Since 1990, historian, activist, and essayist Rebecca Solnit has written more than twenty books, on subjects ranging from natural disasters and wandering to feminism and social change. In the past, Rebecca has singled out female authors such as Virginia Woolf as important influences. Today, though, she’ll be talking about a more surprising writer to whom she feels she owes a debt: George Orwell.
Orwell is best known for essays such as “Politics and the English Language” and for his chilling portrayal of totalitarianism in novels such as 1984. He has long been revered by male writers such as George Packer and the late Christopher Hitchens. But female writers, including Rebecca, have tended to be more critical, sometimes taking Orwell to task for ignoring the injustices of sexism.
And yet Rebecca counts Orwell as a major influence. In fact, she has devoted her latest book to his life and work. It’s called Orwell’s Roses, and it was inspired by a visit she paid to his rural cottage, where she learned about the gardening he did long ago. Rebecca contends that nature not only mattered greatly to Orwell, but that it is directly related to his antifascism. In this conversation, she elaborates on her unconventional view of Orwell, and she offers an alternative reading of 1984. She talks about how Orwell was both a socialist and a critic of the left, and why she identifies with this, and argues for the political importance of pleasure and beauty. And she explains why, despite Orwell’s troubling silence about the plight of women, she believes we should still read his works.
View a transcript of the episode here.
Mentioned in this episode:
- Animal Farm, George Orwell (1945)
- 1984, George Orwell (1949)
- Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell (1938)
- The Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays, and Reportage (1956)
- Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Hidden Wars of the American West, Rebecca Solnit (2014)
- “A Good Word For The Vicar of Bray,” George Orwell (1946)
- Sam Green
- Helen M. Todd
- Ruth Pitter
- Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, Adrienne Maree Brown (2019)
- Trofim Lysenko
- Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America, Eyal Press (2021)
- Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell (1933)
- “Mother’s Day in the Flower Fields: Labor Conditions and Social Challenges for Colombia’s Flower Sector Employees,” Nate Miller (2017)
- Educated, Tara Westover (2018)
- Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir, Rebecca Solnit (2020)
- James Baldwin
- Virginia Woolf
Primary Sources is a co-production of Public Books and Type Media Center. Our show’s executive producer is Caitlin Zaloom, a founding editor of Public Books. Our producer is DJ Cashmere. Our engineer is Jess Engebretson. Special thanks to Kelley Deane McKinney, the publisher and managing editor of Public Books and Taya Grobow, executive director of Type Media Center. Our theme music is “Kitty in the Window,” composed by Podington Bear (Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License).