Homage to Catalonia Background

Homage to Catalonia Background

In 1938, George Orwell published Homage to Catalonia, an autobiographical novel that detailed his participation and experiences in the Spanish Civil War. The war was fought between the left-leaning Republicans, who were forged in an alliance with the Anarchists and the Communists, and the aristocratic Nationalists led by General Franco. Franco's aristocrats were ultimately victorious, and he ruled Spain until his death in November 1975.

Predictably, Orwell fought on the side of the Marxists, serving in their militia at first as a private, then as a corporal, and finally as a lieutenant. The Marxist organization was known as the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification, and was declared illegal, making membership in their militia an imprisonable offense. Orwell could do one of two things; continue to fight, and face imprisonment, or flee. Considering that he had joined the organization by accident, this was a serious dilemma. Orwell, ever the privileged, fervent Communist, had wanted to join the Soviet run International Brigades, but having tendered his application through the British Communist Party, whose leader took a strong and immediate dislike to Orwell, he was turned down.

Orwell served on the Aragon front, located in an autonomously-run region in the north of Spain, where he came under fire from the Communist militia they were supposed to be allied with. He was almost killed when a sniper shot him in the throat. As he was convalescing he and his wife Eileen, who was visiting with him at the time, were charged with Trotskyism. They returned to the English countryside, and subsequently to French-owned Morocco where Orwell remained captivated by and obsessed with the Spanish Civil War, despite his declining health.

Orwell initially sent the manuscript to his publisher, Gollancz, who rejected it because of their Communist sympathies which were offended by Orwell's criticism of Communists in Spain. He had better luck with Frederic Warburg, who shared Orwell's world view, and published left-leaning and anarchic literature. Their collaboration was a match made in Trotyskyite heaven and Warburg went on to publish notable Orwell classics Animal Farm and 1984.

The book was a commercial embarrassment, selling a measly nine hundred copies prior to the 1950s. The public at large had no particular interest in the Spanish Civil War and were tired of the brand of left wing dogma that Orwell was perpetuating. The book sales never recovered, and much of what Orwell wrote in the book was rebuffed by Communist supporting publishers and writers.

Critical reception to the book was more mixed than the public reception to it; many critics who disagreed politically with Orwell nonetheless praised his style of prose and the way in which he showed the naivete of those involved in a revolution that they believe is going to change the world. The Times Literary Supplement were disdainful of the book, curious as to why Orwell had not bothered to meet or get to know leaders before idolizing or vilifying them.

There was a small resurgence in sales and awareness of the book when it was published for the first time in America, complete with a forward by renowned author Lionel Trilling, giving Orwell an additional respect in left-wing literature circles. It was also re-popularized in the 1960s when students and guerrilla governments were inspired by it and compared Orwell to a European Che Guevera.

Orwell's work is still considered influential today; in 2008 The Times newspaper ranked him second on their list of the fifty greatest post-war British authors. His influence also extends to semantics and language, having created many of the phrases that today are common parlance, but pre-Orwell simply did not exist. Even our modern televisual experience is touched by his hand; the concept of a room full of strangers being watched by hidden cameras is a concept introduced by Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four, and currently watched by millions of Americans in its incarnation as the popular television show Big Brother.

Orwell passed away in 1950, never living to see the resurgence in popularity of Homage to Catalonia.

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