Orwell’s study of mentality and culture

George Orwell wrote a great deal of literary criticism, book reviews, and intellectual commentary, almost always with a down-to-earth plain speaking that entirely rejected the lofty English conventions of academic writing. (Here is a fairly comprehensive Kindle collection of his essays, A Collection of Essays.) What I find interesting about Orwell’s literary commentaries is their honesty, seriousness, and nuance. They are completely fascinating to read. Orwell really wants to get to the bottom of this point or that, whether it concerns Tolstoy, Dickens, Kipling, or Henry Miller. Orwell was extremely broadly read, both in English literature and European literature more generally. And he has specific, thoughtful reactions to all of it. Moreover, his opinions are non-doctrinaire. Although Orwell brings his own orientation about the social realities of England and Europe and he is always aware of the social conditions of workers and farmers that are often unnoticed in literature, he rejects entirely the cant of English Marxist theory and vocabulary. 

His analysis of Tolstoy’s surprising polemic against the literary value of Shakespeare as a playwright (“Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool”) is a good example of Orwell’s literary imagination. He takes Tolstoy’s claims seriously, tries to give a credible interpretation of them, and refutes Tolstoy’s central biases against Shakespeare. Likewise, his extensive treatment of Charles Dickens is enthralling — Orwell finds that Dickens has almost no acquaintance with ordinary laborers in spite of his sympathy for the poor, and that his desire to improve society turns almost entirely upon an exhortation to the rich to be more kind rather than a demand for structural change in society. And his treatment of Kipling — an author usually dismissed as a pure jingoistic cheerleader for British colonialism — is quite nuanced.

[Kipling] identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you DO?’, whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. Where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly. Moreover, anyone who starts out with a pessimistic, reactionary view of life tends to be justified by events, for Utopia never arrives and ‘the gods of the copybook headings’, as Kipling himself put it, always return. Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like. It is a great thing in his favour that he is not witty, not ‘daring’, has no wish to ÉPATER LES BOURGEOIS. He dealt largely in platitudes, and since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks. Even his worst follies seem less shallow and less irritating than the ‘enlightened’ utterances of the same period, such as Wilde’s epigrams or the collection of cracker-mottoes at the end of MAN AND SUPERMAN.

Literary criticism is one thing; but Orwell has another goal in discussing the published word that has nothing to do with literary values. Rather, in his treatment of popular literature — penny novels, boys’ magazines, murder mysteries, even poetry — Orwell is interested in discovering something important about the mental worldview of a particular generation. In particular, he is especially interested in the generation of young English men of his own age, born in 1900 or so, living through the Great War, and plunged into World War II, fascism, and totalitarianism. He tries to form a connection between the content, style, and social assumptions of a body of “boy’s stories”, for example, and the effects these assumptions and styles are likely to have had on the mental frameworks of the boys of a specific generation. He provides a fairly detailed content analysis of these stories and their presentation in the pulp magazines of the period.

Orwell is quite explicit in believing that the earliest influences on the development of a child — books, stories, comics, postcards — have a profound effect on their adult sensibilities and imagination. In “Why I Write” he puts it this way:

I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in–at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own–but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.

Take the interesting example of A. E. Housman’s Shropshire Lad.

Among people who were adolescent in the years 1910-25, Housman had an influence which was enormous and is now not at all easy to understand. In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of the SHROPSHIRE LAD by heart. I wonder how much impression the SHROPSHIRE LAD makes at this moment on a boy of the same age and more or less the same cast of mind? No doubt he has heard of it and even glanced into it; it might strike him as cheaply clever–probably that would be about all. Yet these are the poems that I and my contemporaries used to recite to ourselves, over and over, in a kind of ecstasy, just as earlier generations had recited Meredith’s ‘Love in a Valley’, Swinburne’s ‘Garden of Proserpine’ etc., etc. 

It just tinkles. But it did not seem to tinkle in 1920. Why does the bubble always burst? To answer that question one has to take account of the EXTERNAL conditions that make certain writers popular at certain times. Housman’s poems had not attracted much notice when they were first published. What was there in them that appealed so deeply to a single generation, the generation born round about 1900? (“Inside the Whale”, 1940)

Or in other words, what can we learn about the mentality of boys and adolescents around the time of the Great War from the resonance and importance of the poetry of Housman for them? Here are the makings of a theory:

But Housman would not have appealed so deeply to the people who were young in 1920 if it had not been for another strain in him, and that was his blasphemous, antinomian, ‘cynical’ strain. The fight that always occurs between the generations was exceptionally bitter at the end of the Great War; this was partly due to the war itself, and partly it was an indirect result of the Russian Revolution, but an intellectual struggle was in any case due at about that date. Owing probably to the ease and security of life in England, which even the war hardly disturbed, many people whose ideas were formed in the eighties or earlier had carried them quite unmodified into the nineteen-twenties. Meanwhile, so far as the younger generation was concerned, the official beliefs were dissolving like sand-castles. The slump in religious belief, for instance, was spectacular. (“Inside the Whale”, 1940)

Now consider an even more interesting influence of words on boys: the adventure stories published for decades in pulp magazines in England (“Boys’ Weeklies”, 1940). Orwell writes of the news shops where these magazines were sold:

Probably the contents of these shops is the best available indication of what the mass of the English people really feels and thinks. Certainly nothing half so revealing exists in documentary form. Best-seller novels, for instance, tell one a great deal, but the novel is aimed almost exclusively at people above the £4-a-week level. (Orwell, George. A Collection of Essays. Kindle Edition)

This is Orwell’s distinctive insight: the popular literature for boys implicitly records the features of a mentality at a time and place. More exactly, these publications (pulp magazines) both reflect the mental worlds of young boys and shape those mental frameworks; and, in Orwell’s view, the shaping of values and social assumptions is quite purposeful on the part of the bourgeois publishers who stand behind these magazines. In order to uncover that mental worldview, Orwell provides an analysis of the whole group of magazines that fill this niche:

Falling strictly within this class there are at present ten papers, the GEM, MAGNET, MODERN BOY, TRIUMPH and CHAMPION, all owned by the Amalgamated Press, and the WIZARD, ROVER, SKIPPER, HOTSPUR and ADVENTURE, all owned by D. C. Thomson & Co. … 

Each of them carries every week a fifteen–or twenty-thousand-word school story, complete in itself, but usually more or less connected with the story of the week before. The Gem in addition to its school story carries one or more adventure serial. Otherwise the two papers are so much alike that they can be treated as one, though the MAGNET has always been the better known of the two, probably because it possesses a really first-rate character in the fat boy. Billy Bunter. 

The stories are stories of what purports to be public-school life, and the schools (Greyfriars in the MAGNET and St Jim’s in the GEM) are represented as ancient and fashionable foundations of the type of Eton or Winchester. All the leading characters are fourth-form boys aged fourteen or fifteen, older or younger boys only appearing in very minor parts. Like Sexton Blake and Nelson Lee, these boys continue week after week and year after year, never growing any older. Very occasionally a new boy arrives or a minor character drops out, but in at any rate the last twenty-five years the personnel has barely altered. All the principal characters in both papers–Bob Cherry, Tom Merry, Harry Wharton, Johnny Bull, Billy Bunter and the rest of them–were at Greyfriars or St Jim’s long before the Great War, exactly the same age as at present, having much the same kind of adventures and talking almost exactly the same dialect. And not only the characters but the whole atmosphere of both Gem and Magnet has been preserved unchanged, partly by means of very elaborate stylization.

Here are the main conclusions that Orwell reaches:

Of course no one in his senses would want to turn the so-called penny dreadful into a realistic novel or a Socialist tract. An adventure story must of its nature be more or less remote from real life. But, as I have tried to make clear, the unreality of the WIZARD and the GEM is not so artless as it looks. These papers exist because of a specialized demand, because boys at certain ages find it necessary to read about Martians, death-rays, grizzly bears and gangsters. They get what they are looking for, but they get it wrapped up in the illusions which their future employers think suitable for them. To what extent people draw their ideas from fiction is disputable. Personally I believe that most people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and that from this point of view the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life. It is probable that many people who would consider themselves extremely sophisticated and ‘advanced’ are actually carrying through life an imaginative background which they acquired in childhood from (for instance) Sapper and Ian Hay. …

If that is so, the boys’ twopenny weeklies are of the deepest importance. Here is the stuff that is read somewhere between the ages of twelve and eighteen by a very large proportion, perhaps an actual majority, of English boys, including many who will never read anything else except newspapers; and along with it they are absorbing a set of beliefs which would be regarded as hopelessly out of date in the Central Office of the Conservative Party. All the better because it is done indirectly, there is being pumped into them the conviction that the major problems of our time do not exist, that there is nothing wrong with LAISSEZ-FAIRE capitalism, that foreigners are un-important comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity-concern which will last for ever. Considering who owns these papers, it is difficult to believe that this is un-intentional.

Orwell finds that there is a specific social worldview, an ideology, permeating these stories, and that this worldview serves to frame the social and political perceptions of boys as they enter adulthood. Further, he believes that the ideological content is deliberate: 

ALL fiction from the novels in the mushroom libraries downwards is censored in the interests of the ruling class. And boys’ fiction above all, the blood-and-thunder stuff which nearly every boy devours at some time or other, is sodden in the worst illusions of 1910. The fact is only unimportant if one believes that what is read in childhood leaves no impression behind. Lord Camrose and his colleagues evidently believe nothing of the kind, and, after all, Lord Camrose ought to know.

The worldview that is embedded in these stories is one grounded in snobbism, the natural superiority of the wealthy, the inevitability of rich and poor (and winners and losers in society), and the permanence of the current social order. What is unlikely to emerge from such stories is — rebelliousness, resistance, and rejection of oppression.

And yet — all of those mental characteristics of rebelliousness and resistance did emerge among some children, soon to be adults, in the 1930s in England — including in Orwell himself. So at the most, we must regard this “worldview-shaping” power of children’s books and stories as being a partial thing, just one of many influences that eventually shape and constrain the imagination and perception of the adult. How would Orwell explain his own escape from the mental constraints of this ideological framework, into the independent-minded socialism that guided his actions for the rest of his life? From the autobiographical essay (“Such, such were the joys”, 1947),  published posthumously, the thread of an explanation is visible: “I was always an outsider, I conformed externally but never within myself.” He describes his own development in these words in “Why I Write”:

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.

Isolated, undervalued, lonely; independent, critical, socialist, committed to acting as I think best. The clue seems to be that independence of mind is nurtured by a certain degree of “outsiderness”. 

Here is something akin to a manifesto from the same essay:

The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, AGAINST totalitarianism and FOR democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows.

It is striking to reflect that the United States in the 1930s does not seem to have produced its own version of George Orwell — leftist, independent, honest, anti-totalitarian, and non-ideological. There were Communist intellectuals; but I cannot think of the kind of independent-minded social critic in the United States whose work might be thought to be as original and penetrating as that of Orwell. Why is that? Was there a particular niche for non-conformist intellectuals like Orwell in England that was lacking in the United States in the 1930s? And did that culture persist into the 1950s and beyond? How close to the Orwell example of social criticism does Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath come (both the novel (1939) and  the film (1940))? Are Michael Harrington, Howard Zinn, Murray Levin, or Noam Chomsky analogous intellectuals on the left?

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