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George Orwell: A Life in Letters

The letters of George Orwell (real name: Eric Arthur Blair) suggest a life beset by internal conflict.

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George Orwell: A Life in Letters, by George Orwell, Peter Davison (Editor), Liveright Publishing Corporation, 560 pages

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As evidence of controversial government surveillance rockets around the globe, the adjective “Orwellian” is getting plenty of use. My bet is that many of those employing the term know little or nothing about the man behind the name. In fact, my bet is that most have no idea that “George Orwell” is a pen name, made-up name to mask the identity of Eric Arthur Blair, born June 25, 1903, in India to British parents.

As a journalist, editorialist, and book author, Orwell was frequently controversial. Today, 63 years after his death, he probably qualifies as iconic – unless “iconic” suggests saintly and uncomplicated. Orwell, who was definitely not saintly, was more like the polar opposite of uncomplicated.

Long-time Orwell scholar Peter Davison served as co-editor of the complete set of Orwell's letters, which fill 20 volumes. This new collection is meant to be accessible for lay readers who, realistically, will never peruse 20 volumes. Here is how Davison explains the thinking behind his winnowing for the current volume: “Firstly, the letters chosen should illustrate Orwell’s life and hopes, and secondly that each one should be of interest in its own right.”

Davison succeeds admirably, not only in his selection of letters, but also in the annotations and the mini-biographies of Orwell’s correspondents. As all first-rate letter collections must, the letters tell a story about their author, although usually the reader of the letters must fill gaps.

Orwell’s letters, despite the gaps, constitute a sort of autobiography. That is a welcome result because Orwell did not live long enough to write an autobiography. If he had been so inclined, it would have included many interesting scenes. Before earning his living as a writer, Orwell served five years in the nation of Burma as part of the Indian Imperial Police; explored Paris while trying to seek meaning in his life after leaving the police force; did menial restaurant work that became part of the fabric of his book “Down and Out in Paris and London”; picked hops for pay in the English countryside; taught at the equivalent of high school and college levels; resided back in his parents’ home as an adult; fought for the Republicans in the Spanish civil war; and spent time in various hospital beds due to illnesses.

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