restricted access The Unexamined Orwell by John Rodden (review)
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John Rodden. The Unexamined Orwell. Austin: U of Texas P, 2011. x + 403 pp.

John Rodden’s latest book on the legacy of George Orwell offers several esoteric studies and “thought experiment[s]” aimed at addressing, if not the unexamined, at least the under-examined elements of Orwell’s career (10). Splitting the book into three sections, Rodden renders sketches of five prominent American intellectuals with the intention of suggesting potential successors to Orwell; assesses the influence of Orwell in Germany with particular focus on the Orwellian dystopia of historical East Germany; and presents a miscellany of essays on myths surrounding Orwell and speculation on Orwell’s opinions of recent world events. Although not introducing [End Page 883] any substantial new critical arguments, the book clarifies and caulks certain areas of Orwell scholarship, offering some tentative new perspectives and vividly elucidating the surrounding critical discourse of his subject matter.

Beginning his introduction with a summary of Orwell’s transition from author to “cultural icon and historical talisman,” Rodden outlines some of the misconceptions and misuses of the Orwell name. Pointing out that “speculation about his posthumous politics” is in fact an “over-examined” area of discussion, Rodden nonetheless insists that such continued speculation is valuable and declares his wish to “furnish fresh perspectives on him and his work” in order to stimulate “still further investigation of his rich corpus and ambiguous heritage” (4). Justifying several essays in The Unexamined Orwell in which he indulges the question of W.W.G.O.D. (What Would George Orwell Do?), Rodden cites his legitimacy in undertaking such an enterprise, writing: “I do not simply toss off knee-jerk impressions . . . I consider the governing themes and contexts of his work, and I assess the value and shortcomings of historians’ common tools” (11). His argument here seems somewhat confused, as though Rodden is still undecided himself about the role of speculative writing about Orwell’s politics. However, the miscellany that the book provides makes up for any lack of clarity in overall argument and in fact leaves the reader greater room to interpret the significance of the material Rodden presents.

Perhaps the most interesting section of The Unexamined Orwell is the first section, “If the Mantle Fits . . . “ which gives five case studies of potential Orwell successors: Lionel Trilling, Dwight McDonald, Irving Howe, Christopher Hitchens, and John Lukács. Although the notion of whether any of these intellectual figures resembles Orwell seems a potentially interesting but ultimately fruitless exercise, this seems to be merely a cover story for Rodden’s inclusion of these portraits. Rather, these distinct figures each convey something of the continued importance, not of Orwell per se, but of the kind of politics we associate with the figure of Orwell. In each case of these figures, some with more clear relationships to Orwell than others, Rodden makes repeated overt links with Orwell, which provide interesting readings of the careers of these figures, offering a suggestion of the types of qualities that continue to be valued in our public intellectuals.

Particularly interesting among these is Rodden’s portrait of Christopher Hitchens, with whom Rodden consulted in writing of The Unexamined Orwell, and whom he interviews in the course of these pages. Though beginning his portrait with a rather unnecessary degree of background information (and what seems like a needless defense of certain moments of Hitchens’s career), the focus in the interview on the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War offers an interesting [End Page 884] perspective on Orwellian, disinterested politics. Despite the somewhat cursory and general questions, the substance of the interview, delivered with Hitchens’s usual perspicacious and stalwart mental acuity, takes on a stunningly interesting dimension when placed within the context of the question of W.W.G.O.D. As Rodden points out, if Orwell had survived to become a “venerable centenarian . . . he would have witnessed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003” (319).

The second section, “Politics and the German Language,” assesses the notable presence of Orwell in Germany and the importance of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in post-World War II East Germany. Rather than a stand-alone study, this section...