Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell, was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century — and also one of the most enigmatic. Despite his distaste for sloganeering and his leftist politics, his writing has been pressed into the service of right-wing causes from the Cold War to the war on terrorism. Who was Orwell and why does he still matter today? In this seminar, we explore these questions by tracing Orwell’s itinerary from the playing fields of Eton to the rice fields of Burma, the slums of Paris, the battlefields of Spain, and the streets of wartime London. Along the way, we consider some central themes of twentieth-century history: empire and decolonization, fascism and war, the making of the welfare state, the advent of mass culture. As we situate British history in its European and global contexts, we ask how historians construct their narratives out of the stories told by historical actors, probing the possibilities — and the limitations — of using memoir and literature as sources of knowledge about the past.
Our texts will be Orwell’s essays, novels, and journalism supplemented by a variety of short primary and secondary sources. Average reading load is around 150pp. per week. Weekly reading responses; two 5pp. papers; an in-class final exam; and informed, active, and consistent participation in discussion are required. This course fulfills the College’s second writing requirement.