The Orwell Century and After: Rethinking Reception and Reputation

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The Orwell centenary of 2003 has come and gone, but the pace of academic publications that usually accompany such biographical milestones has not slackened. The Cambridge Companion to George Orwell was released in summer 2007, John Rodden's Every Intellectual's Big Brother: George Orwell's Literary Siblings was published in 2006, On Nineteen Eighty-Four: Orwell and Our Future, the proceedings of a 1999 conference, came out in 2005. The striking thing about many of these publications, not to mention the ones which emerged out of the commemorative activities of 2003 itself, is that they are more concerned with Orwell's reputation and relevance today than with his oeuvre as such. As many as five chapters of the Cambridge Companion have a “posthumous” focus; the proceedings of the largest centenary conference, George Orwell: Into the Twenty-First Century, raise the issue of Orwell and the war in Iraq more frequently than that of Orwell and World War II.The latter is not entirely surprising for an American conference which featured the “liberal hawk” and former Trotskyist journalist Christopher Hitchens as the keynote speaker, and whose proceedings were edited in accordance with a corresponding political agenda, but it is also indicative of a larger phenomenon, a phenomenon most thoroughly examined by John Rodden in books like George Orwell: The Politics of Literary Reputation and Scenes from an Afterlife: The Legacy of George Orwell. Few imaginative writers have been so compulsively remoulded, coopted, and invoked outside of their proper literary sphere; as Rodden's scrupulous documentation shows, no modern crisis from the Cold War to the war on terror has gone by without an Orwell headline to define it. What, one may ask, are the mechanisms behind this astounding popularity? How are reputations on this vast scale made? Looking at “the writer and his work” will only get one so far; one must also look outward, for the world's perception of Orwell is as interesting and intriguing a subject as Orwell himself. Rodden, the most prolific Orwell critic publishing today, has made this reception history his focus.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)597-617
JournalModern Intellectual History
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2008


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