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George Orwell: A Life in Letters selected and annotated by Peter Davidson; Liveright, 542 pages ($35). His real name was Eric Arthur Blair. In his all-too-short time on earth (he was 56 when he died after a difficult, tubercular life), George Orwell wrote voluminously but never more importantly than the two novels that virtually defined totalitarianism in 20th century literature (with an able assist from Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”): “Animal Farm” and “1984.” What is just as important as the two novels, if not more so, is his status as what’s now easy to call the 20th century’s greatest popular intellectual.

Here’s this volume’s editor Peter Davidson snappily making part of his case: “Millions who have heard of ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ know nothing of their progenitor. Ignorance of Orwell is also to be found in academic circles and in what would regard itself as the higher reaches of journalism. When Professor Raymond B. Browne of Bowling Green University died, he was credited by (England’s) Daily Telegraph with having launched “popular culture” into the mainstream. Browne’s Journal of Popular Culture was published in 1967, but Orwell was writing most intelligently about popular culture over 25 years earlier. Indeed when ‘Critical Essays’ was published in the United States in 1946 as ‘Dickens, Dali and Others’ it was given the subtitle ‘Studies in Popular Culture.’”

To Davidson, Orwell, in his paradoxical life, “fled through triumph and sought refuge in failure, failure, failure.”

One can, of course, take the facts of Orwell’s life and arrange them in a vast variety of ways to produce almost any sort of biography you want. You can do that too with a consciously biographical and chronological selection of his letters to make up the full autobiography he never wrote, but no matter what you do you’re back to the words themselves of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.

We begin here in 1911 with an 8-year-old Orwell telling his mother Ida he was about “to say a piece of poetry” at a Saturday night social. We end with his wife Sonia writing his French translator “it really isn’t possible to get over this disease in England.” A first time for these letters in one volume. – Jeff Simon