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George Orwell Taught Me to 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.


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