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George Orwell Taught Me to Write History


I never cared much for American history in school. My mind does not cling easily to dates, names, or dots on maps. I struggled with concepts like "Federalism" and "Whig" and "Manifest Destiny."  (click title to read more) 


Back in my day, history class seemed little more than a litany of wars, land grabs, and white men in wigs. The memorable people were heroes or they were villains. Everyone else was part of some faceless horde. And, believe me, you did not want to be part of a faceless horde in early America, especially if you were female, Native American, poor, young, old, handicapped, ill, non-Protestant, or a member of any ethnic or racial minority.

In college I was a literature major who leaned toward the so-called "classic" English writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Swift. There was a lot of history involved in my studies to be sure -- more wigs and territorial wars -- yet this was British history, not American, and it seemed more colorful, ancient, and romantic.

But I was also a budding journalist. I've been writing a local newspaper column of some sort since middle school. Journalists focus on being accurate, writing fast, and making a living. Literature majors focus on fiction. They care about plot and action, well-developed characters, descriptive settings, and powerful messages. Literature majors usually end up as teachers, while fiction writers usually starve.  I had my head in the clouds, you might say, my heart in the past, and my feet firmly planted in the daily doings of New Hampshire.

My only college history course was on the Catholic popes of the Middle Ages. Talk about colorful and corrupt. They made Watergate look like a girl scout cookie sale.  Who knew that in 897 A.D. the cadaver of Pope Formosus was taken from its tomb in Rome, propped up in a chair, convicted of perjury, and thrown into the TiberRiver?  The story that Pope John VIII was actually a woman named Joan is pretty shaky, but no less real than the fictional story of the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock. In fact, the more I got interested in history, the more often well-known "facts" exploded into fiction. But History professor Charlie Clark had gotten my attention with lively tales of greedy war-mongering popes. The border between history and fantasy had turned to Jell-O.

Cadaver synod of Pope Formosus  

CONTINUE Why I Write History 



After graduating from college, I spent a year in England where I met George Orwell. He was as dead as a medieval pope by then, but Penguin Books had recently released Orwell's collected works in four paperback volumes at 50 pence each. The edition was not available in the United States. Like most Americans, I had known Orwell only as the author of two novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, both about the dangers of totalitarianism. Both are still bestsellers today.

But in England George Orwell (1903-1950) was better known as a writer of powerful essays, a literary form largely dead these days in America. Fiction rules here, and much of it not worth the pixels it is printed on. Orwell was a working-class boy who went to the best English schools. He lived in an age of magazines and war. He combined journalism, autobiography, opinion, and scholarship with beautifully flowing prose. He sprang from  the literary culture of 18th century essayists like Dr. Samuel Johnson, whom I had studied and admired in college. Orwell was unique and his voice sounds like no other.  

The essay is simply one writer telling you what he thinks is terribly important. The essay form pulls together seemingly disconnected details to make sense of the world. Orwell spoke with a voice so clear and honest that you believed his every word. But unlike earlier British essayists, Orwell tossed away the pompous language and the preachy style. He talked to you like a friend in a bar. He knew, as a working journalist, that the first sentence is critical. You grab the reader or the reader gets away.

Portsmouth Market square

As a journalist, like Orwell, I had been taught the "inverted pyramid" style of writing. You open with a fact-packed "lead" sentence that tells the reader who, what, when, and where you are writing about. You move on to the "why" and the "how,' filling in increasingly minor details. I can still recall turning in my sports reports back in the day when articles were assembled with sticky waxed strips of paper. If the story ran too long, the person assembling the page simply cut off the last few inches with a pair of scissors. The essay, by contrast, builds like a novel toward the final impact. It is all about molding a collection of ideas into a message. Cut off the ending and the essay bleeds to death.

When I was a writing teacher, I made my students read many opening lines from Orwell's essays. The first sentence of "Marrakech" is a perfect example. It begins: "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." Everything you need to know is packed into that opening line.

While attending summer school at OxfordUniversity, and later while working as a bartender in Norwich, England, I read all four volumes of Orwell's essays and letters. I consumed all 2,000 pages. Then I read every novel he ever wrote. I was addicted. I was possessed. I had become a disciple.



George-Orwell at the BBC 

Orwell (his real name was Eric Blair) supported his fiction by writing essays. He sold the same article as often as 20 times to different publications in order to eke out a living. He also worked in a grocery store and a bookstore. He was a correspondent in the Spanish Civil War and was shot through the neck by a sniper. He died of tuberculosis at age 46. He produced nine books and his essays are his best work. They are why I write the way I do.   

The essay is form in search of content. It is the paint and canvas of the wordsmith. Orwell was a political activist because he lived in a world of war. But he also wrote about books, travel, poverty, dirty postcards, shooting an elephant, and making the perfect cup of tea. As a journalist, Orwell rarely reported. He "argued out his ideas" on paper, a scholar notes. He was afraid that the world was running out of truth, and despite poverty and ill-health, he could not stop typing. He was "driven by a demon," Orwell once wrote, that he could neither resist nor understand. Perhaps , he added, he merely wrote out of "the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention." Born into a different world, he suggested, he might have been only a clever reviewer of books and movies.

 Born into a different world, I might have stayed a teacher, or perhaps been a preacher or a reference librarian. But Orwell urged me on. I write about history because, living in Portsmouth, it surrounds and it consumes me. History shows us what other people did with their brief lives and what life did to them in return. The people I write about, for the most part, have had their chance. Their time has come and gone.  The people I am writing for still have an opportunity to fix what is broken and to love what is unloved, before their time too fades away.

I focus on small, local, seemingly obscure topics as often as possible, because it is only through the microcosm that the cosmos can be seen. Our brains are just too tiny to take on the mystery of why we are here. But we can, for a moment, glimpse our purpose, one puzzle piece at a time. A well-crafted essay is a distant voice embedded in a compressed space. It can be a signal beacon on a vast and fearsome ocean.

History tells us that we are not alone. We are part of a continuum. The problem with history is that so few people get to know it well. We make judgments based on what we think happened in the past. But we rarely take the time to dig for details. We too often assume that our forebears were just like us or nothing like us at all. We lack context. We cherry-pick the stories that suit our modern needs. Or worse, we know nothing about the past at all.

My job, as I see it, is to be your guide. I agreed to spend the lion's share of my life buzzing around in a time machine. I confer with people who are experts in local history. I poke underground, read old letters, comb dusty archives, and peek into closets.  I am not unbiased. In fact, I am full of opinions, but they are opinions based on decades of familiarity with the local past. When new facts are revealed, I occasionally change my mind. I evolve. Like your financial advisor, I can be wrong, dead wrong. But I will never say anything unless I believe it is the truth.

So when I tell you that the founders of New Hampshire's only seaport were investors out to make a fast buck, that is what my research indicates. When their investment did not pan out -- when there was no gold or precious stones -- the founding investors quickly pulled out of the deal and stranded their impoverished workers here. That is how this city began. Portsmouth expanded and thrived due to an intermarried cluster of wealthy and powerful merchant families. They built fine houses and acted like snobby members of the British gentry. They kept slaves, buried those slaves, and built roads over their graves. When I tell you that people from out-of-town were the ones who largely preserved our historic museum buildings, I'm not being irreverent. It's what happened.

Our mercantile forebears would have loved to see this city booming as it is today. That was always their goal. They were proud of the city's heritage, but they were happy to trade the past for a dollar. And they often got the story wrong. They saw people as either heroes or villains, and they revered wars and white men in wigs. Like Orwell, I am much more interested in "the common man" and "popular culture" than in passing on romantic legends and parroting glorious myths. We learn nothing valuable if we imagine, as some historians have done, that Portsmouth -- or any place we love -- is some shining unchanging city on a hill. If our preserved buildings are merely a nostalgic backdrop, then we might as well live on a movie set. What I love are the warts and blemishes, the unheralded heroes and heroines, and the uncovered facts. Like every essayist, I am in this game to expose lies and unveil the truth.  

"I know what you're doing," a reader said to me not long ago. "I see why you are writing. You want to hand a man a trophy, and at the same time, to pull down his pants."

That's probably it.  The truth can be comforting, but it is also embarrassing, and sometimes shocking.

We are not going to be a great or a failed city based  on the height of our buildings or the number of our monuments, plaques, parking lots, hotels, historic houses, and skating rinks. It isn't about decibels or drain spouts, festivals or fences, window frames or walking trails. The "built environment," as scholars call it, is only a touchstone to what matters. To be a truly great and enlightened city, we need to understand what really happened here in the past and why it matters so much. If I can help make that mystery clearer during my brief stay here, then my debt to Mr. Orwell is paid.

Copyright © 2014 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALSand AMERICA'S PRIVATEER: Lynx and the War of 1812. .  


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