It goes without saying that George Orwell is a literary God and one of the most fascinating, brilliant individuals of the twentieth century (and vies with Clarence Darrow and Hitler for the honor of my “preferred dinner companion, living or dead”). While Orwell was able to enjoy literary success and acclaim throughout his life (particularly after the publication of Animal Farm in 1943), he died at age 46 from tuberculosis, in 1950—just one year after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four— and was unable to fully realize just how his talent had changed the scope of not just literature but politics. He was, and still is, a treasure.
Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, is Orwell’s technically-fictional chronicle of penury in two of the great European capitals. The protagonist, more than loosely based on Orwell himself, washes dishes in Paris at the “Hotel X,” tramps from lodging-house to lodging-house in London and, of course, moves ever closer to his dream of becoming a writer, for which he left his post in the Burmese police force in 1927. (Orwell’s second novel, Burmese Days, is based on his five years in the Indian Imperial Police.) The aspiring author then known simply as Eric Blair made a living writing articles for various newspapers and journals in France and Britain, and did actually work as a dishwasher (or plongeur) in Paris, though probably not so much because he actually needed the money than for the kind of narrative verisimilitude that only undercover reporting can provide. Blair was reluctant to publish DAOIPAL under his own name, thanks to some of the book’s personal details and more “low-life-y” themes. And so George Orwell was born.
The first half of the book is set in Paris, and the second in London and its surroundings. It’s hard to avoid conjuring Ernest Hemingway during Part One (though I think Orwell was about a thousand times as talented as Hemingway), not just for the Latin-Quarter-in-the-twenties setting but the potency of Orwell’s plain, straightforward prose. Orwell’s depictions of the lives of the invisible underclass in a city like Paris, with its veneer of glamour and glitz, is not just poignant but a necessary wake-up call for people (including the so-called liberals) who, to this day, think that if you’re poor you somehow deserve it.
As Hemingway attributed all modern American literature to Twain and Huckleberry Finn, so do I believe one can trace all contemporary debates over social justice to Orwell. Barbara Ehrenreich’s acclaimed and truly excellent Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, for instance, is heavily indebted to Orwell’s firsthand account of poverty in Europe in the 1920s. Orwell made the point first that dishwashers and “tramps” (an outdated term that the author makes sound almost charming) have absolutely no hope of ever emerging from their desperate situations, not because of laziness or the incapacity to resist blowing all their money on booze and drugs, but because they simply can’t. They live paycheck to paycheck, barely retaining enough money to pay rent and keep themselves fed week by week. A dishwasher, for instance, who typically worked six days a week, sixteen hours a day, hardly has time to spend scoping out the job market or training himself for other, better possibilities.
Nor do plongeurs have any real chance of “moving up in the ranks,” for service-industry hierarchies are obdurate; waiters, chefs and management validate their own positions by looking down on everybody else. Each believes his responsibilities require more mental wherewithal than others’, and as a result finds it impossible that a plongeur would ever be capable of becoming, say, a waiter. Throughout his later writings, of course, Orwell touches on the theme that hierarchies and caste systems endure because they are self-enforcing. So-called revolutionaries don’t want to abolish the system altogether, they simply want to displace the top brass and take over (in other words, the proletariat’s temporary seizure of material goods to foment an ultimately fair-and-equal society, in the Marxist tradition, is not viewed by the usurpers as temporary at all). Of course, one could—and Orwell does—argue that this is a form of social totalitarianism, wherein the truly powerful manipulate the masses’ superficial divisions to turn friends with shared strategic interests into hardened enemies. And what’s worse, this social structure is permanent (see Nineteen Eighty-Four’s O’Brien’s dismissal of Winston Smith’s faith that the potential for real change lies with the “proles”). Orwell expresses his disappointment in this inescapable fact, but spends most of DAOIPAL humanizing the so-called riffraff the affluent classes look down upon with such ease.
Orwell was one of the best “crusading journalist” of the twentieth century. He was a brilliant prose stylist, to be sure, but even in his novels, his compassion for the human condition takes center stage—and what’s more, he manages to promote the principles of what he calls “democratic socialism” without the kind of banal sentimentality lesser authors are prone to (let’s just admit we’re all thinking of people like Nicholas Kristof). DAOIPAL aroused in me the kind of shame that exceeds those pangs of yuppie guilt or even the kind of college-bull-session philosophical grandiloquence inspired by perusals of op-Eds with titles like “The Case for Egalitarianism.” Orwell tells simple stories with unimpeachable messages about what he admits are complicated problems, and he makes political apathy seem not only impossible but immoral. Maybe I’m being zealous, but he’s nothing less than a hero.