This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
Compassion comes with age, with experience, with having walked the writer’s path over many years. But in the best sense, compassion is also profoundly, if paradoxically, simple. One spiritual tradition after another has pointed out that if you can give the external trappings of identity (house, car, job) no more meaning than they deserve, you can discover that you are just one container for a greater energy, a greater common ground of being you share with other creatures too. John Keats, that most famous young artist, wrote that “the camelion Poet” is “always filling some other body,” curious to experience reality as other beings understand it and to render it into art. His alert and precise observation extends the grounds of artistic vision – or compassion – to animals: “I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a stoat or a field mouse peeping out of the withered grass,” he wrote in a letter of 1819. “[T]he creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it – I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along – to what? The Creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it.”
Like Keats, and like that other 19th-century female recluse, Emily Dickinson, Anna Sewell (1820-1878) possessed a spiritual curiosity that pushed her imagination beyond the boundaries of bodies, even species. “The Victorian invalid” has become a cliché, yet Anna Sewell really was. From an active young womanhood, she declined into a state of dramatically poor health after breaking an ankle, eventually dying from symptoms resembling lupus. Her only book, Black Beauty, was written in painful fragments and dictated to her mother (with whom she lived her entire life), then published six months before her death at age 58. Yet in considering her life, I think of a favorite line from another writer who lived at home with her mother, Eudora Welty: “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well, for all serious daring starts from within.”
Consider this: Anna Sewell, spinster invalid, wrote one of the most influential and original books to come out of Victorian England. Influential? Original? Think about how omnipresent this book has been in your own life (as a child) or in the lives of children you know. Think about how writing such a book now would be equivalent to writing from the point of view of your Subaru — the transportation mode with a semblance of mechanical “life.” Now think about the radical twist of compassion, the Keatsian, world-opening change that happens (as it happens in childhood) when you realize that other beings are as real to themselves as you are to yourself, that, for example, the color orange as you see it might or might not be the same orange someone else sees. We need this realization, often. We need to be reminded that the world is bigger than just ourselves. And because Black Beauty is so simple — short chapters, limited-first-person narration “translated from the equine” — it’s easy to forget how radically it reminds us of just that.
In an essay for The Believer, Paul Collins places Black Beauty beside slave narratives, and another Victorian tradition: The Autobiography Of [insert overlooked object, person, or mysterious other here.] Among the “autobiographies” were those of lumps of coal—which takes me to George Orwell’s reflection, in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), on his harrowing tour of a coal mine:
It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an “intellectual” and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants – all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.
Poor drudges, black bodies, blackened to the eyes: to a Victorian, this could describe coal miners, dirty housemaids, and the slaves freed throughout the Empire only in 1833, on whose working shoulders all of “civilized” life depended. It might describe horses, too, who are lower even than such lower people, because they lack language and reason. Or so we might think, until we read Black Beauty.
The genius of Sewell’s simple conceit — what would you learn if the horse that pulled your carriage every day could speak to you? — is that it upsets adult prejudices by returning us to the moral and imaginative porousness of childhood, where empathy wasn’t a conscious effort at all. It wouldn’t have seemed unusual, then, for your favorite stuffed toy to speak, because you were also secretly sure your cat or dog could understand everything you said and, in its own way, could talk back. As a bookish farm kid, I was convinced that horses and cats and dogs had their own personalities and systems of justice and love, inarguably better than bewildering human cruelties and rules. Black Beauty was confirmation of what I already knew, in my heart: people were mean, and they hurt the good and forbearing creatures around them every day, without knowing it. Sometimes those animals were horses. Sometimes they were pudgy preteen girls, locked in bodies that seemed as far from humanity as anything that neighed or barked or curled up at the foot of the bed, purring, to sleep. Black Beauty was vital therefore in igniting a sense of justice, the basis for which was already there: the strong may hurt the weak, but the weak never, never lose the right to say this is unfair and hope that someone else will hear.
Black Beauty does not speculate about human motivations, which are unknowable to him; he only reports what he feels, hears, and sees. Sometimes these are lyrical evocations of the English countryside:
The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water-lilies grew at the deep end.
Sometimes these are his own sensations, defamiliarized:
Every one may not know what breaking in is, therefore I will describe it. It means to teach a horse to wear a saddle and bridle and to carry on his back a man, woman, or child; to go just the way they wish, and to go quietly. . . He must never start at what he sees, nor speak to other horses, nor bite, nor kick, nor have any will of his own, but always do his master’s will; even though he may be very tired or hungry; but the worst of all is, when his harness is once on, he may neither jump for joy nor lie down for weariness. So you see this breaking in is a great thing.
Black Beauty’s reportorial narration is simple, and factual, and yet the reader feels a stirring of unease at how simply such obedience may be exploited, and how ambiguous is that word “great” — to the Victorians it’s “significant,” not necessarily good. There is life before and life after “breaking” — Black Beauty goes from childhood to adulthood just as his readers must, and he’s surrounded by a constellation of other equine characters whose circumstances determine their “breaking” just as they do for people.
Chief among these is the mare Ginger, a consistent foil to the stoicism of Beauty (who’s a gelding, although the castration is not described.) Like some of her human literary forbears — the reformed prostitute Jemima in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria; or, the Wrongs of Woman (1798) or the abused wife Helen in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) — Ginger is a sensitive and high-spirited female, literally beaten into apparent obedience by men. Her resistance becomes the occasion for more punishment, and the novel leaves little doubt that men’s brutality — uncomfortably resembling rape — has formed her into the rebel she remains throughout the book:
But when it came to breaking in, that was a bad time for me; several men came to catch me, and when at last they closed me in at one corner of the field, one caught me by the forelock, another caught me by the nose, and held it so tight I could hardly draw my breath; then another took my under jaw in his hard hand and wrenched my mouth open, and so by force they got on the halter and the bar into my mouth; then one dragged me along by the halter, another flogging behind, and this was the first experience I had of men’s kindness, it was all force: they did not give me a chance to know what they wanted… You know yourself, it’s bad enough when you have a kind master and plenty of coaxing, but there was nothing of that sort for me.
Yet in the same kind home where Beauty finds himself, Ginger “grew much more gentle and cheerful, and had lost the watchful, defiant look that she used to turn on any strange person who came near her.” One wonders how such kindness might work on any of the other defiant “creatures” we now see as “problems” — schoolchildren getting arrested, for instance?
Good fiction nudges us to see that which we would prefer to forget, and often draws parallels between ourselves and apparently different others. It enlarges the aperture of our moral vision (which the daily textures of our own comforts and concerns always threaten to narrow) in a way that encourages us to follow that morality into social awareness, and into action. In Anna Sewell’s time, as in ours, “Christianity” as a term is politically much-abused and deliberately manipulated, especially by those “Christians” who should know better. Yet as a Quaker, Sewell is part of a tradition of activism, in her time and ours — a tradition which reminds us that our comfortable lives are cushioned by the labor and sacrifice of human and nonhuman others, and that if we do not find ways to honor these others, we commit injustice: we transgress what she would have respected as God’s creation. As I’ve written elsewhere, antislavery and animal rights were linked to one another in the 18th and 19th centuries by just this view. Jesus’s promise of social disruption and reversal (the last shall be first, and the first shall be last) and his focus on the meek, the poor, and the disenfranchised, opened the door for women (socially “meek,” legally disenfranchised) to follow their training and beliefs as “good Christians” into activism on behalf of others, human and animal.
We hurt and rely on and remain willfully ignorant of those around us all the time, every day, rather than giving them – in the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt — “a claim on our thinking attention.” Victorian industrial processes alienated worker from product and consumer, alienated worker from other human beings. But socially, they also alienated those who labored or produced from those who enjoyed the fruits of that labor, even as they came into daily contact, sometimes living under the same roof. Servants, animals, and women were all considered different “species” from the dominant male — despite the servant sweeping ash from your fireplace or the horse trotting along in front of your carriage, in plain view, every day. Ditto the wife whose body was at once an intimate, domestic presence and — when you waited anxiously in the parlor while your children were born upstairs — a near-total mystery. Yet as Anna Sewell is still helping readers and writers to learn, from childhood on up, imagination and compassion will help you cross that gap.
“Tell me what you eat,” wrote Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “and I will tell you what you are.” His magnum opus, The Physiology of Taste , was gastronomy’s answer to Diderot’s Encyclopedia or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: technique by technique, principle by principle, Brillat-Savarin relentlessly marches through the catalog of la gourmanidse and lays out, in his words, nothing less than the “eternal foundation” for “a new science”—the science of gastronomy—that would “nourish, restore, preserve, persuade, and console us; a science which, not content with strewing flowers in the path of the individual, also contributes in no small measure to the strength and prosperity of empires.”
In many ways, The Physiology of Taste applied the essence of Enlightenment thought to food, cooking, and eating. It is a massive and thorough discourse written by an author supremely confident in his ability to know himself and all of his faculties, from consumption to cognition, in perfect detail. Brillat-Savarin sought to train mankind’s collective palate and teach everyone the joys of cooking and dining through the science of gastronomy. But that science is strangely limited in scope as well. According to Brillat-Savarin, gourmandism is a science of pleasure-making, training in aesthetic judgment, the gifts of the muse Gasterea—and nothing else.
Even though Brillat-Savarin used the language and structure of Enlightenment thought, he followed the dictum of the Greek philosopher Epictetus: “do not discourse how people ought to eat; but eat as you ought.”
In fact, food writers have taken that advice to heart since Brillat-Savarin’s time. They have felt free to recall, meditate, and describe, from Marcel Proust’s tea-soaked madeleine to Julia Child’s sole meunière, but they never connected food with morality, only competing tastes. The topic even blunted the sharpest pens of the nineteenth century. H.L. Mencken reminisced about oyster fritters and soft-shell crabs in “The Baltimore of The Eighties,” but made only a passing mention of the pollution that would later render the Patapsco River one of the first identified marine dead zones in the world. Likewise, Mark Twain wrote enough about food to fill a book, though it’s probably too much of a stretch to call him a “locavore,”, since it sounds like Twain’s preference for local food was more of a logistical rather than a moral issue.
It took socialists to first convince people that food issues extended well beyond the dinner plate. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle famously exposed the near-complete lack of concern for food safety in the meatpacking industry, and George Orwell spent a surprising amount of his literary life defending roast beef, bread-and-drippings, and the English way of making tea from the encroachment of margarine and tin cans. “We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine-gun,” he wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, without any irony whatsoever: he believed that industrialism meant the decline of man’s moral, intellectual, and physical health, and nowhere was this decline more apparent than in the English kitchen.
Still, these books were intended to be more like John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and less like Fast Food Nation—that is, arguments for the justice and moral rectitude of socialism, not merely calls for better food regulation. As Sinclair later complained, “I aimed for the nation’s heart and hit its stomach.”
After World War II, as the world grew accustomed to frozen vegetables and Jell-O molds, the vast majority of food writing turned anodyne. Food essays tended to resemble extended essays, a sort of verbal channeling of the Platonic form of a particular dish or technique. It was, and still is, the most common kind of food writing, produced by critics and chefs alike, from James Beard to Nigella Lawson. Entertaining (and appetite-whetting) though these may books might be, all of them are fairly low-risk and low-stakes. Most examples are panegyrics to one dish or ingredient or technique, and the rest are simply culinary relativism, an attempt to show that one thing is better than another. It’s the same ground that Brillat-Savarin had covered a century prior.
But a few writers have always aspired to more. In the 60s and 70s, travel writers showed that the “went there, ate that” travelogue could, in fact, have a point beyond mere description: Paul Theroux, for instance, found that the dismal dining cars in the Orient Express mirrored the famous route’s general decline. British food columnist Jane Grigson, meanwhile, wrote miniature biographies of vegetables in an attempt to sketch the outlines of what are now, a bit awkwardly, called “foodways”; her London Times counterpart, Michael Bateman, agitated for better school lunches and exposed food industry malpractices before launching the Campaign for Real Bread, which championed local bakers over the “technological bread” of industrial plants.
Still, most modern American food writers see themselves not as the heirs of these gastronomical torch-bearers, but as the descendants of the ecological movement. It’s no surprise that the name Rachel Carson pops up again and again, from Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish to the pages of Vegetarian Times magazine; after all, many of these writers are trying to expose the environmental damaged caused by agribusiness or commercial fishing in the same way that Carson showed what pesticides were doing to wildlife.
Of course, food matters to most of us far more than water management, wildlife preservation, or even global warming: whether it’s three squares a day or the “efficient, joyless eating” of Dr. Oz, we are forced to see, smell, taste, and think about food every single day.
And that’s why the best food writing has a unique capacity to tell us something about our social norms and attitudes and even, at a stretch, that nebulous idea called the human condition. Sometimes it’s good: the chefs/civic boosters/cultural ambassadors that Anthony Bourdain manages to find around the world, from Caracas to Dubai; Tony Judt’s observation that European multiculturalism extended to his own dining table, too.
But food can also lead us to abandon reason in favor of pure hedonism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Greenberg’s Four Fish, which manages to find culprits everywhere. There’s the tuna fisherman who says, “I love these fish…but I love to catch them. God, I love to catch them. And I know you need some kind of catch limits because I’d catch all of them if I could.” Or the trochus diver on Cook Island who, when caught harvesting out-of-season, began to cry and asked, “Why? Why did you close the season? There are still some left!” And then there’s us, the fish-eating public, for whom a decade of pressure to pay attention to which fish we eat has amounted to exactly nothing, despite the best efforts of environmentalists, journalists, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The moral of the story is the same whether you’re talking about fast food, factory farming, big agribusiness…
Maybe this is why serious food writing has remained blissfully free of moral overtones for much of its existence. As much as we would like to think that we are all Aristotelians (in other words, that we do the right thing without being commanded), when it comes to food, we’ve shown ourselves to be equal parts insatiable and irrational; we’d really rather not think about anything that would threaten that visceral link between food and pleasure. (If anyone needs any further proof—last week, overwhelming consumer feedback forced Frito-Lay to replace its biodegradable Sun Chips bag with a non-biodegradable one simply because it was “too noisy.” Suddenly, we find ourselves fighting a rearguard action: as Michael Pollan shows, we’re cooking much less, we’re eating much worse, and we’re curiously ambivalent the whole thing.
So even though food writing has come a long way from Brillat-Savarin’s little epigrams (“dessert without cheese is like a pretty woman without one eye”), his most memorable claim—“tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”—is still true. We might like to think about food only in terms of how much pleasure it gives us, whether it’s the collective experience of a good meal or the personal satisfaction of a well-executed dish. But increasingly, food writing prompts us to look beyond the tips of our tongues, and to realize that food can bring out both the best and the worst in all of us.
(Image: Inspecting Tuna, Tokyo Fish Market, 1960s, from jaybergesen’s photostream)
George Orwell never thought that his work would outlive him by much. After all, he considered himself “a sort of pamphleteer” rather than a genuine novelist, and confidently predicted that readers would lose interest in his books “after a year or two.” Yet sixty years later, Orwell endures, and I am not sure that this is a good thing.
I say this as someone who not only reads Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four once a year, but who also owns collections of essays, biographies, and even a copy of Orwell’s 1936 novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying, which according to one reviewer “at times mak[es] the reader feel he is sitting in a dentist’s chair.”
But for people like me who are under 30, there will always be something remote and incomprehensible about Orwell. I was in preschool when the Berlin Wall fell, and I know perestroika and détente as answers to exam questions rather than lived experiences. I grew up fearing nuclear power plants more than ICBMs, and found LBJ’s infamous “Daisy Girl” ad far less terrifying than some of the spots from the 2008 presidential election. I think of politics in terms of individual issues and partisan planks rather than grand, historicizing political ideologies. In short, because my worldview is so different from that of Orwell and his Cold War-era readers, I have to “think” my way into their political struggles in a way that someone even twenty years ago probably did not.
In ninth grade, I was required to read Animal Farm. My class read the book over a period of three weeks, which was not that hard of a task, since it is all of 30,000 words. Our teacher gave us the barest outline of historical context, enough at least to know that Napoleon represented Stalin, Snowball represented Trotsky, and that was about it (a whole unit on allegory would have to wait until sophomore year, and Billy Budd). But because the book is a “fairy story,” I learned its themes easily: power corrupts, principles are elastic, revolutions will be betrayed, and evil’s greatest allies are the unthinking masses.
Two years later, I found myself following Winston Smith into the cabbage-smelling hallways of Victory Mansions on a bright cold day in April. This was the year of “relatable” protagonists, so after Ralph from Lord of the Flies and Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, I was primed to look for affirmations of my own worldview. And Nineteen Eighty-Four was both cynical, anti-authoritarian, and a paean to hopeless dissent in the face of inexorable conformity (its working title, after all, was “The Last Man in Europe”). To my teenage mind, Winston was both pathetic and sympathetic – a role model – even if Big Brother got him in the end. Surely, I thought, these were the only lessons that were worth keeping from the book, since nothing else was obvious.
If there is such a thing as a “right way” and a “wrong way” to read books, then my high school approach to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been the latter. But that was because I did not know exactly how these books were shaped by their times, and how contemporary audiences would have reacted to them. We never heard about Orwell’s influences, such as Arthur Koestler, Yevgeny Zamyatin, or James Burnham, because they are not part of the literary canon. We never learned about the show trials in Moscow or the Spanish Civil War, either, because that was meant for history class, not English. And any textual analysis that smacked too much of politics was strictly out of bounds: I did not, for instance, understand that the concept of “Ingsoc” was supposed to be a satire of Nazism, whereby fascism advanced under a socialist veneer, until much later. In short, I could not have known what Orwell intended his works to be, and so I understood them in the only way I knew how, as advice manuals for the American adolescent.
I’m not the only one who never quite “got” Orwell the first time around. Because few people who read Orwell’s novels in classrooms also learn about their context, most people misunderstand them, or at least half-remember them, in the same way. Sometimes, his name gets applied to topics that he never really thought about, such as the “Orwellian” investment philosophy of Goldman Sachs (at best, Orwell railed against the “sheer vulgar fatness of wealth” and the “worship of money” in general) and the “downright Orwellian” American Community Survey form for the 2010 Census (Orwell has nothing specific to say about government paperwork). Other times, this means that Orwell’s political enemies try to claim him for their own side. This is nothing new: in the 1950s and 60s, for example, Soviet publications like Kommunist and Izvestia argued that Nineteen Eighty-Four was actually a critique of American excesses and amorality, and in 1984, Norman Podhoretz famously tried to make Orwell into a pro-nuclear neoconservative hawk.
But even though Hitler and Stalin belong to the dustbin of history, people still manage to find shades of totalitarianism and organized lying – Orwell’s favorite targets – in more places than ever. During the summer of 2009, for instance, opponents of health care reform wielded Orwell’s name indiscriminately. Steven Yates, a philosophy Ph.D. and member of the John Birch Society, told us that “‘Obama-care’ would make George Orwell spin in his grave.” Bill Fleckenstein, an MSN Moneywatch columnist and hedge fund manager, also decried such an obviously “socialist” project: “For those who aren’t clear on why socialism doesn’t work, I recommend reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm.”3 And Tea Party protesters have carried signs reading STOP. YOU’RE STARTING TO SCARE GEORGE ORWELL, ORWELL WARNED US, or ORWELL WAS A VISIONARY. Never mind that, in “How the Poor Die,” Orwell criticized how the indigent had inadequate access to health care; never mind that, in The Road to Wigan Pier, he blamed inadequate government intervention for poor nutrition and squalid living conditions in northern mining towns. Never mind that, for most of his life, Orwell advocated nothing short of a socialist revolution in England! As far as these people were concerned, Orwell’s works amount to nothing more than an anti-government, anti-change screed.
Overuse on the one hand, distortion on the other: what perversely fitting tributes to a writer who underscored the dangers of reductionism, revisionism, and willful ignorance. Clearly, George Orwell is a victim of his own success, and in a peculiar way – there are no public fights over the legacy of Hemingway or Joyce or even over other midcentury political writers like Hannah Arendt that rival the ones for Orwell’s posthumous stamp of approval.
So Orwell was right to consider himself more pamphleteer than novelist. Many critics have dismissed this as a kind of false modesty, but in this case, Orwell was not merely managing expectations. Pamphlets are designed to make a specific point to a specific audience, and then to be thrown away because they can no longer serve the purpose for which they were intended. Orwell’s works are ephemeral too, in the sense that they cannot really be understood without some semblance of historical and intellectual context. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of reading, and a lot of extracurricular effort to do so, however. Obviously, many readers simply find it easier to shout down any opposite political position with Orwell’s own words – Big Brother, thoughtcrime, Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others – than to really understand what these words, in context, were supposed to represent.
And Orwell was wrong to believe that good writing alone could promote honesty. He wrote that euphemistic, dishonest, and generally bad prose “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” whereas “good prose is like a windowpane,” through which the author’s purpose can be seen clearly. All true. But good writing can still be perverted, as many of his readers have shown and continue to show. As Louis Menand observed in The New Yorker, “Orwell’s prose was so effective that it seduced many readers into imagining, mistakenly, that he was saying what they wanted him to say, and what they themselves thought.” His style, in other words, has overwhelmed his substance, and if he had not been such a good, clear, memorable writer, he would not be plagued by grave-robbers.
Clearly, literary immortality has its downsides. And as the last sixty years have shown, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are not like other canonical works of literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby, whose messages are straightforward in comparison. Instead, they are as much pamphlet as novel, which means that it is impossible to understand his political purpose without knowing the intellectual and ideological environment in which he wrote. Until Orwell’s readers bother to do so – which, as a rule, they don’t – then we can look forward to another sixty years of use and abuse.