I have recently decided to make myself familiar with the works of George Orwell. I was one of the few unfortunate souls who were deprived the opportunity to explore the works of this great, influential writer of the twentieth century. I have to say that I am somewhat glad I had been deprived the privilege while in high school. If I had had to read Orwell’s great works then, I would have been unable to appreciate them as I do now. After reading Animal Farm and 1984, I chose to read The Road to Wigan Pier, a work of nonfiction by the author. What sets The Road to Wigan Pier apart from the other works of Orwell that I have read, is the way in which Orwell writes this book. The writing in this book is calm and collected. When reading Animal Farm or 1984 the writing often seems hurried. You feel that the author is rushing against the clock and feverishly searching for the words to describe his message. I thoroughly enjoyed reading both Animal Farm and 1984, and while the text feels rushed it is still exceptional. In The Road to Wigan Pier, you feel as though the author still feels that he has all the time in the world. He knows the issue of poverty in England is serious, and that Fascism is a threat to civilization, but he does not let this imminent threat stunt his writing.
The book was commissioned by the Left Book Club, a Socialist group in England. They had asked George Orwell to investigate the condition of the coal miners who lived in northern England. They got this, and more. The book is divided into two sections. The first, on the topic he was sent to write about; the second, Orwell gives his criticisms on Socialism, how others view Socialist, and how to make Socialism more appealing to the people of England.
The first part of the book is an excellent investigative story on how the coal miners and their families lived. Orwell illustrates the squalid living conditions in which these families lived. He persuaded some miners to share their weekly expenses with him so the people could see what these families had to spend, and how little they had at the end of the week. One point I thought interesting that Orwell discusses is the diet of the miners, and of the poor. Orwell explains that the miners tend to eat very little, but the more interesting point that Orwell brings up is what they ate. Orwell is troubled by how poor the diet is of these people, and how limited their access to healthy food is. Orwell says this about the diet of the working class, “The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea and potatoes–an appalling diet”. He is to some extent, perplexed by the fact that the poor or so adamant on eating white bread instead of brown. Brown (wheat) bread is obviously the healthier choice and is not any more expensive. Orwell does give an explanation for why the poor hold such a strong prejudice to brown bread. Orwell explains that the poor associate brown bread with black bread, which he suspects “the real reason is that in the past brown bread has been confused with black bread, which is traditionally associated with Popery and wooden shoes”. He then adds, “They have plenty of Popery and wooden shoes in Lancashire. A pity they haven’t the black bread as well!”. What I find interesting about this observation made by Orwell is the fact that these issues are still a problem—in the United States certainly, and I’m sure it is true for England as well. There has been much discussion in recent years about the horrific quality of the average poor, or working class American’s diet. Recently there has been significant strides to make healthy food more accessible to the impoverished areas of our nation. Orwell does make an observation that I can’t help but think true. Orwell says that, “The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. . . . When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food.” This, it appears, must be true in some instances.
In the second part of the book, Orwell gives his analysis on the state of the Socialist of England, and what to do to make their cause more successful. He plays advocatus diaboli, and gives the antagonist towards Socialism’s perspective. At times it appears that Orwell is speaking for himself, and not the opposition. Victor Gollancz, a leading member of the Left Book Club, and the author of the foreword to this book says that Orwell is, “quite often and quite obviously he is really speaking propria persona–or . . . in his own words.” It doesn’t bother me in the slightest if it is wholeheartedly the opinion of Orwell or not. The criticism is enlightening, and should be read by any who believe in the ideas of Socialism. The point to remember though is that Orwell criticized Socialism because he wanted it to be stronger. He wanted Socialism to be stronger so that it could fight, what he saw as the greatest threat to western civilization, Fascism. In Orwell’s opinion, Socialism was the only ideology that was capable to fight Fascism, “For Socialism is the only real enemy that Fascism has to face. The capitalist-imperialist governments, even though they themselves are about to be plundered, will not fight with any conviction against Fascism as such.” To some degree this appears to be true; had not the United States embraced certain Socialist policies during World War II, it would be difficult to imagine us being able to win. Western Europe did, itself, embraced Socialism quite tremendously after World War II. Orwell also gives an interesting caricature of the average Socialist as being a “fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist”. He later goes on to add vegetarian to that list. This seems to be still a quite accurate caricature of many on the left. Orwell proposes that Socialism do a little PR work. He recommends that instead of Socialism being hung up on economics, or class distinction, that its followers promote the message of Justice and Liberty. This is the goal of Socialism, and is what should be promoted. This appears to be a better slogan for the cause than a long-winded rant criticizing the bourgeoisie.
I find one area of contention with Orwell in this book. Orwell, in his criticism of Socialism, claims that Socialist authors are “dull, empty windbags”. Of most of the authors Orwell refers to I am unfamiliar with (though I know of Shaw mostly because of the American Socialist author Sinclair Lewis, who references Shaw in his novel, “Main Street”). Of one of the authors that Orwell mentions I am quite fond of (I do have to admit to being ignorant of all his work bar one exceptional novel) and that is Upton Sinclair. While I am only familiar with his novel The Jungle, I think that this work alone should have tempted Orwell to alter his generalized claim that “the real Socialist writers, the propagandist writers, have always been dull, empty windbags–Shaw, Barbusse, Upton Sinclair, William Morris, Waldo Frank, etc., etc.”, and should have added something along the lines of, “in the case of Upton Sinclair, most of the drivel that occupies the pages of his works are nothing more than insipid, save but one great work of his, The Jungle”. My ignorance to Upton Sinclair’s other works would have allowed me to accept such a statement from Orwell, but I will not accept the actual one he makes. I will not agree that everything Upton Sinclair had produced was dull. I will not allow even the great Orwell to insult one of the best, and most influential pieces of American literature. On this alone, am I stirred to some state of vexation. I find it quite alarming that one could read The Jungle and not be stirred. It was powerful enough to garner the attention of Teddy Roosevelt, and prompt him to support the establishment of the FDA.
Overall, The Road to Wigan Pier is an insightful literary work. It gives an interesting look at what were the thoughts of many in England circa 1937. Orwell’s writing is at its finest. His criticisms of Socialism are insightful and witty. This kind of humor and charm is often void in political critiques. For George Orwell, I dare say it would be difficult to find anyone who would lump him in with his fellow Socialist writers and call him a “dull, empty windbag”.