|Old Bull Lee
A Voice From the Reality-based Community
Notes from a Study of Things Themselves
In December 1936 Geroge Orwell left England for Spain, where the Civil War was raging. He wanted to join the fight against Fascism, but was unsure whether he would do so as a soldier or as a journalist.
According to Michael Shelden in Orwell: The Authorized Biography
...[Orwell] doubted whether he had the stamina or the skill to be a good soldier. And because of the chronic weakness of his lungs, he suspected that he would be turned down for health reasons if he tried to enlist. But he did not rule out joining one of the Spanish political militas if it became clear that they could use him. In the meantime he decided that the best way to serve the cause was to observe the war and write about it for the New Statesman or for some other English paper that was sympathetic to the Republican government.
Carrying a letter of introduction from the British International Labor Party (ILP), Orwell presented himself to the militia of the Party of Marxist Unification (P.O.U.M), one of several leftist organizations already engaged in the conflict. He was accepted at once and received a few weeks training. Enduring privation, hardship and danger without complaint, he was promoted to corporal and, several months later, to lieutenant. Shortly after becoming an officer he was nearly killed when an enemy rifleman shot him in the neck.
During his recuperation he came to realize the Spanish Civil War was not a people-empowering socialist revolution as he had expected. Rather, it was a struggle between the Fascists and an anti-revolutionary Communist Party controlled from Moscow. Furthermore, the Communists were conducting a frightening purge of the leftist activists and militias, including the P.O.U.M. Orwell saw his associates rounded up and imprisoned. Some disappeared forever. Orwell eluded capture and eventually he and his wife managed to escape to safety in France.
Homage to Catalonia, Orwell's personal account of his experiences in Spain, is the story of an idealist coming face to face with the terrifying realities of twentieth century political conflict. It is one of his best known and most enduring works.
Readers are warned, however, that editions published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich contain an execrable 19-page introduction by Lionel Trilling (1905 - 1975), a Columbia University professor of literature.
The name Lionel Trilling appears on the cover of my paperback but I can find it nowhere inside. The flip side of the title page shows that the introduction was copyrighted in 1952 by the American Jewish Committee and again in 1980 by Diana Trilling and James Trilling, presumably Lionel's heirs. A little Google research reveals that the introduction appeared as a 1952 Commentary magazine article titled, "George Orwell and the Politics of Truth."
Apparently Trilling felt a need to mollify post-WWII criticism of Orwell by die-hard Stalinists remaining in elite intellectual circles of New York and London. In doing so he damns Orwell with faint praise (Orwell is "virtuous" but "no genius"), puts down Orwell's other works (Animal Farm "was over rated") and compares him unfavorably to contemporaneous literary figures such as T. S. Eliot. He applies Marxist analysis to Orwell himself, as in this patronizing sentence, "The old-fashionedness of Orwell's temperament can be partly explained by the nature of his relation to his class." At another point Trilling insults Orwell with psychobabble: "This adventure in extreme privation was partly undertaken...to expiate the social guilt he felt...he had incurred in Burma." (What is "social guilt" and how does it feel?)
Modern day readers, unfamiliar with the intellectual fads and academic fashions of the 1950's, will be baffled by the essay. What's worse, the essay's supercilious tone and its author's silly posturing are likely to poison the reader's mind before he can begin the perfectly straightforward story that Orwell has to tell.
How did this atrocious essay find its way into Homage to Catalonia? A hint may be found on the copyright page, which shows the book was copyrighted by Sonia Brownell Orwell in 1952. George Orwell died in 1950 (at age 46) and Sonia Brownell was his second wife and heiress to the rights to his literary works. Michael Shelden's biography tells us that Sonia Brownell, fifteen years younger than Orwell, was a beautiful and vivacious book editor and groupie to famous literary figures. She seems to have married Orwell (three months before he died) mainly to get the royalties to his books. After Orwell died she abandoned his son from his first marriage and moved to the south of France to live with a former lover. By the 1970's she was described as "difficult" and "unpredictable," largely as a result of alcoholism. She died in 1980.
It's my suspicion that Sonia Brownell, either for money or through negligence, allowed the Trilling essay to get into Orwell's book. There is no way that Orwell, if he had been alive, would have allowed it.
Recommendation: Skip the Introduction completely and commence reading where Orwell intended, at Chapter I. Or you might read an online version of Homage to Catalonia, available as it appeared when published in 1938, at orwell.ru, a Russion site that holds all of Orwell's works.