Nineteen Eighty-Four became an instant bestseller when it was published 70 years ago at the beginning of the Cold War, and it has remained a perennial favorite, selling an estimated 40 million copies worldwide. Its title, of course, has become synonymous with totalitarianism, political doublespeak and the loss of individual rights and freedoms. In the weeks following the 2017 presidential inauguration, sales of the book rose an estimated 950% in the U.S.—yet it is perhaps singular among books in that its dystopian warnings have been embraced and exploited by both the left and the right. The fascinating origins and complex legacy of this enduring masterwork are chronicled in an arresting new book, On Nineteen Eighty-Four, by Whitbread Award-winning biographer D.J. Taylor.
Dividing the narrative into three sections—before, during and after—Taylor first considers the man, born Eric Blair in British-occupied India, who reinvented himself as George Orwell, a progressive journalist and novelist who struggled for book sales. He also struggled with poor health and, by the time he was writing the book that became Nineteen Eighty-Four in the mid-1940s, was wracked with the debilitating symptoms of tuberculosis. After the death of his wife, he took his very young son to live on Jura, a remote island in the Hebrides, where the weather was hardly conducive to curing an insidious lung disease. Many days he could not get out of bed, much less write. But he pushed on for months and years, eventually producing a manuscript that expressed his terrifying vision of a possible future, in some ways recognizable as postwar London. As Taylor recounts the harrowing details of Orwell’s physical decline, he contemplates how his state of mind, in the end, may have shaped that vision.
Seven months after the book was published, Orwell died, missing the chance to enjoy the financial prosperity that eluded him for his whole life. The book, however, did not die. On the contrary, it quickly took on a life of its own, and in the latter part of his engaging account, Taylor considers the ways Nineteen Eighty-Four has been interpreted (often misinterpreted) and has influenced our culture. He points to “the novel’s versatility, its continuing relevance to a world that Orwell had no way of foreseeing. As time moved on, then so did the prism through which critics—and ordinary readers—tended to regard it.”
As we navigate our own often Orwellian reality of autocracy, political discontent and crafted truths, Taylor ponders what the great writer might have made of “alternative facts” and those who embrace them. The answer, he suggests, is not a simple one.