GEORGE ORWELL: Diaries, edited by Peter Davison. Liveright, 597 pp., $39.95
George Orwell died in January 1950, two years and a month after finishing "1984"; he was only 46. More than six decades later, his complete diaries are being published in the United States for the first time.
Why did it take so long? A typical entry, from October 1939, offers a hint: "Spread the manure. Hoed leeks. Spring cabbages have not taken root very well, owing to the drought. Uprooted the onions, which are very poor." Many readers may not be aware that Orwell was a small farmer. But as I read one weather and crop report after another, all I could think of was the Woody Allen parody that begins, "Venal & Sons has at last published the long-awaited first volume of Metterling's laundry lists."
So, then, do these diaries matter? They matter a lot, for two long sections. The first records Orwell's researches into the lives of the poor. In 1931 he worked as an itinerant hop picker, faking a Cockney accent to fit in. Five years later, he traveled to the coal-mining areas of northwest England, making entries on the awful food, the blackening coal dust, the bad smell of the houses and the terrible conditions in the mines.
The book that resulted, "The Road to Wigan Pier" (1937), combined his report on the miners' misery with his defense of socialism and became one of the works that would make Orwell a hero to the anti-Stalinist left.
In an introduction, the late Christopher Hitchens points out that the book became the target of "a successful Communist campaign to defame it (and him) for saying that 'the working classes smell.' "
The second great stretch comprises the diaries Orwell kept before and during World War II. They re-create, vividly and rivetingly, the fog of war.
May 30, 1940: "There is good reason to think that the invasion of England may be attempted within a few days, and all the papers are saying this."
June 16, 1940: "It is impossible even yet to decide what to do in the case of German conquest of England." Angrily quoting Lady Oxford's complaint to the Daily Telegraph that "most people" have had to "part with their cooks and live in hotels," he sets down a sentence that resonates in 2012: "Apparently nothing will ever teach these people that the other 99 percent of the population exist."
In August 1941, Orwell began working for the BBC, where he observed, "All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth. I don't think this matters so long as one knows what one is doing, and why."
Orwell's achievement grew out of seemingly modest virtues: decency; good, hard sense; and clean, clear prose. Yet they added up to something monumental. His garden reports may be skimmable, but the diaries as a whole do exactly what you would expect: They confirm his greatness.