George Orwell’s Five Greatest Essays (as Selected by Pulitzer-Prize Winning Columnist Michael Hiltzik)


Every time I’ve taught George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay on mis­lead­ing, smudgy writ­ing, “Pol­i­tics and the Eng­lish Lan­guage,” to a group of under­grad­u­ates, we’ve delight­ed in point­ing out the num­ber of times Orwell vio­lates his own rules—indulges some form of vague, “pre­ten­tious” dic­tion, slips into unnec­es­sary pas­sive voice, etc.  It’s a pet­ty exer­cise, and Orwell him­self pro­vides an escape clause for his list of rules for writ­ing clear Eng­lish: “Break any of these rules soon­er than say any­thing out­right bar­barous.” But it has made us all feel slight­ly bet­ter for hav­ing our writ­ing crutch­es pushed out from under us.

Orwell’s essay, writes the L.A. Times’ Pulitzer-Prize win­ning colum­nist Michael Hiltzik, “stands as the finest decon­struc­tion of sloven­ly writ­ing since Mark Twain’s “Fen­i­more Cooper’s Lit­er­ary Offens­es.” Where Twain’s essay takes on a pre­ten­tious aca­d­e­m­ic estab­lish­ment that unthink­ing­ly ele­vates bad writ­ing, “Orwell makes the con­nec­tion between degrad­ed lan­guage and polit­i­cal deceit (at both ends of the polit­i­cal spec­trum).” With this con­cise descrip­tion, Hiltzik begins his list of Orwell’s five great­est essays, each one a bul­wark against some form of emp­ty polit­i­cal lan­guage, and the often bru­tal effects of its “pure wind.”

One spe­cif­ic exam­ple of the lat­ter comes next on Hiltzak’s list (actu­al­ly a series he has pub­lished over the month) in Orwell’s 1949 essay on Gand­hi. The piece clear­ly names the abus­es of the impe­r­i­al British occu­piers of India, even as it strug­gles against the can­on­iza­tion of Gand­hi the man, con­clud­ing equiv­o­cal­ly that “his char­ac­ter was extra­or­di­nar­i­ly a mixed one, but there was almost noth­ing in it that you can put your fin­ger on and call bad.” Orwell is less ambiva­lent in Hiltzak’s third choice, the spiky 1946 defense of Eng­lish com­ic writer P.G. Wode­house, whose behav­ior after his cap­ture dur­ing the Sec­ond World War under­stand­ably baf­fled and incensed the British pub­lic. The last two essays on the list, “You and the Atom­ic Bomb” from 1945 and the ear­ly “A Hang­ing,” pub­lished in 1931, round out Orwell’s pre- and post-war writ­ing as a polemi­cist and clear-sight­ed polit­i­cal writer of con­vic­tion. Find all five essays free online at the links below. And find some of Orwell’s great­est works in our col­lec­tion of Free eBooks.

1. “Pol­i­tics and the Eng­lish Lan­guage

2. “Reflec­tions on Gand­hi

3. “In Defense of P.G. Wode­house

4. “You and the Atom­ic Bomb

5. “A Hang­ing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Orwell’s 1984: Free eBook, Audio Book & Study Resources

The Only Known Footage of George Orwell (Cir­ca 1921)

George Orwell and Dou­glas Adams Explain How to Make a Prop­er Cup of Tea

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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