The Unexamined Orwell is the seventh book John Rodden has authored, co-written, or edited on the subject of George Orwell (two more are in the offing), and its scattershot nature testifies to the dwindling returns of his ongoing obsession. In three sections, Rodden profiles five potential heirs to the tradition of disinterested, honorable men speaking truths plainly and loudly, examines Orwell’s impact and influence in East Germany before after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and rounds out his book with short, scattered hypothetical investigations into potential influences and what Orwell might have accomplished had he lived longer. Often tiresome, and failing, in spite of good intentions, to offer any kind of unified argument, The Unexamined Orwell nonetheless serves up insights that should draw the attention of the author’s admirers.
Rodden’s main concern (already tackled in books like his Scenes From An Afterlife: The Legacy Of George Orwell) is how Orwell has been claimed by left and right as their own since his death, his last name coming to signify “the amulet, not the author.” The best chapters take up about a third of the book: profiles of three public intellectuals all nominated as “the American Orwell,” a brief and sardonic overview of Orwellian Newspeak as manifested in East German textbooks, and an amusingly digressive examination on what might have happened during a meeting between Orwell and Ernest Hemingway. Depending on who’s speaking, Orwell was the father of neo-conservatism or a deathless Communist: Rodden is too smart to fall for either argument, and makes his case that Orwell’s politics deserve respect, and he should be more than a name used as a stick to beat intellectual opponents over the head.
A taste for academic politics and the kinds of controversies confined to the pages of American Scholar and similar publications is a prerequisite for enjoying the book. Rodden’s chapters on Lionel Trilling (including a lengthy reconstruction of a fascinatingly contentious war-of-words about the critic’s ultimate value, as fought between his angry son and equally enraged lovers of his work), now-overlooked cultural critic Dwight Macdonald, and Irving Howe don’t just resurrect arcane controversies, they bring out a world of non-academic “public intellectuals.” In all cases, Rodden is considering why Orwell has endured in the public imagination, while his would-be heirs have become the realm of specialists and academics.
The same can’t be said of the rest of the book. The 2005 interview with Christopher Hitchens about his views on the Iraq War seems endless, and an admiring chapter on historian John Lukacs consists of little more than 50 synonyms for “iconoclast.” The book also includes testimonies from East German survivors (Rodden’s other multi-volume specialty), and wobbly conjectures about what Orwell might’ve thought of his biographers, the Vietnam War, etc. At his most speculative, Rodden has an authoritative knowledge of his subject that leads him to conflate his thoughts with Orwell’s, while offering only the most tenuous support for his arguments. Some chapters work, while others go nowhere, but Unexamined Orwell includes at least five solid essays, with scattered anecdotes to make the rest go down easily enough.