George Orwell died 53 years ago yesterday (January 21, 1950). The great author would have little academic respect were it not for his essays and journalism. And he would have little popular name recognition were it not for his two political novels.
As an essayist, Orwell clearly ranks as one of the century’s best: His short pieces and journalism find places in more anthologies than those of any other 20th century writer and his star grows brighter with each passing year.
Christopher Hitchens’ admiring-but-not-hagiographical book on Orwell, Why Orwell Matters, appeared in bookstores last year to favorable reviews from all points on the political spectrum. Hitchens, like most serious students of Orwell’s oeuvre, focuses on essays and reportage about working class life in the U.K. (The Road to Wigan Pier), The Spanish Civil War (Homage to Catalonia) and the harmful effects of colonialism (Burmese Days). Few can really criticize the merits of these works, but the quality of Orwell’s reporting sometimes works against his essays’ universality. By dwelling on his own times and advocating (albeit indirectly) time-specific political views, Orwell’s essays sometimes seem a little dated particularly to high school teachers who often have trouble understanding the literary nature of the best journalism. Still, thanks to Orwell’s novels, they still get read while equally skilled essayists of the same era like John Hershey and Joseph Mitchell attract far less attention today.
Orwell’s continuing popularity, indeed, stems from his two explicitly political novels: Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Both often find places on high school syllabi but, ultimately, get little respect from academe. Harold Bloom’s edited collection of essays on Orwell, for example, begins with a lengthy diagnosis of his flaws as a fiction writer. Perhaps because both novels are examples of clear narrative writing and vivid characterization (things avant-garde literary scholars tend to distain), they rarely get mentioned in college literature courses.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s famous attack on totalitarianism in general and Stalinism in particular, often gets assigned and read near the end of high school. This make sense: After all, Nineteen Eighty-Four includes explicit sex and torture scenes and ends with the protagonist being shot in the head. Understanding the novel properly—which many teachers fail to do when they present it as a simple critique of Stalinism—requires a good deal of sophistication. If anything, students tend to read it too early.
Animal Farm, on the other hand, gets assigned to many students around the same time when it’s quite an easy read. It should be assigned much earlier: The beast-fable retelling of the Russian Revolution is, in fact, a nearly perfect book for beginning readers. In fact, its reading level, content, and style make it a perfect book to assign to beginning readers as young as the second or third grade. Among well-remembered novels, it’s quite easy to read: its 4.1 score on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale, the standard measure of reading difficulty, compares favorably to E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan (3.5) and proves a good deal easier than the more recent Harry Potter books (about 7th grade level) or a typical newspaper article (5th or 6th grade level). If an author known for producing children’s book’s had written it, it would almost certainly be found in the children’s literature section of bookstores today.
As it is, bright second graders can actually understand it. (I should know, that’s when I first read it.) It offers simple, vividly drawn characters, a fast moving plot and lots of catch phrases (four legs good, two legs bad!) children have already heard. As a beast fable it presents a narrative form kids already know. Content-wise, Animal Farm conveys valuable moral lessons: While it’s explicitly an allegory of the Russian revolution, it makes the more significant point that unmonitored authority, wielded by the pigs in the novel and many governments, labor unions, corporations in real life, tends to corrupt no matter how idealistic its aims first appear. The novel, while not explicitly conservative or liberal--Orwell, after all, was a socialist who hated totalitarianism of all stripes--dwells on the inevitable failure of massive collectivist schemes. There’s some violence, it’s true, but nearly all of it is directed at animals and, in any case, there’s far less than one tends to find on prime-time television all children. Like most of Orwell’s writing and unlike the "See Dick Run" readers many children begin with, it’s also a model of good English prose that even college English professors can grudgingly appreciate. It’s a real work of literature that deserves a place much earlier on in the school system.