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.