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Daniel J. Leab

About the ‘Down and Out’

Blair returned to England from Paris around Christmas 1929. During the next three years, as Orwell expert Peter Davison recounts, Blair went “tramping and lived with down and outs: wrote reviews... his first important articles; taught at... a fourth-rate private school; wrote and rewrote what was to be published as Down and Out in Paris and London...” The first version (“Days in London and Paris”) was rejected by the U.K. publishing firm Jonathan Cape, which also rejected an expanded version subsequently submitted. Reworked and entitled “A Scullion's Diary” it was also rejected by Faber & Faber, in a letter penned by T. S. Eliot. A friend of the dejected Blair interested the literary agent Leonard Moore in the work, and he in turn brought it to the attention of the brash publisher-promoter Victor Gollancz, who since founding his firm in 1928 had shaken up English book publishing.

Gollancz, who decided to publish Blair's effort, wanted the book to be called “Confessions of a Down and Out in Paris and London,” and words and passages cut to avoid possible libel actions and to ensure sales to libraries. The modifications were made (as Blair wrote Moore: “names are to be changed, swearwords etc cut...”). Orwell wanted the book published pseudonymously; he feared it might upset his family. At one point consideration was given to calling the author “X”. Discussion about the title continued into page proof-running heads in the first edition read “Confessions of a...”; Blair preferred to confess as a “Dishwasher” rather than as a “Down and Out.” But the point became moot. He chose not to be known as “X”. Among the pseudonyms discussed were: “P.S. Burton, Kenneth Niles, H. Lewis Allways, and George Orwell.” Blair said, “I rather favour George Orwell.” Gollancz agreed.

Why the name George Orwell? Various scholars and memoirists have given disparate reasons for the choice, none wholly convincing. A childhood friend has said Blair hated the name “Eric.” Indeed Blair himself once wrote, “it took me nearly 30 years to work off the effect of being called Eric.” But despairing of any success for the oft-rejected Down and Out, he may have, as has been variously suggested, adopted a name that could be forgotten. It has also been suggested that the name “George” appealed to him because it is the name of England's patron saint. And he was familiar with the East Anglian river Orwell, which pleasantly flows to the sea near the port of Harwich, some 35 miles from the home of Orwell's parents in Southwold, where he stayed from time to time between his expeditions into lower class life. Or Blair may have chosen George Orwell because it scanned nicely: he once told a bookseller that he chose the name because it “helps to have a name that comes near the middle of the alphabet and therefore near the eyeline in the centre of the fiction shelves.” The book was well received critically. Altogether 3,195 copies with overs were printed and none were remaindered, but a history of the Gollancz firm remarks “the booksellers squeezed out their exiguous orders with extreme reluctance...”

* * *

The author initially expressed concern that there might be material in the book which would be disdainful of Americans [George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1933, first American edition.]. But what there is, such as a contempt for the inability of Americans in Paris to “know” good food, seems not to have made a difference: for as Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, chroniclers of the author's early life indicate, at that time “criticism of this sort coming from an Englishman would only amuse Americans...” Harpers brought out an edition of 1,750 copies to generally good reviews (the novelist James T. Farrell judged the book “genuine, unexaggerated and intelligent”). Alas, only 1,100 copies had been sold before Harpers in February 1934, nine months after publication, remaindered the unsold 383 copies. Copyright is in the name of Eric Arthur Blair.

* * *

This splendidly authoritative edition, meticulously edited by Davison, corrects the “in-house censorship” on the first edition [George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, London: Secker & Warburg, 1986. “The Complete Works of George Orwell” edited by Peter Davison, Volume One.]. Davison has used various sources to justify his corrections including the text of the 1935 French translation La Vache enragee (“the title is idiomatic French for being destitute”) which the author “greatly admired” and for which he “added explanatory notes for the French readers, evidently in answer to questions posed by the translators”. Davison also deals with the questions raised ever since its publication over what in the book is fact and what is fiction. In writing Down and Out the author as in much of his other books “works most interestingly and most valuably along the borderline that separates documentary and fiction”, but the writing is “firmly rooted”.



Daniel J. Leab: “About the “Down and Out””
Published: Collection Of Books And Manuscripts By And About George Orwell. — 1997.

E-text: Daniel J. Leab
Formatted by: O. Dag
Last modified on: 2019-12-29

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