“One way of feeling infallible is not to keep a diary,” wrote George Orwell in December 1943. The man considered by many to be the English language’s most influential political essayist of the 20th century never tired of questioning himself and was indeed a prolific diarist.
Next month, his diaries will be published in the United States (after being published two years ago in Britain). Though that in itself would be a festive literary occasion, what has added interest to the publication is the fact that the introduction was written by Christopher Hitchens, the British-American journalist and polemicist who died last December. Not only is it likely that this will be one of the last pieces written by Hitchens to see the light of day, but there is particular poignance in its being an appreciation of Orwell − the one writer he most admired and strived to emulate. It is also significant for being the first and only place where Hitchens has addressed at any length Orwell’s latent anti-Semitism.
Over the last decade, Hitchens’ writing has become the main prism by which Orwell is read and understood by many. Through his own wide popularity, Hitchens reintroduced Orwell to a younger generation and has served as apologist-in-chief for some of Orwell’s more disturbing tendencies.
Orwell and Hitchens had many traits in common, not least their willingness to address uncomfortable issues and challenge accepted thinking, but one glaring omission in Hitchens’ constant defense of his life-long inspiration, it has always seemed to me, as an avid reader of both authors, was his apparent complacency regarding one of Orwell’s most remarked-upon faults: his disregard for Jews.
In one of Hitchens’ earlier spirited defenses of Orwell, a 1996 response to the revelation that Orwell on his deathbed had compiled for the authorities a list of potential communist sympathizers, Hitchens admitted in a Vanity Fair column that Orwell “did have a slightly thuggish side to him on occasion, making unkind remarks about ‘nancy’ homosexuals and (when he was younger) Jews. But he always strove to overcome these scars of his upbringing.”
The parenthesis says it all: According to Hitchens, Orwell’s antipathy toward Jews was a passing phase, an adolescent misdemeanor that he outgrew. As a result, the younger writer didn’t feel that the issue warranted more than passing mention in his 2002 book “Why Orwell Matters,” in which he deals at length with the latter’s relations with the political left and right, British colonialism, feminism and even his literary merits. On all of these, Orwell’s record is championed for his unswerving commitment to penetrating truth and moral disambiguation.
Hitchens is right: Orwell accurately sketched, and in many cases foresaw the hypocrisies and contradictions of modern ideology, politics and media. For his brave refusal to conform to any party line, he paid a heavy price. After resigning from the colonial Burmese police force, he lived most of his life as an itinerant writer, forced to accept ill-paying odd jobs due to a lack of fixed income. In revolutionary Spain, he nearly paid with his life for his opposition and outspoken criticism to the communist takeover of the Republican cause.