Why Orwell Still Matters

George Orwell (1903-1950) deserves to be read and reread: in part for his spare and disciplined and luminous style,  but more importantly perhaps because much of his work is cautionary.  It warns its readers about the evil in the individual human heart as well as about the dangers of an oppressive tyranny, whether imposed by a individual like Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler or by a revolutionary party,  such as the fascists and “National Socialists” in the Europe of the mid-twentieth century.

Doubtless most of you are familiar with his two most popular novels, the fantasy of “Animal Farm” and the brutal realism of “1984.”  Some of his lines will stay with me forever, such as the first sentence in “1984”:  “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” And this from “Animal Farm”:  “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Orwell is also important for his teaching others about the values inherent in good writing practices.  Like his contemporary, the greatest writer among the great writers on “The New Yorker” Joseph Mitchell,  Orwell was a master of the English declarative sentence.  His “Politics and the English Language”  is a small masterpiece.

As a disciplined writer and teacher, who was part of the North Carolina Writing Project in the 1970s,  Harriett McDonald much admired Orwell as both a model and a mentor.  I have captured and kept something she wrote many years ago that is worth our attention:

“George Orwell said, in 1946, that the decadence of our language is probably curable.  And he gave us six ‘Canadian Air-Force Exercises’ by which to cure ourselves.    Orwell’s rules are:

1. Never use a metaphor, a simile or other  figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short word will do.

3.  If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.  Never use a passive voice, where you can use the active.

5.  Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6.  Break any of these rules  sooner than say something outright barbarous. ”

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