1984, George Orwell’s novel of a dystopian future of sophisticated totalitarianism, has been a consistent seller since it was published in 1949. But in 2017, it shot suddenly to the upper reaches of Amazon’s best seller list and its publisher, Penguin Books ordered up 75,000 more copies. The book took off right after President Donald Trump’s advisor Kelly Anne Conway defended administration over-estimations of the crowd at Trump’s inaugural by using the two-word concept of “alternative facts.”
The concept and its application reminded a lot of people of the ruling party’s slogans in 1984: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” And so, tens of thousands of readers in America and around the world went and bought the book. And prepared themselves for a phone call filled with impeachable offenses being labeled “perfect.”
I was reminded again of Orwell, a few weeks ago, when my friend the fine AP reporter in Albuquerque, Russell Contreras, wrote about an exhibition currently on view at the Zimmerman Library at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, a collection of books and related materials focused on George Orwell.
Our guest today, Russ Davidson, a long-time University of New Mexico professor and curator emeritus at the library, collected and donated the Orwell materials…and before we start our conversation, here are some observations of, and by Orwell, I want to share.
As an adolescent in prep school, a classmate, Cyril Connolly, who would go on to be a renowned writer and critic himself, observed, “The remarkable thing about Orwell was that alone among the boys he was an intellectual and not a parrot – for he thought for himself.”
Orwell not only thought for himself, he was impelled always to see for himself, which is one reason why he enlisted, at 19, to serve as an officer of the Indian Police Service in Burma.
What he saw in Burma so disturbed him that after five years, he quit policing and turned to writing, writing – as he was advised – about what he knew.
To do that, George Orwell consistently applied three techniques, one personal, one professional and one moral.
Personally, Orwell immersed himself in his subject. The essays, “A Hanging,” and “Shooting an Elephant,” and his novel Burmese Days were all based on personal experience. So were his explorations of the lives of Britain and France’s poorest citizens – Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, based on months scrabbling menial jobs in Paris and living among coal miners and other workers in northern England.
But, Orwell wasn’t just a socio-political empath. From the beginning, Orwell sought and achieved what the critic Raymond Williams called, a “successful impersonation of a plain man who bumps into experience in an unmediated way and tells the truth about it.” Which is to say, Orwell was first and foremost, a journalist, or, as he described his work in a speech presented in the 1930s, “An Outsider Sees the Distressed Areas.”
But, this career outsider had a moral vision, captured by a friend when he was a 20-year-old cop in Burma. He had, she said, a “sense of utter fairness in minutest details.”
Finally, there is this, a description written by Orwell: “He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry – … a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”
Orwell said this was a portrait of Charles Dickens, but one than one reader has said, “No, that’s Orwell.”
Russ Davidson, University of New Mexico professor and curator emeritus, is both an avid collector of rare George Orwell books and a great supporter of the College of University Libraries and Learning Sciences.
Davidson, who worked at University Libraries for 25 years, has generously agreed to donate his beloved Orwell book collection, which will be exhibited in Zimmerman Library from September 2019 through spring of 2020.
When asked what inspired his interest in George Orwell, Davidson explained, “I don’t recall exactly when I first latched on to George Orwell — it might have been in high school, when we were assigned to read his great anti-empire essay, ‘Shooting an Elephant,’ as a model of English composition, or perhaps it was later, during my college years, when I started to read him in earnest. At any rate, I was attracted by the clarity and vividness of his writing.
Later, I came to appreciate the power of his ideas, his dedication to get at the truth and bare essence of things, and his life-long willingness to stand alone whenever necessary, against party and ideology, and his unfailing human touch.”
The books from Davidson’s George Orwell Collection in many instances represent scarce and unusual editions in various languages. There are, for example, first editions of Animal Farm and 1984 in Icelandic, Ukrainian, Swahili, Afrikaans, Norwegian, Danish, French, Urdu, German, Hungarian, Indonesian, British, Swedish, Spanish and Italian. Davidson’s extensive collection also includes first, early and other scarce editions of many of Orwell’s other books, essays and journalistic writings. These treasured items will be archived in the Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections where they will be available for future research.