By George Orwell
Edited by Peter Davison
Liveright Publishing Corporation, $39.95, 597 pages
A man of the left renowned for the piercing honesty of his thought and writings, particularly in his novels "Animal Farm" (1945) and "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (1949), English novelist and journalist George Orwell (1903-1950) has earned the admiration of millions of readers across the political spectrum. One admirer, conservative champion Russell Kirk, went so far as to claim that no 20th-century novelist exerted a stronger influence upon political opinion in Britain and America than did Orwell.
Kirk explained, "Orwell's was that radicalism which is angry with society because society has failed to provide men with the ancient norms of simple life -- family, decency, and continuity; the sort of radicalism which does not mean to disintegrate the world, but to restore it." As such, Orwell worked in the tradition of such distinguished English gadflies and reformers as William Cobbett, Charles Dickens and G.K. Chesterton.
Orwell (the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair) shared with these noted literary figures a keen sense of observation, especially in matters related to the natural world and human behavior, married to a simmering rage about injustice. And not the phony, overly sensitive "injustice" experienced by the perpetually aggrieved, but in the sense that the blue-collar class and those who were down and out in Orwell's England coped daily with the active, haughty contempt of their "betters." (This phenomenon is brilliantly captured in Chesterton's Father Brown short story titled "The Invisible Man.")
This theme runs throughout Orwell's "Diaries," edited by Orwell authority Peter Davison and with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens. The latter rightly notes that "these diaries from the years 1931 to 1949 can greatly enrich our understanding of how Orwell transmuted the raw material of everyday experience into some of his best-known novels and polemics. They also furnish us with a more intimate picture of a man who, committed to the struggles of the mechanized and 'modern' world, was also drawn by the rhythms of the wild, the rural and the remote."
Thematic parallels between passages in Orwell's diaries and his novels are indicated throughout this volume by editor Davison in helpful -- and sometimes overly helpful -- footnotes. In June 1940, in words which foreshadow a central theme of "Animal Farm," Orwell noted, "A revolution starts off with wide diffusion of the ideas of liberty, equality, etc. Then comes the growth of an oligarchy which is as much interested in holding onto its privileges as any other governing class. Such an oligarchy must necessarily be hostile to revolutions elsewhere, which inevitably re-awaken the ideas of liberty and equality."
Orwell's diary entries covering the events leading up to World War II and then the horror that followed are particularly interesting. Anyone who has ever wondered why the British people turned out wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the election of 1945 will be enlightened by Orwell's depiction of cultural and political life in England in the midst of war: the widespread sense that the island nation was being led by a conniving, self-serving pack of paunchy careerists who were primarily interested in feathering their own nests. (Not that Orwell was particularly enthralled with Churchill's successor as prime minister, Labor's Clement Attlee. "Atlee reminds me of nothing so much as a recently dead fish, before it has had time to stiffen," he notes.
Orwell rightly saw World War II as marking a sea change in British culture. "We are all drowning in filth," he wrote in 1942. "When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone's thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a 'case' with deliberate suppression of his opponent's point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends. Everyone is dishonest, and everyone is utterly heartless towards people who are outside the immediate range of his own interests. What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on and off like a tap according to political expediency." This description has about it a foreshadowing of the great danger that has enveloped all Western political culture.
Other portions of Orwell's "Diaries" concern the author's everyday experiences as a smallholder as he engages in his favorite activities: raising flowers, vegetables and livestock, particularly chickens and goats. These sections are somewhat repetitive and dull and will primarily interest the Orwell specialist rather than the general reader.
Other, more powerful diary entries regard the squalor and desperation of life in Wigan and other impoverished locales where Orwell exercised his journalistic skills with firsthand experience among the poor. At one point Orwell records, "Passing up a horrible squalid side-alley, [I] saw a woman, youngish but very pale and with the usual draggled exhausted look, kneeling by the gutter outside a house and poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe, which was blocked. I thought how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling in the gutter in a back alley in Wigan, in the bitter cold, prodding a stick up a blocked drain. At that moment she looked up and caught my eye, and her expression was a desolate as I have ever seen; it struck me that she was thinking just the same thing as I was."
According to Hitchens, Orwell "showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage. And, permanently tempted though he was by cynicism and despair, Orwell also believed in the latent possession of these faculties by those we sometimes have the nerve to call 'ordinary people'."
• James E. Person Jr. is the author of "Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind" (Madison Books) and a longtime book reviewer.