Lived . . .

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