George Orwell & Abner Dean’s ‘1984’ Preview

« Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. » — George Orwell

For its July 4, 1949 issue, Life Magazine pulled a couple of rather unusual moves: it featured an elaborate preview of George Orwell’s just-published novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and, as if that wasn’t weird enough, it called upon the services of renowned cartoonist Abner Dean to (copiously) illustrate the article.

Typically, given the USA’s usual political temperament and the then-prevailing climate of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, Life resorted to some choice bits of disinformation and misdirection to sell Orwell and his book to its decidedly whitebread readership. No irony whatsoever.

« British novelist George Orwell, 46, who fought in the Spanish Civil War, saw firsthand what the Communists were up to and has since devoted all his talents to warning the world of the fate which awaits it if it confuses liberalism with regimentation. His new novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a terrifying forecast of what the world of human beings may be like 35 years hence. It is a July selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and will be condensed in the September Reader’s Digest. It is guaranteed to make the flesh creep on anything except brass monkeys and commissars. »

Dean’s huge (52 cm x 24 cm) spread ushering readers into The Strange World of 1984. It’s hard to do it justice at this reduced size, but open it in a separate tab for a closer look.

Let’s see, now. Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War. Fair enough. Let’s dwell on that detail for a bit. Which side was he on?

« In December 1936, Orwell went to Spain as a fighter for the Republican* side in the Spanish Civil War that was provoked by Francisco Franco’s Fascist uprising. He did not join the International Brigade as most leftist did, but the little known Marxist POUM. In conversation with Philip Mairet, editor of New English Weekly, Orwell said: ‘This fascism… somebody’s got to stop it’. To Orwell, liberty and democracy went together, guaranteeing, among other things, the freedom of the artist; the present capitalist civilization was corrupt, but fascism would be morally calamitous.

He joined the Independent Labour Party contingent, which consisted of some twenty-five Britons who had joined the militia of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM – Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), a revolutionary communist party. The POUM, and the radical wing of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT (Catalonia’s dominant left-wing force), believed General Franco could be defeated only if the Republic’s working class overthrew capitalism — a position at fundamental odds with the Spanish Communist Party, and its allies, which (backed by Soviet arms and aid) argued for a coalition with the bourgeois parties to defeat the fascist Nationalists. » [ source ]

So… Orwell was not merely a communist, but a Marxist advocating the overthrow of capitalism. Just like your average Reader’s Digest subscriber, obviously!

« THE TELESCREEN dominates the lives of Party members; it is a kind of television set which can never be turned off, and which can pick up as well as receive images. Over it the members hear what they are supposed to do and believe — and from the other end the dreaded Thought Police can see everything they do and hear everything they say. » Prophetic? Now don’t be silly.
« TWO MINUTES HATE is a daily institution designed to keep Party members in a frenzy of excitement and rage against the Party’s enemies. »
A LOVE AFFAIR in six panels. Spoilers galore. Protagonist Winston Smith meets Julia.
Julia hands Winston a note, which he drops into the memory hole (basically an incinerator) as a precaution.
They meet in the midst of a crowd in Victory Square, and Julia whispers some instructions to Winston.
« Now, in a trysting place beneath the trees he finds a kindred soul in the rebellious Julia; she removes the hateful sash of the Anti-Sex League and they enter upon one of the most furtive and pathetic little love affairs in all literature. » The anonymous author of the article does not seem to approve.
« Julia is good at smuggling forbidden pleasures; they have real coffee (not the ersatz ‘Victory’ mixture) and chocolate, and Julia adorns herself with cosmetics and perfumes which no Party member is ever supposed to see. »
« But eventually, the Thought Police catch up with them. For the unspeakable crime of indulging in a human emotion they are arrested and hauled away to repent their sins in the horrible confines of the Ministry of Love. » I did warn you about spoilers: indeed, Winston Smith Takes It on the Jaw!

It’s intriguing that LIFE would devote this much space to such a controversial topic, but hardly surprising that it would stack the deck. It’s a regrettable hallmark of blind hubris to believe that only ‘the opposition’ is capable of totalitarian atrocities, when allowed unchecked power. Benevolent dictators have always been very, very scarce. To quote Margaret Atwood, a lady who knows her way around a dystopia, « ‘1984’ is not a wonder tale. Not only could it happen, but it has happened, but under different names. »

On a more general artistic note, if you like the cut of Mr. Dean’s jib, you might be interested by our trio of posts devoted to his fine œuvre: Abner Dean’s Universe: Before…; Abner Dean’s Universe: … After.; and Social Perils and Pitfalls: Abner Dean’s ‘Come As You Are’ (1952). What can I say? I like the guy’s work.

-RG

*pray note that, in that particular conflict, the Fascists and the Republicans weren’t one and the same.

Social Perils and Pitfalls: Abner Dean’s ‘Come As You Are’ (1952)

« What I don’t like about office Christmas parties is looking for a job the next day. » — Phyllis Diller

Between the poles of Abner Dean’s more normal magazine work and his often quite abstract, therapy-inspired books, lies his neglected Come As You Are, his most accessible single-theme work.

In few words but with devastating visual lucidity, Dean turns a probing spotlight on party dynamics, laying bare the casual cruelty, manipulations and seductions, feints and blindsides, alliances and betrayals, thrusts and parries. The results are often hilarious… but laden with uneasy recognition; despite the distance of nearly three-quarters of a century, little appears to have changed in the fundamentals… which really should come as no surprise to anyone.

Witness the following excerpts…

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The front cover. The book is tellingly dedicated « To all those wonderful people who I hope will still ask me back. »

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According to our resident mycologist, these are pretty much all toxic. The game is rigged!

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From the back end of the book: « This is Abner Dean’s fourth adventure with the cross-eyed muse in that area of unexpected turning and hilarious insights that is particularly his own.

The first, in 1945, was It’s a Long Way to Heaven. People began seeing themselves and their friends as Dean saw them. They were startled and fascinated by the view. With What Am I Doing Here? in 1947 they winced and laughed again. Psychiatrists started using certain of his drawings for discussion with their patients. People began playing games of identification with individual pictures.

In 1949 came And on the Eight Day to make more Dean converts. And now here’s a fourth book about people to smoke out any unbelievers who may be lurking in corners at parties.

For those who like their incidental intelligence in an unbalanced phrase — Abner Dean was born in 1910, attended the National Academy in 1927, was graduated from Dartmouth in 1931, and hasn’t been away from a drawing board for more than a few days since then. He is happily married and lives in New York. »

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This is our third look at Mr. Dean’s œuvre. If you’re left longing for more, read on:

Abner Dean’s Universe: Before… 
followed of course by Abner Dean’s Universe: … After.

-RG

Abner Dean’s Universe: … After.

« Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise. » — Bertrand Russell

When last we left Abner Dean (catch up with Part One), he was contemplating a professional change, something transcendent, something more lasting, but still using most of the traditional tools of cartooning. We can surmise that, at first, the resultant works weren’t necessarily to be shared widely: “I’m at work on a long series of drawings now that are not intended for publication ”, Dean had confided to a friend in 1941.

First came, in 1942, a Life Magazine article premiering a handful of these drawings. Then, in 1945, It’s a Long Way to Heaven landed in bookshelves.

Incredibly (if you’ll forgive the cynicism), the book, and its sequels, were solid sellers. Given the groundbreaking character of these cartoons (for the lack of a more fitting term), such well-merited success is quintuply impressive. Hell, maybe the audience for such material actually existed then.

« Much as he hates to admit it, the life of the average man (which means virtually all of us) tends to assume the form of a longish doze, interrupted by fits and starts of bewildered semi-alertness. We will invent a hundred ways of heading off self-alertness to one that may force us to ask ourselves who the devil we are. You cannot turn on your radio or unfold your newspaper without being offered all the answers. But where shall we go if we wish to be asked the questions? » — Clifton Fadiman, from his “Prefatory Note” to What Am I Doing Here?

Regrettably, Dean’s five books in this new idiom [It’s a Long Way to Heaven (1945); What Am I Doing Here? (1947); And On the Eighth Day (1949); Come As You Are: A Book about People at Parties (1952) and Cave Drawings for the Future (1954)] have all-but-entirely faded from collective memory, but there have been encouraging stirrings of a revival in recent years, owing to the efforts of a dedicated handful of brave souls.

Dedicated… and perhaps influential: What Am I Doing Here? was granted a new facsimile edition in 2016. Here’s a brief review.

As in the case of the couldn’t-be-more-highly-recommended Abner Dean’s Naked People: A Selection of Drawings from Four of His Books (1963), we’re omitting any excerpts from Come As You Are, not because it’s inferior work, quite the contrary, but because it deserves a showcase of its own. We’ll return to it.

In the meantime, enjoy these peeks into Abner Dean’s Id and, I daresay, the human condition at large. Thanks to Dean’s visionary approach, these haven’t acquired a wrinkle in the past eighty or so years.

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From It’s a Long Way to Heaven (1945)

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From It’s a Long Way to Heaven (1945)

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From What Am I Doing Here? (1947)

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From What Am I Doing Here? (1947)

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From What Am I Doing Here? (1947)

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From What Am I Doing Here? (1947)

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From What Am I Doing Here? (1947)

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From And On the Eighth Day (1949)

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From Cave Drawings for the Future (1954)

-RG

Abner Dean’s Universe: Before…

« No other state of confusion is as interesting as yours. »

By the mid-1930s, Abner Dean (1910–1982), Abner Epstein in New York City, had reached the pinnacle of his profession, and begun to make rewarding inroads into other pursuits and endeavours. Fruitfully and prolifically published in most of the top magazines of the era (and top era for magazines), such as The New Yorker, Life, Esquire, Coronet, Time, Newsweek, Collier’s, Look, Ladies’ Home Journal and so forth, he’d also scored in the advertising field (most notably through a fifteen-year association with Aetna Insurance).

Yet he was restless; he bristled at the limitations, conventions and formulae of the era’s gag cartooning world and had something grander in mind and up his sleeve. We’ll get to that.

But first, here’s a sampling of what Abner accomplished as a commercial illustrator and cartoonist early in his career.

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The following four cartoons appeared in the pages of Esquire, for which Dean produced in excess of forty colour cartoons, and scads more in good old black and white (frequently with spot colour adornment) between 1934 and 1955.

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Spot the influence? The girl is a dead ringer for one of Jack Cole‘s celebrated beauties.

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As Abner created five covers for The New Yorker (1933-35), it seemed absurd to leave any of them out, especially given their high calibre. Here they are, in order of their appearance.

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Two examples of Dean’s illustrations for Aetna Insurance‘s long-running advertising and prevention campaign, for which Dean produced a whopping one hundred and ten drawings between 1940 and 1955. This one hails from 1946.

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To better convey the tone and tenor of the campaign, I’ve transcribed some of its text. This entry is from 1955.

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Our boy, wearing an appropriately skeptical expression, from the back cover of his Come As You Are (1955, Simon & Schuster).

Incidentally, what little remains publicly known about this once-famous man is the fruit of diligent research conducted by the eclectically erudite Ken Parille. As usual, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Thank you!

-RG