T.S. Eliot, as Faber & Faber Editor, Rejects George Orwell’s “Trotskyite” Novel Animal Farm (1944)

We’ve writ­ten recent­ly about that most com­mon occur­rence in the life of every artist—the rejec­tion let­ter. Most rejec­tions are uncom­pli­cat­ed affairs, osten­si­bly reflect­ing mat­ters of taste among edi­tors, pro­duc­ers, and cura­tors. In 1944, in his capac­i­ty as an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Faber & Faber, T.S. Eliot wrote a let­ter to George Orwell reject­ing the latter’s satir­i­cal alle­go­ry Ani­mal Farm. The let­ter is remark­able for its can­did admis­sion of the pol­i­tics involved in the deci­sion.

From the very start of the let­ter, Eliot betrays a per­son­al famil­iar­i­ty with Orwell, in the infor­mal salu­ta­tion “Dear Orwell.” The two were in fact acquaint­ed, and Orwell two years ear­li­er had pub­lished a pen­e­trat­ing review of the first three of Eliot’s Four Quar­tets, writ­ing “I know a respectable quan­ti­ty of Eliot’s ear­li­er work by heart. I did not sit down and learn it, it sim­ply stuck in my mind as any pas­sage of verse is liable to do when it has real­ly rung the bell.”

Eliot’s apolo­getic rejec­tion of Orwell’s fable begins with sim­i­lar­ly high praise for its author, com­par­ing the book to “Gul­liv­er” in what may have been to Orwell a flat­ter­ing ref­er­ence to Jonathan Swift. A mutu­al admi­ra­tion for each oth­er’s artistry may have been the only thing Eliot and Orwell had in com­mon. “On the oth­er hand,” begins the sec­ond para­graph, and then cites the rea­sons for Faber & Faber’s pass­ing on the nov­el, the prin­ci­ple one being a dis­missal of Orwell’s “uncon­vinc­ing” “Trot­skyite” views. The rejec­tion also may have stemmed from some­thing a lit­tle more craven—the desire to appease a wartime ally. As the Ency­clopae­dia Brit­tan­i­ca blog puts it:

Eliot, that Tory of Tories, did not want to upset the Sovi­ets in those fraught years of World War II. Besides, he opined, the pigs, being the smartest of the crit­ters on the farm in ques­tion, were best qual­i­fied to run the place.

The deci­sion was prob­a­bly not Eliot’s alone, and Eliot par­en­thet­i­cal­ly dis­owns the opin­ions per­son­al­ly, writ­ing “what was need­ed, (some­one might argue), was not more com­mu­nism but more pub­lic-spir­it­ed pigs.” Indeed. The full text of Eliot’s let­ter is below.

13 July 1944

Dear Orwell,

I know that you want­ed a quick deci­sion about Ani­mal Farm: but min­i­mum is two direc­tors’ opin­ions, and that can’t be done under a week. But for the impor­tance of speed, I should have asked the Chair­man to look at it as well. But the oth­er direc­tor is in agree­ment with me on the main points. We agree that it is a dis­tin­guished piece of writ­ing; that the fable is very skil­ful­ly han­dled, and that the nar­ra­tive keeps one’s inter­est on its own plane—and that is some­thing very few authors have achieved since Gul­liv­er.

On the oth­er hand, we have no con­vic­tion (and I am sure none of oth­er direc­tors would have) that this is the right point of view from which to crit­i­cise the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion at the present time. It is cer­tain­ly the duty of any pub­lish­ing firm which pre­tends to oth­er inter­ests and motives than mere com­mer­cial pros­per­i­ty, to pub­lish books which go against cur­rent of the moment: but in each instance that demands that at least one mem­ber of the firm should have the con­vic­tion that this is the thing that needs say­ing at the moment. I can’t see any rea­son of pru­dence or cau­tion to pre­vent any­body from pub­lish­ing this book—if he believed in what it stands for.

Now I think my own dis­sat­is­fac­tion with this apo­logue is that the effect is sim­ply one of nega­tion. It ought to excite some sym­pa­thy with what the author wants, as well as sym­pa­thy with his objec­tions to some­thing: and the pos­i­tive point of view, which I take to be gen­er­al­ly Trot­skyite, is not con­vinc­ing. I think you split your vote, with­out get­ting any com­pen­sat­ing stronger adhe­sion from either party—i.e. those who crit­i­cise Russ­ian ten­den­cies from the point of view of a pur­er com­mu­nism, and those who, from a very dif­fer­ent point of view, are alarmed about the future of small nations. And after all, your pigs are far more intel­li­gent than the oth­er ani­mals, and there­fore the best qual­i­fied to run the farm—in fact, there couldn’t have been an Ani­mal Farm at all with­out them: so that what was need­ed, (some­one might argue), was not more com­mu­nism but more pub­lic-spir­it­ed pigs.

I am very sor­ry, because who­ev­er pub­lish­es this, will nat­u­ral­ly have the oppor­tu­ni­ty of pub­lish­ing your future work: and I have a regard for your work, because it is good writ­ing of fun­da­men­tal integri­ty.

Miss Shel­don will be send­ing you the script under sep­a­rate cov­er.

Yours sin­cere­ly,

T. S. Eliot

After four rejec­tions in total, Orwell’s nov­el even­tu­al­ly saw pub­li­ca­tion in 1945. Five years lat­er, a Russ­ian émi­gré in West Ger­many, Vladimir Gorachek, pub­lished a small print run of the nov­el in Russ­ian for free dis­tri­b­u­tion to read­ers behind the Iron Cur­tain. And in 1954, the CIA fund­ed the ani­mat­ed adap­ta­tion of Ani­mal Farm by John Halas and Joy Batch­e­lor (see the full film here). Yet anoth­er strange twist in the life of a book that could make dis­cern­ing anti-com­mu­nists as uncom­fort­able as it could the staunchest defend­ers of the Sovi­et sys­tem. You can find Ani­mal Farm list­ed in our Free Audio Books and Free eBooks col­lec­tions.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read Rejec­tion Let­ters Sent to Three Famous Artists: Sylvia Plath, Kurt Von­negut & Andy Warhol

Gertrude Stein Gets a Snarky Rejec­tion Let­ter from Pub­lish­er (1912)

No Women Need Apply: A Dis­heart­en­ing 1938 Rejec­tion Let­ter from Dis­ney Ani­ma­tion

Down­load George Orwell’s Ani­mal Farm for Free

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

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Comments (4)
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  • Tiresias says:

    You men­tion that “The two were in fact acquaint­ed, and Orwell two years ear­li­er had pub­lished a pen­e­trat­ing reviewof the first three of Eliotu2019s Four Quartets“nnIn fact, Orwell’s respect for Eliot had gone fur­ther; he wrote and invit­ed Eliot to speak on the BBC — the let­ter can be seen in the BBC archive atnhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/orwell/7423.shtmlnnAgainst any asser­tion of inti­ma­cy between the two, how­ev­er, must be bal­anced the way in which Orwell’s let­ter begins, “Dear Eliot…“nnThe TS Eliot Soci­etynUK

  • Craig B Leman says:

    Both men were doubt­less acute­ly aware that the Red Army, which had already lost thou­sands of casu­al­ties, were locked in dead­ly com­bat with the Wehrma­cht, and that Great Britain feared that Stal­in would make a sep­a­rate peace with Hitler. Eliot was reluc­tant to stick Orwell’s thumb in Napoleon’s eye.

  • Jones says:

    The full 1954 video is also here:

  • B Kloss says:

    I’m slight­ly con­fused. So they knew each oth­er — then why would Elliot address Orwell by sur­name? Par­tic­u­lar­ly in con­junc­tion with “Dear” it sounds extreme­ly odd. Fur­ther­more, giv­en that they knew each oth­er, why would you a let­ter addressed to the pen name, rather than the real name of the author?

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