Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Road to Wigan Pier

The Road to Wigan Pier
© 1937 George Orwell
191 pages, including forward for members of the Left Book Club. 


(My own copy: I adore tattered old paperbacks.)

       I read this primarily for a European history class taught by a professor who typically assigns novels, journals, or other supplemental literature alongside of or instead of a standard textbook. I like this approach: it’s given me a fair bit of interesting reading over the years, introducing me to books I would have otherwise never heard of.

Originally published in 1937 -- written, in fact, during the Fascist attack on Madrid -- George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier covers two related topics in the same breath. The book’s opening chapters concern the living and working conditions of the working class, their plight amidst England’s then-current economic woes (chronic unemployment and housing shortages), and their difficulty in being received by the middle-class world.  Orwell then moves on to the question of socialism. In his view,  socialism is such an obvious idea that it should seem to appeal to everyone. Since it does not,  he aims to sort out why exactly this is. He believes the problem lies with socialists’ approach, in being insincere, orthodox, or tied to utopian (specifically, Wellsian) dreams of the future. His ideal socialist is kin to the ideal Christian: one who does not spend his time talking about doctrine, but simply living and advocating for principles of justice and human decency. He finishes the book with a promotion of democratic socialism.

Although not written as such, Wigan  is now valuable as a historical resource. The first part of the book serves as a documentary about the working class, whose living and working conditions were dismal indeed: they seemed scarcely better than those of the Gilded Age.  The book is also now a work of intellectual and cultural history: Orwell spends a great deal of time comparing the attitudes and values of the working class and the middle class.  Given that Orwell also discusses  how socialism is received by people -- and why they react against it -- I can understand why my professor would assign it, given that we are discussing the rise of reactionary and fascist parties in Europe’s 1930s. The book is easily readable and tends toward the informal: Orwell talks to the reader with passion, communicating effectively despite a slight tendency to be absent-minded. This is definitely of interest for those interested in the life of the 1930s.

Wigan Pier made for an interesting read. I think I shall be reading more of Orwell’s nonfiction in the future, specifically his Homage to Catalonia.

Related:

  • Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. Orwell's stance on increasing mechanization and cultural shallowness made me think of Postman.
  • The Gangs of New York, Herbert Ashbury, in documenting living conditions. 
  • The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx, for economic criticism. While Orwell sees Marx's criticisms valid, he thinks intellectual Marxists make for poor socialists indeed, just as theologians fixated on quandaries make for poor Christians. 


3 comments:

  1. I used to live just a few miles away from Wigan Pier.....

    Homage to Catalonia is on my 'to read' list - just as soon as I buy a copy!

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  2. Did you ever visit? Orwell describes it as a bleak kind of place: a town dominated by a massive coal pit, and flanked by grey mountains of "slag".

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  3. Oh, it's changed a *lot* since the 30's! I actually went to College there for a few years. It's just a standard town - actually on the edge of Greater Manchester.

    Wigan Pier itself is a pub/museum. I've never actually been in there but might have to do so next time I'm home & report back here.

    Can't remember when the last mine shut down... 1980's I think... [muses]

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