THE POLITICS OF LITERARY REPUTATION: THE MAKING AND CLAIMING OF `ST. GEORGE' ORWELL by John Rodden, New York: Oxford University Press, Illustrated, 478 pp., $27.50
`I WISH Orwell were alive today,'' wrote British socialist Christopher Hitchens in 1983. ``The democratic socialist camp needs him more than ever.''
``If Orwell were alive today,'' claimed neoconservative Norman Podhoretz that same year, ``he would be taking his stand with the neoconservatives and against the Left.''
``I think that if Orwell were alive'' responded one irate reader, ``he would long since have been dismissed as a loon by people like Podhoretz. He had a most unfortunate habit of wanting to look at political questions from the ground up, rather than from the generalization down. He might well have visited Guatemala and El Salvador, to see whether it made any real difference to the inhabitants which gang of thugs was putting on the squeeze.''
The journalistic skirmishes that marked the countdown to the ``Orwellian'' year 1984 indicate how strongly people of very different political beliefs have felt about having the authority of George Orwell on their side.
And, as John Rodden points out in ``The Politics of Literary Reputation,'' his perceptive, comprehensive, very lively study of Orwell, there is often a good deal of evidence to support opposing claims. The author of ``Animal Farm,'' `Nineteen Eighty-Four,'' and ``Homage to Catalonia'' pulled no punches when it came to criticizing communists, socialists, and others on the left, yet he remained to the end of his life an avowed democratic socialist.
Orwell's undisputed honesty, decency, nonconformity, and plain speaking gave him a reputation well worth claiming. Rodden, who teaches rhetoric at the University of Virginia, has set himself the task of examining how a writer acquires a reputation. His book, as he sees it, is thus not a study of Orwell's works, nor a life of Orwell, but a kind of ``after-life,'' tracing the ongoing survival and influence of a literary figure: or, as Rodden gracefully transforms his idea into a metaphor, the ``radiance'' of a ``star.''
Rodden's premise is that ``literary reputations are made, not born.'' The brightness of the ``star'' depends in part on the position of the viewer and other extrinsics.
Shifting the metaphor slightly, Rodden compares the image or ``face'' of a literary figure with a constellation: We recognize its features in part because others (especially those who have cultural authority) have already remarked them. Rodden discerns four ``faces'' of Orwell's reputation: ``The Rebel,'' ``The Common Man,'' ``The Prophet,'' ``The Saint.'' The categories may be arbitrary, but they highlight distinct aspects of Orwell's public persona and provide Rodden with a useful way of organizing his rich store of material.
Implicit in a study like this is the suspicion that reputation may not always reflect reality. Rodden considers it naive to pretend that true merit is always recognized or that a great reputation is always well deserved. As he examines Orwell's reputation, he distinguishes between relatively accurate images of Orwell and those which are ``defacements.''
Orwell often wrote as a rebel, an outsider, a common man. Not surprisingly, these faces were picked up and transmitted by readers like V.S. Pritchett, who eulogized Orwell as ``the wintry conscience of a generation,'' and Lionel Trilling, who praised him as ``a man of truth.'' Orwell expressed suspicion of ``saints,'' yet gained a reputation as a kind of secular saint based largely on the testimony of those who knew him personally.
Some critics called Orwell a prophet on account of his honesty and moral fervor (``Orwell sticks to his experience as faithfully as any Jeremiah to the word of God,'' wrote George P. Elliott in 1957), but the notion of a prophetic Orwell was also vulgarized by mass media and others who read ``Nineteen Eighty-Four'' as an exercise in futurology.
With intelligence, shrewd insight, and sound judgment, Rodden explores a tremendous variety of material, from the responses of Orwell's friends and colleagues and the views of the New York intellectuals to the criticisms of feminists and Marxists. He discusses the powerful impact of Orwell's work in West Germany and the strange history of his reception in the East bloc, where ``Nineteen Eighty-Four,'' first banned as anti-Soviet propaganda, was later welcomed as a satire on life in the West.
An academic himself, Rodden examines Orwell's curious position in and around the academy: ``Animal Farm'' and ``Nineteen Eighty-Four'' are widely read by high school students, Orwell's essays (such as ``Politics and the English Language'') are often taught in college writing classes, but Orwell is generally excluded from the canon of great literary figures for a variety of reasons that Rodden analyzes - and questions - succinctly and cogently.
In tackling the question of reputation, Rodden is aware of being engaged in precisely the sort of study that Northrop Frye, the influential author of ``Anatomy of Criticism,'' dismissed as ``meaningless.'' ``The literary chitchat which makes the reputations of poets boom and crash in an imaginary stock exchange'' was not, in Frye's view, a fit subject for ``systematic'' study.
Against Frye's vision of a more purely literary realm, Rodden insists on the importance of political and other external contingencies that affect the ways a writer is read. While Frye is right insofar as a study like Rodden's does not really elucidate Orwell's works or locate them in the scheme of literature, it's also clear that reputations do not appear by spontaneous generation: The process by which they develop is real, hence worthy of investigation.
Rodden's conception of reputation is sophisticated in theory, yet expressed with a minimum of jargon. When he gets down to particulars, he demonstrates an impressive command of his material: a genuine feel for the people, passions, and ideas he is dealing with.
Ambitious in scope, comprehensive in substance, forceful and graceful in execution, this engaging, beautifully written study is a model of its kind.