I have lived my life always being an outsider. I don’t mean that I am hated, or unaccepted by people, but never quite fitting in with a particular group of people. With each camp of persons I have always agreed enough to be tolerated but never enough to be allowed in as a member. Whether it was politics or religion, fashion and trends, or musical tastes, never had I had a place. I have found over the years individuals in history much like me, never fitting in with societies they were apart of, but they are always claimed by someone after their deaths. Until I came across this account of the work of George Orwell written by Christopher Hitchens I assumed I would never witnessed an unclaimed historical figure. Long have I been a fan of the formidable Hitchens as well as Orwell, and long has Hitch made reference to Orwell, that I felt I must read the book he wrote about the famous 1984 author. What was it that Hitchens loved so about him?
I was pleased that to find that this book was not a biography. I have never really had much of a stomach for biographies. They are long winded and pointless and mostly just there to praise or condemn the subject. I have much preferred the historical approach of looking at events and the players involved in them and making an argument of some kind, about why, how, or the impact of said events. Why Orwell Matters is not a history book, it does not deal with one event, or turning point in history. It deals with Orwell’s works, and not just 1984 and Animal Farm, but his lesser known works of fiction and non-fiction, even his letters and the impact that they have had.
Hitchens breaks down his study of Orwell into very clear parts which center around the conflicts in his life and writing. Such as, Orwell’s issues with the British Empire, his disagreements with the political right as well as the political left, his problems with being english and his touch and go relations with the United States. In all of these chapters Orwell seems to be at odds with each group of people, earning a certain amount of respect, but also a fair amount of hatred as well. The conservatives found him to be too far left. Orwell had after all entered into the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Marxists. He criticizes much of English culture through his stories of totalitarian dystopias which angered those on the right, but funnily enough angered those on the left as well. He earned the liberals ire because he criticized communists, mostly Stalinists and the same anti-fascist themes in his work could also be considered anti-Stalinist as well, which is how many took it . One must remember this was mostly before WWII, Stalin was still viewed by many outside the Soviet Union as a hero of sorts. During the war years few criticized Stalin.
The picture that Hitchens paints for us of Orwell is a man who stood by his convictions, but was stilled flawed myself and may have understood that. Hitchens does not let Orwell off the hook for his homophobia or his anti-feminist leanings. However, Hitchens does point out that much of the thinking we possess today about the Cold War years and authoritative governments comes from this one author. In fact, Cold War was a term Orwell coined when he predicted what kind of world was going to come about when WWII ended. Orwell claimed that the threat of fascism or totalitarian regimes was not going to go away just because the allies won the war. In fact, he claimed that they would be more of a threat than ever. 1984 was published in 1949, four years after the war ended. Orwell was not writing a fiction based on the events that the world had just experienced, but trying to foreshadow what he believed was yet to come.
What I took away from Hitchens on Orwell was that the author was not given enough credit for being an individual who refused to agree with a single group and play along in the parades of tragedy of the Second World War. He is not given enough credit for being the author that warned us that WWII was a failure of multiple governments. A failure that was only the first in a long line of reasons states would have to demand their citizens do what they are ordered to do, for their own protection, or course. We have now, movies, novels, video games that carry on this tradition of warning against dystopian futures. The fact that so many of us simply won’t trust our governments and question what they do is because of people like Orwell.
Orwell was after the truth, and tried to be as objective as he could. Because of these traits he would call out liars when he saw them, he would never follow a group that said they had the answer. If there was a problem to point out it should be pointed out, so Orwell believed. This is why he made so many enemies on both sides of the political spectrum. This is why even today no one has claimed him as their own and many still drag his name through the mud, or he is played out in others view as a tragic figure. Hitchens shows us through Orwell’s life and works that there is nothing tragic about standing alone. While unclaimed by the masses, such individuals will always be claimed be those that do the same.