This year marks the 60th anniversary of the death of perhaps the most influential English writer of the 20th century, Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell.
Orwell died at the peak of his career with the sales of his most famous novel, “Nineteen Eighty Four” (he always spelled out the title), published in June 1949, breaking records. That book and “Animal Farm, published four years earlier, have sold more than 11 million copies each and continue to sell today. They made Orwell rich and famous while contributing memorable phrases to the English language: “Big Brother, “Newspeak, “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”
While most people know Orwell from these two books of unusual imagination, he was an amazingly prolific writer. In less than 20 years, he wrote six novels, four documentary studies, and hundreds of essays. One of his essays, “Shooting an Elephant,” has become a classic studied in high school and college English texts not only for its style but because it is a powerful, unforgettable indictment of the evils of imperialism.
Orwell’s greatest influence beyond his two classic novels was as a prose stylist. Along with Ernest Hemingway, he probably influenced the writing of prose more than anyone else in the first half of the 20th century. He developed a crisp, clear literary style that immediately and directly seized the reader’s attention. There were no frills; every word was carefully chosen for its effect. “Good prose is like a windowpane,” he wrote. “It hides nothing.”
In another influential essay, “Politics and the English Language,” he formulated six rules of good writing that are commonsensical:
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word when a short word will do.
If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
Use the active rather than passive voice.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Rule number six is typical of Orwell: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
Orwell was a master of the eye-catching opening sentence designed to make the reader want to read on. In “Nineteen Eighty Four: “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” In “Marrakech”: “As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.” In “Reflections on Gandhi”: “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”
In many ways Orwell’s essays had the greatest impact on modern prose. He almost single-handedly invented a new cultural artifact — the serious essay about a seemingly unimportant topic. He wrote unforgettable essays on such mundane topics as boys’ adventure books, comic postcards, the difference between English and American murder mysteries, and how to make a good cup of tea. The field of popular cultural studies really begins with Orwell.
Despite Orwell’s being dead for 60 years, his impact lives on. All his work remains in print, and an English scholar recently reprinted in 20 volumes just about everything he wrote. In a poll done in 2000 for an English book chain, “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty Four” rank second and third in popularity among books published in the 20th century, behind J.R.R. Tolkein’s Ring stories. Not bad for someone who did not publish a serious piece of literature until he was 30 and died at the young age of 46.