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A Writer for All Seasons

E.B. White described Henry David Thoreau, that thorny individualist, as a regular hair shirt of a man; and no matter how much we may like the Thoreau of Walden and his other writing, few of us could bear having him as a neighbor. Such, too, is the case of Eric Blair, who would become George Orwell; but who, regardless of his name, was from boyhood a difficult and complicated human being, one probably far more likable on paper than in person.

When we learn something like the whole story of Blair's passage through St. Cyprian's School in southwest England, we are much more inclined to see the side of the embattled headmaster and his aggressive wife than we are in reading Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys," an essay that may turn any of us against all boarding schools. Orwell, in looking back, viewed his as a microcosm of the totalitarian state. However imperfect most of them are, the worst seldom rival, say, the Third Reich or the Soviet Union for exquisite brutality levied against minorities and protesters and all others out of step with phalanx of jackboots marching down the main thoroughfare of the state.

George Orwell, as Samuel Hynes has observed, was not a great writer in the sense that he forged an overmastering book or permanently affected any literary mode, even the essay, of which he was the most brilliant practitioner in English in our century. But Orwell made a greater impact on general...

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