The years spanned by this collection--1945-1950--were monumental ones for George Orwell, years in which his literary reputation and his bank account grew in tandem, thanks to the publication of Animal Farm
. The realignments brought about by the end of World War II and Orwell's increasingly virulent anti-Stalinism provided ample fodder for the political journalist. Regular columns in British papers and frequent contributions to such American journals as the Partisan Review
exercised the literary critic, the essayist, and the commentator on popular culture. Even while grieving for his first wife, caring for his adopted toddler son, bedridden by the lung ailments that killed him early in 1950, Orwell was still regularly producing four pieces every week. Increasingly, his social life took place by mail.
The brave, wistful letters Orwell wrote to personal friends and professional colleagues in his last year show him trying to imagine a future even as he put his affairs in order. On 11 May 1949, he closed one to fellow novelist Anthony Powell: "It looks as if I may have to spend the rest of my life, if not actually in bed, at any rate at the bath-chair level. I could stand that for say 5 years if only I could work. At present I can do nothing, not even a book review. Please give everyone my love."
The essays in this collection include such keepers as "Such, Such Were the Joys," a long, harrowing memoir of Orwell's days at a British prep school; "Politics and the English Language," which examines the symbiosis of what it is possible to say in words and what it is possible to think; "How the Poor Die," a chilling piece of social reporting; and "Good Bad Books," in which he opines, "The fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration."
Bringing together the public utterances and the private correspondence of a writer at the top of his game and the end of his life, this volume is worth reading for the individual pieces, some of Orwell's finest, as well as for the portrait it yields of a highly intelligent and principled man doing his best to play the hand fate dealt him with integrity and grace. --Joyce Thompson
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