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George Orwell

George Orwell

Biography

Nineteen Eighty-Four was the last professional achievement of Orwell's life. By the time the book was published, its author's health was declining rapidly. In October 1949 he married an editorial assistant named Sonia Brownell in his hospital room in London. Just a few months later, George Orwell died of tuberculosis at the age of 46. At his request he was buried in an Anglican ceremony under a simple marker that read only, "Here lies Eric Arthur Blair—Born June 25th 1903—Died January 21st 1950."

His grave may be simple, but the legacy Orwell left is anything but. His influence extends far beyond that of most writers, and he even has his own adjective—"Orwellian." As it's typically used, "Orwellian" refers not to things associated with Orwell personally, but with the things he condemned in his writing. A quick Google News search shows that critics have slapped the euphemism "Orwellian" onto targets as diverse as a British plan to collect cell phone data, the name change of a private equity firm, and even Barack Obama's speeches. Orwell despised euphemisms in political writing—he thought they were lazy and ineffective—and the fact that his name has become one would probably have driven him nuts. "It would surprise, and doubtless irritate, him to discover that since his death in 1950 he has moved implacably toward NT [National Treasure] status," the writer Julian Barnes wrote of Orwell. "He is interpretable, malleable, ambassadorial, and patriotic. He denounced the Empire, which pleases the left; he denounced communism, which pleases the right. He warned us against the corrupting effect on politics and public life of the misuse of language, which pleases almost everyone."12

Orwell's work has been used and abused. But what would probably have annoyed him even more was veneration by fans who see him as some kind of prophet or idol. Orwell critiqued no point of view as harshly as his own. "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent," he wrote.13 Orwell was no saint, but as a voice of moral conscious and political courage, he's about as good as we've got.

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