George Orwell’s Letters Reveal the Man Behind the Myth

“Many thanks for your letter (dated April 13 and arrived yesterday!) and cheque. I enclosed a list of 15 people who I think would be possible subscribers to P[artisan] R[eview].”

I wasn’t necessarily surprised to find a letter from George Orwell to Dwight Macdonald in George Orwell: A Life in Letters, but I don’t pretend I knew the extent of the pair’s 1940s correspondence before reading it. Out tomorrow, the book contains several letters from Orwell to the prominent writer and social critic, many of them peppered with delightful asides like Orwell asking if Macdonald can “get me some shoes,” since Orwell was unable to get a pair in his size (12, presumably according to the UK size chart, or 12 1/2 in American shoe sizes) while living on the Scottish island of Jura in 1946.

Strangely enough, I applied a critical eye to Orwell’s first letter to Macdonald, divining that Orwell’s response was some combination of proto data sharing and listicle making; this sort of reading into Orwell, a writer who is again and again touted as a prophet for our weird modern age, feels like an act the American high school curriculum has trained nearly all of us us to do.

Of course, there is really no way to genuinely support the idea that Orwell offering up his top 15 people who might subscribe to the Partisan Review was essentially BuzzFeed before there was BuzzFeed, but the data sharing thing… actually, I won’t go there either. Reading through the letters, instead, humanizes Orwell rather than furthering the idea that Orwell could basically see the future. One such instance, is when he writes to Julian Symons, an editor friend, about Nineteen Eight-Four, “I think some of the ideas in it might interest you.” This is a reminder that the book most associated with Orwell didn’t come to him in a dream, it wasn’t dictated to him by a burning bush; it was a book grounded in ideas about a future he didn’t want to see come true.

For all the worrying Orwell did about the future, he still had a sense of humor about what might come: “It is just as well to get all this cleared up, what with the atomic bombs etc.” he writes in a letter dated November 2, 1945 — a little over three months after the United States dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He also had some humorous things to say about literature; in one of his letters to Henry Miller, he explains what he liked about Miller’s controversial book, Tropic of Cancer: “the fact that you dealt with facts well known to everybody but never mentioned it in print ( eg. when the chap is supposed to be making love to the woman but is dying for a piss all the while[.]”

Orwell is the type of writer whose myth can sometimes overshadow his writing — a victim of something I like to call The Hemingway Effect. But while Hemingway (whose name pops up a few times in Orwell’s letters) is mythologized more for his exploits away from writing, George Orwell lives on as a superhuman figure because he played such a vital role in shaping the way we think about politics and society. Thankfully, A Life in Letters reminds us the author we remember as a prophet was first and foremost a human being.