As far as we know, George Orwell never visited America. This is a great pity. What a joy it would be for a biographer to find in some provincial attic the long-lost diaries of his travels around the segregated South, or his acid reflections on working as a scriptwriter in late 1930s Hollywood.
I think the best indication of how he thought of the United States is to be found in his essay Raffles and Miss Blandish. In this, he contrasts E.W. Hornung’s light-hearted tales of the cricket-playing gentleman thief Arthur Raffles and James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a violent crime thriller of the late 1930s, set in the USA, which became notorious — and successful — in Britain during world war two. Oddly enough it is technically English. As Orwell notes, it is ‘written in the American language,’ but ‘the author, an Englishman who has (I believe) never been in the United States, seems to have made a complete mental transference to the American underworld.’
Orwell does not much like Raffles, who is a snob and a Tory. But at least he has a code, and refrains from certain things that are simply not done. As for ‘Miss Blandish’, as he begins to describe its parade of squalor and extravagantly-described cruelty and obscenity, he sighs: ‘Now for a header into the cesspool’. It is amusing to imagine his austere, frowning head bent over the pages, as he did his duty and read it, doubtless taking careful notes of the frightful plot as he did so.
‘In America, both in life and fiction, the tendency to tolerate crime, even to admire the criminal so long as he is a success, is very much more marked.’
‘It is a daydream appropriate to a totalitarian age. In his imagined world of gangsters Chase is presenting, as it were, a distilled version of the modern political scene, in which such things as mass bombing of civilians, the use of hostages, torture to obtain confessions, secret prisons, execution without trial, floggings with rubber truncheons, drownings in cesspools, systematic falsification of records and statistics, treachery, bribery...are normal and morally neutral, even admirable when they are done in a large and bold way.’
And then there is this superbly modern summary of the appeal of such things:
‘The average man is not directly interested in politics, and when he reads, he wants the current struggles of the world to be translated into a simple story about individuals… people worship power in the form in which they are able to understand it.’
I recently re-read this essay after a gap of many years. I gasped at just how fresh and full of meat it still is, and of how much it has to say about the power-worship which Orwell feared and which we now increasingly experience. If you wanted to guess at what George Orwell might have said and thought about Donald Trump, then ‘Raffles and Miss Blandish’ is a much better place to look than Nineteen Eighty-Four. For President Trump has the cynical brilliance of a popular author, a crude and even ugly style, but the overpowering ability to tell a story in a form in which his desired audience can understand it.
And so, on the 70th anniversary of Orwell’s miserably early death, may I make a plea for much less attention to be paid to Nineteen Eighty-Four, and to the Trotskyist fable of Animal Farm, and for more to be paid to his collected essays, letters and journalism?
I have nothing much against Nineteen Eighty-Four. It contains some valuable thoughts about surveillance and about the furious desire of zealots to kill the soul as well as the body. The wistful passage set in the pub with the old man who can remember nothing useful about the past is one of my favourites in all of English literature. Unlike much of the book, which contains many sermons dressed up as fiction, it is a joy to read aloud. Its conclusion that ‘When memory failed and written records were falsified — when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested’, is one of the saddest and truest things ever written. But it is utterly wrong about totalitarians and sex. Despots are more than happy to free the loins provided they can imprison the mind and invade the privacy and security of the home and family. Slaves have generally been free to breed — but not to marry indissolubly or become true parents. For years it has put us off our guard with the assumption that the threat of a surveillance state, or the falsification of the past, came only from Communism. And only someone who had never read it, but thought he had (there are many people who have this problem, in my experience) could possibly see it as any sort of warning against Trumpism.
But the real glory of George Orwell’s work lies elsewhere. I can still remember, half a century ago when the modern cult of Orwell had yet to take wing, being introduced by a clever teacher to a slim collection of his essays, Inside the Whale. I had had no idea these even existed. I had never come across anything like them, and soon after greedily bought all the four volumes of the Collected Essays, Letters and Journalism which were then just appearing in soft cover. They changed my life, my way of thinking and my ambitions. My heavy teenage underlinings in them embarrass me a little now, and I have had to replace some of them as the pages have worked loose and the spines cracked. But it is in these works that the real treasure lies, and where the foundations of the more famous works were laid. Remember Orwell by reading them.