Orwell & Lewis on Culture

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Culture Studies


George Orwell, Wyndham Lewis and the Origins of Cultural Studies
Alan Munton


This paper is part of a research project supported by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Technology (BFF 2002-02842), the Communidad Autonóma of La Rioja (ANGI-2002/05), and the University of La Rioja, Logroño, Spain (API-02 – 35). It was given in the Orwell Centenary section of the 9th International ‘Culture and Power’ conference held at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Lisbon, 4-7 November 2003.


To bring together in one discussion George Orwell and Wyndham Lewis is to associate two apparently very different writers, one of whom—Orwell—holds an established place in the history of cultural studies, whilst the other—Wyndham Lewis—is not thought to  have any links whatever with cultural studies. Orwell is part of the history of British  socialism, Lewis, if he is known at all, is remembered as the most reactionary of the modernists. Yet I shall argue today that the dialogue that took place between Orwell and Lewis between 1932 and 1952 is crucial to our understanding of the history of cultural studies. Let me hint at what is to come by saying that whenever we use the phrase ‘the global village’ to describe new relationships between centre and periphery, we are quoting Wyndham Lewis. As cultural critic, Lewis is present but unrecognised. There is a second difficulty: modernism and cultural studies do not meet. Lewis was a high modernist, and high modernism is not a point of reference for cultural studies. Rita Felski has very recently written a vigorous denunciation of the way in which ‘cultural studies [is] oblivious to modernist studies’, so that (she writes) ‘when “modernity” appears at all in cultural studies, it is often there to be refuted, derided, or denounced, a handy catch phrase for conservative politics, old hat metaphysics, and snobbish aesthetics’.[1] That is exactly how Lewis has been conceived, though the critical situation is beginning slowly to change. Felski urges that we need to ‘reverse the optic’, as she puts it, ‘to realize that modernist studies can throw light on cultural studies, as well as the other way around’ (502). I am doing that here; and I am taking a further step, toshow that modernism and cultural studies are, in the case of Orwell and Lewis, closely linked.

My third introductory point concerns the history of cultural studies in Britain. In  1967 and 1968 I was writing my MA a Birmingham University, and had the sense to attend a few meetings of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. The CCCS was founded by Richard Hoggart, author of Uses of Literacy, and I recall Hoggart quoting Orwell’s remark about ‘common decency’ being a value in English life. Hoggart, as he admitted himself, was not a theorist, and the future did not belong to him. He gave up the Centre in 1968. Nevertheless, it is important to recall that Orwell was an important point of reference for CCCS in its early days. Towards the end of 1968 I was the subject of a seminar at the Centre, following a successful student sit-in that year for which I was press officer—even revolution was organized! I was asked to describe my experiences with the press and television in what I now see was an early attempt to analyse the material processes by which representation is achieved by the media. That meeting was led by Stuart Hall, and although nothing seems to have come of the project, the attempt points forward to the characteristic concerns of cultural studies with process and representation.

The transition from Hoggart to Hall at this period permits me to prepare for what
follows by pointing to this structure: under Hoggart, Orwell’s way of exploring culture, in such an essay as ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, was predominant; under Hall, it is through Althusser and Gramsci that the crucial questions of ideology and hegemony are developed.

What, then, was the relationship between Wyndham Lewis and George Orwell? Wyndham Lewis was born in 1882 and was therefore eleven years older than Orwell. Lewis became established in 1914 as the leader of a British avant-garde in London with the publication of the magazine Blast and the success of the Vorticist movement in painting. He published the novel Tarr in 1918: it is a story of bohemian life in Paris before the First World War. Orwell read it in the 1930s. For Lewis the experience that transforms his attitude to European culture is the First World War, in which he fought as a gunner. Orwell’s transforming war experience comes proportionately later, when he takes part in the Spanish Civil War in 1937.

When Lewis published his criticism of Joyce, Pound and Bergson in Time and
Western Man in September 1927, Orwell had just returned to England from Burma, a convinced anti-imperialist. In 1928, Lewis published The Childermass, perhaps one of the most difficult of all modernist texts; in the same year, Orwell was down and out in Paris, and at the very end of that year, his first published article appeared. In 1930, as Orwell is getting established in literary London, Lewis publishes The Apes of God, an intimately knowledgeable satire upon 1920s literary London. Lewis was then at the height of his career. Towards the end of 1930, he visited Germany and in March 1931 published Hitler, the book that ruined his reputation. The following year Orwell remarked to Eleanor Jaques that he has been reading Lewis’s magazine The Enemy, and that Lewis ‘seems to have something in him’.[2] At this point Orwell begins to track Lewis’s work. Later in 1932 Orwell remarks to Brenda Salkeld that Lewis has ‘evidently got some kick in him’. His incipient interest is indicated by his next remark: ‘Whether at all a sound  thinker or not, I can’t be sure without further acquaintance’.[3] Further acquaintance evidently followed, because in 1939 Orwell writes a shrewd review of a book by Lewis that shows he had caught up on his reading and knew what Lewis’s politics had become during the 1930s. It was between 1931 and 1937 that Lewis published the books and articles that have led to him being identified as a conservative, authoritarian and incipiently fascist author. This remains a widely-held view which ignores the change that took place in Lewis’s thinking in 1937. If later critics have failed to notice or acknowledge Lewis’s philosemitism of 1939 (for example), George Orwell did recognise what had occurred, and I shall return to this review in a moment.

In 1941, the relationship between Orwell and Lewis becomes one of mutual
recognition. In that year Lewis published a novel about class in England, The Vulgar Streak, and wrote to ask his publisher to send a copy to, amongst others, ‘Mr Orwell (I dont [sic] know his first name’.[4]4 Orwell evidently received the book, for he quotes from it in a major essay, ‘The English People’: ‘The English working class, as Mr Wyndham Lewis has put it, are “branded on the tongue”’, he writes, and adds later: ‘No one should be “branded on the tongue”. It should be impossible...to determine anyone’s status from his accent’.[5] This episode shows both an agreement on class, and that Lewis recognised Orwell’s importance in British culture long before the successful publication of AnimalFarm in 1945.

In 1942 Orwell recognised Lewis as a European modernist; in 1943 he described the essays in The Enemy as among the few ‘really good pamphlets’ published in recent years. There are further references during the war, until in 1945 he returns to Tarr and Snooty Baronet as ‘good bad books’. And in 1946 he makes a blunder, writing in the New York Trotskyist journal Partisan Review that Lewis had become a Communist. This gaffe did not affect the climax to this public dialogue, the long discussion of Orwell that Lewis prepared in The Writer and the Absolute, published in 1952.[6]

The convergence between Orwell and Lewis is first apparent in the 1939 review I
mentioned earlier, where Orwell recognises that Lewis had moved towards the left. He is reviewing a little-known book by Lewis about England and Englishness entitled The Mysterious Mr. Bull—Mr Bull being John Bull. Orwell writes ‘I do not think it is unfair to say that Mr. Wyndham Lewis has “gone left.” Lewis has declared himself ‘a “revolutionary” and “for the poor against the rich”’, which is unexpected, given the nature of his earlier writings.[7] Orwell goes on to read the change in Lewis’s position through his own recent experiences in Spain, where as a member of the POUM fighting for the Republic, he found himself denounced as a ‘Trotsky-fascist’. Orwell’s consequent distrust of the official left emerges when he remarks that Lewis shows ‘a curious readiness’ to trust the leadership on the left and ‘to take their “antifascist” enthusiasm almost at its face-value’. Lewis’s new position, Orwell believes, is likely to lead to him becoming one of those ‘denounced as Communists by Fascists and as Fascists by Communists’ (p. 354). This is what had happened to Orwell himself, and I point to this remark as marking a significant convergence between Orwell’s position and Lewis’s.

Another convergence occurs when in 1952 Lewis devotes five chapters to a wide-
ranging discussion of Orwell in The Writer and the Absolute, entitled ‘Orwell, or Two and Two Make Four’. His discussion is devoted to getting the politics out of this most political of writers. For Lewis, everything in Orwell before Nineteen Eighty-Four is that of a conventional political mind, ‘the story of a man who rescued himself from a convention, and finished his life in a burst of clairvoyance’.[8] Lewis’s own position is that ‘Every writer should keep himself free from party’ (p. 193), a view that he had held since his earliest writings before the First World War, but which intermittently broke down to permit his right-wing enthusiasms. Freedom from party gives the opportunity to achieve ‘objective truth’, Lewis says, by which he seems to mean coming into possession of an inclusive sense of reality, a comprehensive understanding of politics that is not in any way partisan, but which recognises all the forces at work at any moment. Lewis concludes that in Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell very nearly achieved this: ‘He went much farther on the road to an ultimate political realism than any of his companions or immediate English contemporaries’ (p. 193). In other words, Orwell came close to believing what Lewis himself believed. It is an early example of the ‘Orwell agrees with me’ syndrome. And it is my second example of a convergence between these two writers.

As the conclusion to this first part of this argument, I want to point to the
significance of this convergence for cultural studies itself, in what I have called the early or Hoggart model. I have mentioned in passing Orwell’s 1940 essay ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, in which he discusses the significance of such comics for boys as Magnet, with its stories of  Greyfriars School and the fat boy Billy Bunter. Orwell concludes the essay by saying that these stories are ‘sodden in the worst illusions of 1910’, and that ‘The fact is only unimportant if one believes that what is read in childhood leaves no impression behind’—and Orwell evidently believes that such popular writing does affect those who read it.[9] Orwell’s article was written in 1939. In 1934 Wyndham Lewis published a book of critical essays entitled Men Without Art, an argument for the survival of art in difficult times. In the Introduction he wrote that implicit in the serious work of art is all of politics, theology and philosophy, and goes on to say this of popular writing:

But what is not so clear to very many people is that the most harmless piece of literary entertainment - the common crime story, for instance, or the schoolboy epic of the young of the English proletariat centred around the portly figure of Bunter, ‘the owl of the Remove’ (see Magnet Library, weekly 2d., of all newsagents) is at all events politically and morally influential.

This will be exactly Orwell’s point. Whether there was any influence in this instance, is not really my concern. But we can now point to an historical continuity between what Lewis proposed in 1934, through Orwell’s popular-cultural essays of the 1940s, and down to the early work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the mid-1960s.

The question that now suggests itself is this: if there is a continuity between
Lewis, Orwell and the early Hoggart phase of cultural studies, is there any continuity between Lewis and the much more theoretically advanced work initiated later by StuartHall? As I have said already, this was marked by Althusser and ideology and Gramsci and hegemony. In Lewis’s theoretical critique of modernity Time and Western Man, the 1927 book published just as Orwell returned from Burma, we do indeed find the terms ‘ideology’ and ‘hegemony’. Both occur in Lewis’s ‘An Analysis of the Mind of James Joyce’, where he shows how Ulysses is suffused with unexamined ideas about time. Here, ‘ideology’ is the leading term, and describes the process by which certain ideas, clusters of thought or ways of thinking become dominant. ‘Hegemony’ describes the outcome. Lewis does not expect his readers to find these concepts easy to grasp, but his warning of difficulties ahead contains key terms such as ‘theory’ and ‘dominance’. He writes, forexample: ‘When such a dominant theory is applied in literature or in art . . . even less does anyone grasp the steps by which that theory has entered the mind of the author or artist . . . . In short, any of the hundred ways and degrees in which assent is arrived at, and an intellectual monopoly or hegemony consummated, is . . . more arcane to the majority than is the theory itself.’[10] We might today object to ‘applied’ in that passage, but Lewis’s recognition of the existence of dominant ideas or tendencies in thought, his point that ideas may come to dominate through a multiplicity of routes, that assent is achieved, and that a monopolistic or hegemonic situation can and does emerge in the field of ideas and of creative art, presents us with a theoretical structure that is valuable in itself and remarkable for its time.

Lewis develops ‘ideology’ in complex ways. Again warning of difficulties, he writes that ‘Some . . . analysis of the domination achieved by an idea and how it ceases to be an idea and becomes an ideology, as Napoleon called it, an instrument of popular government has to be undertaken’ (p.85). He speaks of ideas being replaced by an ‘ideologic simulacrum’ (p.78), and describes the artist’s resistance to ideology: ‘It is equally his [the artist’s] business to know enough of the sources of his ideas, and ideology, to take steps to keep these ideas out, except such as he requires for his work’ (p. 136). This suggests that even the self-aware artist is not immune, and hints that Lewis is aware that in the reception of ideology complex subjective processes are at work.

These concepts of hegemony, dominance and control move the discussion into questions of power. Even before the work I have been describing, Lewis had begun a major critique of the state from within literary modernism This occurs in a book entitled The Art of Being Ruled, published in 1926. There, Lewis makes the crucial link between the state and ideology when he writes: ‘[W]hat we call conventionally the capitalist state is as truly an educationalist state’.[11] The history of cultural studies does not return to this question until Althusser argues that in modem capitalism the main ideological state apparatus (ISA) is education.

Finally, we can ask from a position within recent work in cultural studies, whether
Lewis at any time attempts a critique of the material processes of cultural production. In 1932 he published a book entitled Doom of Youth in which he reproduced texts from newspapers and magazines, and then developed a critical discussion of them. The texts are not reproduced photographically, but the book attempts a typographic version of the newspaper original. Cultural studies does not return to this device until Marshall McLuhan takes it up in the 1960s, when it was regarded as a brilliantly original strategy. The method then influenced Richard Hoggart’s 1967 publication, Your Sunday Paper. In this same book Lewis turns to the best-seller as a social document that ‘cannot lie’[12] about its society. Although he makes a mistake about the transparency of the popular that has been repeated in more recent cultural studies work, this is a significant historical development. In the conclusion to Doom of Youth Lewis again makes the kind of point
that caused Orwell to declare in 1939 that he had ‘turned Left’, arguing—and this is in 1932—that the popular press has a purpose: ‘The Popular Press is strictly reading matter for wage slaves; it is the bulletin for the slaves’ (p. 255). With Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’ in mind, and recognising the hegemonic structure implied by Lewis’s metaphor, we can see why Lewis should have appealed so strongly to Orwell, and conversely why Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four should have appealed to Lewis. There is a sense in which each of these writers helped to write the other.

The Orwell-Lewis relationship requires, it seems to me, a revision of the history of cultural studies. First, we must recognise that the ideological critiques conducted by Wyndham Lewis are the actual foundations of the field, though they have not been recognised as such. Second, the Orwell-Lewis relationship is one of convergence and recognition, and this is worth attending to. Thirdly, there is a history to the relationship that is divergent. Lewis initiates the study of popular culture, but he has no followers because his reputation on all fronts had been ruined by his 1930s politics. In practice it is Orwell whose work on popular culture is recognised and accepted as the historical precedent and model for the Birmingham CCCS. It remains unclear how much influence Lewis had on Orwell in that respect. When the Orwell model was dropped at Birmingham after 1968, there followed the more substantial theorisations of ideology and hegemony. Looking back, we see with some astonishment that this development had already been anticipated in Lewis’s work. Cultural studies actually originates in a forgotten tributary of high modernism.

Rita Felski, ‘Modernist Studies and Cultural Studies: Reflections on Method’, Modernism/modernity 10, 3 (September 2003), [501].
[2] George Orwell, ‘Letter to Eleanor Jaques’, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume I: An Age Like This 1920-1940, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, Books, 1970), p. 106. Henceforth CEJL I. Letter written ‘14? June 1932’.
[3] CEJL I, p. 126. Dated ‘[September? 1932]’. Orwell has been reading about Lewis’s novel Snooty Baronet, published 15 September. He again mentions The Enemy, published in three numbers, Nos. 1-2 in 1927, No. 3, 1929.
[4]W. K. Rose (ed.). The Letters of Wyndham Lewis (London: Methuen, 1963), p. 307. Letter dated 9 November 1941.
[5] George Orwell, ‘The English People’, CEJL III: As I Please 1943-1945, p. 19, p. 51.
[6] George Orwell, ‘The Rediscovery of Europe’, CEJL II: My Country Right or Left 1940-1943, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968), pp. 197-207, esp. p. 206. ‘Pamphlet Literature’ ibid., p. 285. CEJL IV: In Front of Your Nose 1945-1950, p. 21. ‘London Letter to Partisan Review’, ibid., p. 188.  
[7] George Orwell, ‘Review of The Mysterious Mr. Bull by Wyndham Lewis; The School for Dictators by Ignazio Silone’ in The Complete Works of George Orwell Volume Eleven: Facing Unpleasant Facts 1937-1939, ed. Peter Davison, assisted by Ian Angus and Sheila Davison (London: Secker and Warburg, 1998), p. 353. First published in New English Weekly, 8 June 1939.
[9] George Orwell, ‘Boys’ Weeklies, in CEJL I, p. 531.
[10] Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man, ed. Paul Edwards (1927; Santa Rosa CA: Black Sparrow
Press, 1993), pp. 86-7.
[11]Wyndham Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, ed. Reed Way Dasenbrock (1926; Santa Rosa, CA: Black
Sparrow Press, 1989), p. 106.  
[[13]Wyndham Lewis, Doom of Youth (London: Chatto and Windus, 1932), p. 246.


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