Road to Wigan Pier, The
Out of the three non-fiction books of Orwell that I’ve read, Homage to Catalonia is my favorite (see my review), indeed is as near perfect as you can find. This one is probably my 2nd favorite so far, just for the heights of analysis that he reaches. Orwell, perhaps more than any other writer, has an amazing ability to take a step back from a particular issue in order to view the larger perspective, yet simultaneously penetrate straight to the heart of it with incisive, common-sensical language that is at once both familiar and fresh (and totally distinctive). I love his writing, and through it the man himself.
Rarely does a book, especially one of non-fiction, excite me as I read it. And yet here I am, giddy from the last few chapters of The Road to Wigan Pier, where I encountered 80-year-old arguments on technology, progress, and class dysfunction that seem as lively and relevant as ever. Indeed, a few of the arguments I had actually arrived at independently, in response to events and circumstances of the 21st century. Seeing them elucidated with much greater skill and eloquence by my hero, Mr. Orwell, leaves me proud and gratified to have unconsciously followed in his footsteps.
It’s not as consistent as Down and Out in Paris and London, which I just read (see my review), but its highs are higher. And while his descriptions of the miners and other working class around Wigan lack the heart and empathy he showed in Down and Out, he still makes the same penetrating insights in regards to the impossibility of their situation. He indelibly shows us that what is happening to them is not okay, and also that the problem is damn near intractable. But the real beauty of the book begins in Part II, when Orwell gives a brief autobiography of the formulation of his political ideals, then follows it with a discussion of Classes and Socialism.
I believe the overarching, permeating quality of this discussion is Orwell’s very sincerity on the matter. He freely admits his own ingrained class prejudices, and very astutely points out how they (and analogous ones in corresponding members of the middle class) present stubborn obstacles to the fellowship of the working class that is the Socialists’ ostensible goal. For if middle class Socialists secretly loathe the dirty workers, and the working class reasonably distrusts their middle class supporters, there is no hope for anything constructive to pass.
He proceeds from this to a withering critique of the Socialist leaders, wondering if, beneath their purported “love of the workers,” there is really nothing more than “a hypertrophied sense of order.” This sentiment, he continuously warns, is that which will eventually lead the current middle class Socialists to embrace the burgeoning Fascism.
Then comes Ch. 12 (my favorite), Orwell’s take-down of industrialization and “progress,” or as we call it today: technology. While recognizing the inevitability of these advances, and even their overall desirability, he detests that they make us “safe and soft.” He points out the rather obvious fact that humans, in the hoped-for world where everything is done for us, should have no reason to be physically, morally or emotionally fit. It’s really impossible to do the discussion justice without quoting it all here, but I’ll give his conclusion from p. 203:
The machine has got to be accepted, but it is probably better to accept it rather as one accepts a drug — that is, grudgingly and suspiciously. Like a drug, the machine is useful, dangerous and habit-forming. The oftener one surrenders to it the tighter its grip becomes.
Sounds like a world I am becoming acquainted with more every day. I love the prescience on display, especially in this discussion, but also at other points concerning inequality and unemployment. You can also see the beginnings of the worried strains that would eventually lead to 1984.
As for the introduction, despite its criticism of Orwell I enjoyed reading it both before and after. I think it tainted my perception of the opening chapters, making me particularly perceptive to Orwell’s callousness. Of course it’s indisputable that he’s inappropriately insensitive as he describes the poor, essentially as one would a lower species. Again, this is in stark contrast to the sympathy he shows the underclass in Down and Out.
But aside from the more-or-less accurate accusation of snobbery (though I believe Orwell sincerely admits guilt and accepts blame in the 2nd half), the foreword comes across as hyper-sensitive when re-reading it upon finishing the book. Gollancz’s rebuttals against Orwell’s charges are largely unconvincing — he brushes off, without any real argument, the idea that Socialism is associated with automatization; he essentially ignores Orwell’s larger point about the need to better tailor propaganda toward the workers; he exaggerates Orwell’s disdain for certain “crank” movements; and — in my opinion the worst offense — he mocks Orwell for admitting his own ingrained class prejudices, then disingenuously (or ignorantly) claims that nobody else feels them.
Thus, while I sheepishly felt after first reading the Foreword that my love for Orwell had perhaps been misplaced (and this feeling even carried over into the first few chapters as I witnessed certain rough depictions of his subjects), after reading the book I believe that between the two men, Orwell ultimately gave the better showing. So it turns out that my adulation is totally merited, and that I can continue reading (and loving) Orwell’s non-fiction with clear conscience.
To sum up: Orwell is wondrous, this book is less wondrous than Homage (which is no insult), but really you should read all three of the ones mentioned here, probably in chronological order, so as best to see Orwell’s development.