So I purchased a book last year because I loved its design. It was a David Pearson design from the Penguin Great Ideas series: Books v. cigarettes by George Orwell. I had previously read a few essays of Orwell and was eager to read more. I was rewarded with an essay written a year before he began Nineteen Eighty-Four which had major consequences for his greatest novel.
This essay, “The Prevention of Literature,” was first published in 1946. It was inspired by a PEN Club meeting celebrating the tercentenary of Milton’s Areopagitica, perhaps the greatest defense of the freedom of the press ever written in English.
…as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God…
Orwell found it deeply disturbing that the celebration, occurring in the midst of World War II, ironically refused to defend press writing which was critical or opposed—in other words, exactly the type of writing that needs the protection of freedom of the press.
These issues had been pressing on Orwell for some time. He had worked as a war correspondent and knew firsthand that even supposedly free states covered up or changed information they didn’t like. In this essay, you begin to see some of his ideas for Nineteen Eighty-Four coalesce:
…in order to keep its position, [a totalitarian state’s ruling class] has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened. Then, again, every major change in policy demands a corresponding change of doctrine and a reevaluation of prominent historical figures…Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past.
Orwell makes his point neatly and with finesse. He was an excellent essayist. Before Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell had largely achieved more success in his journalistic writings than his novels. (This includes the now-obligatory read Animal Farm, which was published in 1945 after some difficulty. Ask me more about that later.) So why did Orwell choose to expand on these ideas in the form of fiction? Why not simply write a series of essays?
The answer, I think, lies further into this 1946 essay. In it, Orwell argues “prose literature has reached its highest levels in periods of democracy and free speculation” because a totalitarian state “can never permit…the emotional sincerity that literary creation demands.” Orwell wanted to write against the dangers of totalitarianism, but he wanted to drive the point home by writing a novel. He wanted to write his treatment in a form that, if it succeeded, would simply be impossible truly to replicate in a state that wasn’t free.
Literature is doomed if liberty of thought perishes.
Orwell wanted to show us the type of art we would be missing if we lost that liberty.
As for the result of his efforts, all I can say is this: Bravo, Mr. Orwell.