CRF Blog

Getting to ‘No’

by Bill Hayes

In Getting to “No” for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guy Patrick Cunningham takes a second look at George Orwell’s classic book Animal Farm.

I’VE BEEN READING GEORGE ORWELL for a long time, since I discovered Animal Farm at the age of 11 (if I remember correctly, I picked it up because I liked the picture on the cover). No writer meant more to me as a teenager — it’s no exaggeration to say that my interest in political literature stems almost entirely from that early exposure to his novels and essays. But today, I find myself feeling more and more ambivalent about him. So when Melville House published a new, 10th-anniversary edition of Snowball’s Chance, John Reed’s satire of Animal Farm, it seemed to me like a good opportunity to evaluate the original book anew, to read it in the light of someone less sympathetic to the Orwell persona than that 11-year-old kid.

Because he captures a particular kind of dissent so well, — a distrust of authority, a contempt for the slipperiness of modern political discourse — and because his literary visions of totalitarianism are so striking, critics and readers often talk about Orwell’s work in personal, even moral terms. In 1952, Lionel Trilling summarized him by declaring, “He told the truth, and told it in an exemplary way,” setting a tone that has carried on pretty much right through today. When a radical like Occupy Wall Street–supporter David Graeber wants to discuss the corrosive role money plays in American politics, he invokes George Orwell to do it. When a conservative like Newt Gingrich wants to inveigh against “government-run health care,” he turns to Orwell too. And when Edward Snowden leaked information about the National Security Agency’s electronic eavesdropping program, 1984 shot up the Amazon rankings, as inspired people turned to Orwell to make sense of the modern surveillance state. For someone weaned on Orwell, a man who, writing of Gandhi himself, famously declared, “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” it is a bit unsettling to see the man born Eric Arthur Blair turned into a kind of secular saint. And like any saint, Orwell has a canon — and Animal Farm, the book that made him internationally famous, sits right at its center. [more]