George Orwell was not a man to write about what he didn't know. Homage to Catalonia recounts his experiences during the Spanish Civil War; Down and Out in Paris and London chronicles his life among the destitute of those cities; and in The Road to Wigan Pier he shows us his life as a coal miner in Northern England.
There was really no need for him to be a coal miner. In 1936 he was asked by the Left Book Club, an organization espousing his own Socialist ideals, to observe and analyze the poverty and unemployment among the working class in Northern England, where industrialization had led to a form of wage-slavery and horrific working conditions.
He agreed to the assignment, but instead of mere detached investigation, Orwell actually became a coal miner and experienced every deprivation that was all his comrades had ever known. He was a brilliant writer, and his descriptions are harrowing, but touched with great compassion and empathy.
The result of his assignment was The Road to Wigan Pier, and it contained not only the results of his research, but some pretty harsh critiques of his fellow Socialists and the Socialist project as a whole. The foreword to the original and this edition is a rebuttal by one of the men who sponsored his investigation.
What sets Orwell's writing above that of so many others is his ability to combine the most visceral descriptions with the deepest intellectual reflection. He was a man who spent much of his time (usually by choice) among the outcasts and poor of society, was inordinately observant, and was able to translate what he saw into vivid prose.
But he was also a thoughtful and deeply brilliant man who understood that without a balance between reflection and action, both were ineffective. As fascinating as his descriptions of the coal miners in Wigan are, some of the best parts of the book come near the end, as he comments on the strengths and weaknesses of Socialism as a means to help the common man.
Socialism is often an ideology that stirs deep fear in the hearts of neo-conservative, big government-wary Americans, and there are some good reasons for that. But The Road to Wigan Pier provides a unique window into the motivations of a Socialists truly in it for the betterment of mankind who saw how it could go terribly wrong. Must-reading for every 21st century person.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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