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John Wilson

Orwell the Essayist

A new selection in two volumes.

Before anything else," George Packer writes in his foreword to a newly published two-volume selection of Orwell's essays, "George Orwell was an essayist." This being so, Packer goes on to observe, "it's an odd fact that even readers who know 1984 well and have read one or two of Orwell's other books are likely to be unfamiliar with the most essential Orwell. Aside from 'Politics and the English Language' and perhaps 'Shooting an Elephant,' none of his essays are widely read, and some of the best remain almost unknown."

My immediate reaction was that Packer is simply wrong here—surely Orwell's essays are much more widely known than he supposes?—and that's what I said in the first draft of this column. Then I had an opportunity to poll some bright young journalists. The results confirmed Packer's judgment. All the more reason to get the word out about these books.

In compiling his selections, Packer sought to show how Orwell the essayist worked in two quite different modes. One volume, All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays, introduced by Keith Gessen, is intended to highlight Orwell's mastery of critical analysis, while the other, Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays, introduced by Packer, features pieces that "build meaning from telling a story." The division between the two modes isn't always clear-cut, Packer concedes, but it's a useful rough-and-ready distinction.

I'm grateful for these volumes. Packer and Gessen are both enlightening introducers. Gessen's piece in particular is one of the best I've read on Orwell in a long time, combining to an unusual degree a great admiration for Orwell's achievements with a critical assessment that Orwell himself would have appreciated.

Orwell is one of those figures—like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—whose exceptional moral authority is claimed over and over again by rival factions in current debates. One reason to read these essays, though certainly not the most ...

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