A long-forgotten photograph of George Orwell, posted to the American editors of a literary dictionary in the early days of WWII, provides a glimpse of the writer before he was ravaged by tuberculosis.
In March 1940, Orwell was contacted by Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, the editors of Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature. He responded to their letter thoughtfully, enclosing “two photographs, taken a month or two ago” and provided the autobiographical sketch they had requested for the dictionary.
Contextually, this was useful promotion for Orwell, who was not widely-known to an American audience and his last five books had not been published in the United States after the first three sold poorly. He had recently published what would turn out to be his last novel for six years, Coming up for Air (1939). A collection of essays, Inside the Whale (1940), had just been printed but unfortunately an unknown number of copies were shortly to be destroyed when German bombers blitzed London.
It is noteworthy that Orwell concluded this letter to the editors by saying that he was not “at the moment writing a novel, chiefly owing to upsets caused by the war. But I am projecting a long novel in three parts, to be called either The Lion and the Unicorn or The Quick and the Dead, and hope to produce the first part by some time in 1941″.
The war continued to provide “upsets” and neither of these novels were ever written. Orwell’s employment at the BBC (1941-1943), work as a war correspondent, the tragic death of his wife and his care for an adopted son were not conducive to such endeavour. The allegorical satire, Animal Farm, was finally published in 1945.
Twentieth Century Authors
Photographs of Orwell are relatively rare so I tracked down Kunitz and Haycraft’s dictionary (which had been published in 1942) to see what they had included with his entry. There was a photograph of Orwell, peering out of the darkness of wartime England, that I have never seen anywhere else before.
Orwell, who had not been well, had convalesced in Morocco during the previous winter to recuperate from tuberculosis in warmer climes. He had been badly wounded in 1937, during the fighting in Spain, so, considering the context, this dimly lit photo shows a relatively healthy looking man.
The publisher, H.W. Wilson, is still in business and I have contacted them on the off-chance that the other photo may be in an archive of correspondence the editors received while researching for the dictionary.
Q: Have you spotted this photograph of Orwell elsewhere?
It seems hard to believe that it would not have seen the light of day in another publication sometime in the previous 80 years.
Kunitz, Stanley J. and Haycraft (1942) Howard, Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature, New York: H.W. Wilson
Orwell, George (1998) A Patriot After All: 1940–1941, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 12, Secker & Warburg