I’ve just discovered Orwell’s superb 1939 essay on Dickens, and can’t believe I’ve never read it before. The last section is reproduced below & gives a flavour of what to expect. The full text is here. In the main body of the essay, Orwell offers a clear-eyed analysis of Dickens’ shortcomings which serves to separate the chaff & identify what it was about the man that was great.
“Dickens voiced a code which was and on the whole still is believed in, even by people who violate it. It is difficult otherwise to explain why he could be both read by working people (a thing that has happened to no other novelist of his stature) and buried in Westminster Abbey.
When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”
– “Charles Dickens” by George Orwell, 1939.
Critical Essays (1946) is a collection of wartime pieces by George Orwell. It covers a variety of topics in English literature, and also includes some pioneering studies of popular culture. It was acclaimed by critics, and Orwell himself thought it one of his most important books.
- First published in Inside the Whale and Other Essays (1940).
- First published in an abridged form in Horizon, March 1940. Reprinted in Inside the Whale and Other Essays (1940).
- Response to H. G. Wells Guide to the New World.
- First published in Horizon, August 1941.
- First published in Horizon, February 1942.
- Response to A Choice of Kipling's Verse, edited by T. S. Eliot.
- First published in Horizon, February 1942.
- Review of V. K. Narayana MenonThe Development of William Butler Yeats.
- First published in Horizon, January 1943.
- Response to The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí.
- According to a note by Orwell, "'Benefit of Clergy' made a sort of phantom appearance in the Saturday Book for 1944. The book was in print when its publishers, Messrs Hutchinson, decided that this essay must be suppressed on grounds of obscenity. It was accordingly cut out of each copy, though for technical reasons it was impossible to remove its title from the table of contents." Several copies, including Orwell's own, escaped this excision.
- Unpublished before Critical Essays.
- First published in Horizon, October 1944.
- First published in Windmill, no. 2, [July] 1945.
In late 1944 Orwell, worrying about the ephemerality of magazine publication, began to collect a volume of his best essays. The resulting collection appeared under the imprint of Secker & Warburg on 14 February 1946, with a print-run of 3028 copies. The following May a second impression of 5632 copies was issued, with some small corrections. The US edition of 5000 copies was published in April 1946 by Reynal & Hitchcock, and retitled Dickens, Dali & Others: Studies in Popular Culture. A reprint in paperback dropped the subtitle.
The blurb to the first edition described some of the essays as being "among the very few attempts that have been made in England to study popular art seriously". Orwell thought seemingly frivolous popular culture, such as crime fiction, comic postcards, and the Billy Bunter stories, to be worth studying for the light it throws on contemporary attitudes. Applying this approach to the subjects considered in Critical Essays he tended to find that they showed the innovations of his own time to be harsh and unfeeling compared to the old-fashioned humanity of traditional popular forms. Another theme is that of literary style, which Orwell thought to be the inevitable result of its writer's world-view and the message he wanted to get across. He considered the English language of the 1940s to be in a degenerate state, and held that political discourse was inevitably corrupted as a result.
Orwell himself, writing before he had completed Nineteen Eighty-Four, said that he thought Critical Essays one of his three most important books, along with Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia. His contemporaries in the world of criticism also largely saw the book's merits. The journalist Tosco Fyvel, writing in Tribune, acclaimed Orwell as "a national figure as a critic, satirist and political journalist", while disagreeing with Orwell's view that the Attlee government was uncommitted to the introduction a fully socialist society. In the Catholic paper The TabletEvelyn Waugh predictably deplored Orwell's lack of religious feeling, but also wrote that the essays "represent at its best the new humanism of the common man", and that Orwell was "outstandingly the wisest" of the new critics.Middleton Murry, who likewise criticised Orwell's secularism, nevertheless called Orwell and Cyril Connolly the two most gifted critics of their generation. V. S. Pritchett considered the essays "brilliant examples of political anthropology applied to literature by a non-conforming mind". Eric Bentley saw the book as "a dirge for nineteenth-century liberalism", and, like Irving Howe, thought it represented Orwell at his best.Edmund Wilson, a critic to whom most others compared Orwell, called him "the only contemporary master" of sociological criticism, praising him for his courage in rejecting the reigning orthodoxies, and for "a prose style that is both downright and disciplined". A recent survey of Orwell's work endorses his own high opinion of its importance, calling it "Orwell at his best", a book which "showed Orwell's talent for finding deep meaning in otherwise trivial matters", while Bernard Crick said that Orwell's essays "may well constitute his lasting claim to greatness as a writer".
- ^Davison, Peter, ed. (1998). I Have Tried to Tell the Truth: 1943–1944. The Complete Works of George Orwell. Volume 16. London: Secker & Warburg. p. 233. ISBN 0436203707. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
- ^Davison, Peter, ed. (1998). Smothered Under Journalism: 1946. The Complete Works of George Orwell. Volume 18. London: Secker & Warburg. pp. 104–105. ISBN 043620374X. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
- ^"George Orwell: An Exhibition from the Collection of Daniel J. Leab Brown University, Fall 1997". John Hay Library: Collections. Brown University Library. 2001. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
- ^Davison, Peter (18 December 2012). "Dickens – first and last". The Orwell Society. Archived from the original on 8 October 2013. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
- ^Rodden, John (2009) . George Orwell: The Politics of Literary Reputation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction. p. 307. ISBN 076580896X. Retrieved 6 October 2012.
- ^Giraldi, William (11 August 2013). "Orwell: Sage of the Century". New Republic. Retrieved 6 October 2013.
- ^Greene, Donald (1990). "Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh – "Catholic novelists"". In Meyers, Jeffrey. Graham Greene: A Revaluation. London: Macmillan. p. 23. ISBN 0333458958. Retrieved 3 November 2013.
- ^Meyers, Jeffrey (1995). Edmund Wilson: A Biography. London: Constable. pp. 272–273. ISBN 0395689937. Retrieved 3 November 2013.
- Crick, Bernard (1994). "Introduction: An Essay". The Penguin Essays of George Orwell. Harmondsworth: Penguin. ISBN 0140188037.
- Meyers, Jeffrey, ed. (1997) . George Orwell: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge. ISBN 071008255X.
- Orwell, Sonia; Angus, Ian, eds. (1970). The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Rodden, John; Rossi, John (2012). The Cambridge Introduction to George Orwell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521769235.