Orwell and Tarkington In Support of American Journalists


Sales of George Orwell’s novel 1984 are apparently increasing in response to events in the United States. Orwell’s Doublethink and Two Minute Hate readily lend themselves to parallels with “alternative facts” and the whipping up of hatred against perceived “others”. But it’s not only a writer like Orwell who we can turn to for enlightenment. Any writer with a eye to human nature could help us. I’d like to refer you, for example, to Booth Tarkington, Princeton Graduate and author of the novel The Magnificent Ambersons. Wealthy, patrician, conservative Tarkington seemingly has little in common with Orwell; but yesterday I read the section in The Magnificent Ambersons where Eugene Morgan tries to help his daughter understand the characteristic combination of arrogance and inability to accept criticism. Eugene’s observations will strike a chord with any number of contemporary American journalists:

“That’s one of the greatest puzzles of human vanity, dear, and I don’t pretend to know the answer. In all my life, the most arrogant people that I’ve known have been the most sensitive. The people who have done the most in contempt of other people’s opinion, and who consider themselves the highest above it, have been the most furious if it went against them. Arrogant and domineering people can’t stand the least, lightest, faintest breath of criticism. It just kills them.”

In Praise of King Log


Since the earliest days of organised human society, people have recognised the value of a leader who does little.  One of Aesop’s Fables dating from the sixth century BC, has advice for a populace who think a strong leader is the answer to their problems.  In The Frogs Who Demanded a King, a group of frogs irritated at their disorganised manner of life, ask Zeus to provide them with a king.  In response, Zeus throws a lump of wood into the frog’s swamp.  The noise scares the frogs, who hide beneath the mud. Eventually realising the lump of wood is not actually doing anything, they emerge from their hiding places, sit on their king and complain to Zeus.  This time Zeus sends a water dragon as the frog king, who proceeds to eat all his subjects.

Many leaders, particularly in Britain, have tried to be a lump of wood rather than a water dragon.  Queen Elizabeth I, one of the country’s best-known monarchs, was famous for doing as little as she could get away with, particularly with regard to warfare.  Later in history, this policy of calm inaction would become the guiding philosophy of the British monarchy. Queen Victoria was the first officially non-active constitutional monarch.  Her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, tutored her in this policy; and Melbourne himself – as Dorothy Marshall has written – “had the capacity to do absolutely nothing unless driven, and then do as little as possible.”  Melbourne worked in a tradition set by Robert Walpole, the man often seen as Britain’s first Prime Minister, who with his “calculatedly uneventful administration,” dominated Parliament for twenty years through the 1720s and 1730s.

In the subsequent history of British prime ministers, there are many examples of wise attempts to do as little as possible.  Henry Addington, prime minister 1801 – 1803, provides one telling example.  After peace negotiations with France failed in May 1803, Addington followed the safe but unspectacular course of doing nothing.  Napoleon’s army was sitting in France ready to invade, but if it tried to do so, the Royal Navy was waiting for them.  If only Britain could continue to do nothing, then Napoleon’s army sitting around on the French coast would be defeated either by disease and indiscipline; or by lunging over the Channel in frustration, straight into the waiting guns of British ships. Waiting made perfect sense, but was not popular. Addington’s term did not last the year.

Perhaps Addington made a mistake in failing to combine his non-action with fighting words.  However, even fighting-talk prime ministers are not as active as they seem once you get passed all the words. Winston Churchill might appear to provide definitive active leadership, with his blood curdling speeches of resistance in 1940. In reality, he wisely left most of the actual running of things to others.  The occasions when he interfered did not tend to go well.  It was fortunate, for example, that Air Chief Marshall, Hugh Dowding, talked Churchill out of sending the RAF to its destruction in the Battle for France.  Only because of Dowding’s actions did Britain have the aircraft to allow Churchill to make his famous speeches during the Battle of Britain.

Wisdom coming down to us from the sixth century BC is more relevant than ever.  Political leadership is often at its best in providing a calm centre as King or Queen Log, rather than contributing to the chaos as King or Queen Water Dragon.  The frogs should be careful what they wish for.

Animal Stories – Bringing the Gods to Earth

A naturalistic dragon portrayed in the Medieval Liber Floridus enclylopedia – 1460

Animal stories; I was suspicious.  Then, after inconveniently having an idea for a story about dogs, I decided to have a look at them.  Animal stories have a very long history.  Aesop’s Fables, a collection of sixth century BC short stories, one-liners and aphorisms, is full of animal characters – hens laying golden eggs, hares racing tortoises and so on.  The animals lend an elemental quality to the stories – the sense that earthy, fundamental truths are under discussion.

Fittingly for stories about fundamental truths, it seems that during the evolution of the Fables, the original characters switched from gods to animals.  Some Aesop scholars think this may have happened to make the spiritual world of gods more accessible to an earth bound readership.  Some of the Fables actually involve mythic animals, which exist halfway between the world of gods and man – the halcyon bird for example.

This sense of the elemental and the spiritual continues in animal stories today.  There are of course children’s stories, in which authors such as Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne explain down to earth truths through rabbits, bears, kangaroos and pigs. At the literary end of the scale, you have a story like Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, about a pet dog who regresses to its original wolf nature.  Jack London sets out to explore basic themes of life, death and survival.  There is also that characteristic spiritual quality, where animals are close to gods.  Buck the dog actually becomes a god to the indigenous Indians of the valley where he takes up residence with his wolf companions.

Thinking of a modern take on animals inhabiting the realm of the gods, there is the interesting case of the dragon.  The dragon is similar to a halcyon bird in that both are mythical creatures, sitting halfway between the earthbound world and the fantastical godly realm. Dragons play an important role in the hugely successful books of Tolkien.  They also reappear in more recent fantasy fiction by, for example, George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb or Patrick Rothfuss.  Patrick Rothfuss is especially interesting in this regard, since his dragons move closer to the status of earthbound animals, with a Latin name and reasonable explanations for their fire breathing abilities.

Animal stories today continue to fulfill the role they played thousands of years ago, revealing basic truths, and bringing the world of spirit and fantasy down to earth.

Alice Munro – The Short Story Comes Of Age


The modern age is supposed to be about limited attention spans, but books seem to be getting longer and longer.  A trilogy these days is just a teaser for the next five volumes.  Perhaps long fiction is a sign of an age where people are relatively isolated.  You picture a short tale as something that people share beside a campfire, passed around like biscuits.  These are insular affairs, bounded by the edge of the light, reaffirming the identity of a small group. Perhaps we don’t have so many campfires anymore.  Instead, people read quietly on their own, lost in enormous books describing fictional lands, where more often than not, people wearing leather and wielding swords gather around campfires and tell tales.

There are, however, new ways for people to come together.  The internet is now a place where people socialise and find like-minded people.  It is here that short fiction seems to be making something of a comeback.  Many websites offer short and ultra-short fiction – flash fiction – taking place around the scattered campfires of the internet.

Alice Munro is one of the best modern short story writers.  She works in the long tradition of tales expressing the identity of the storyteller’s locality, Canada in her case.   On the other hand, Alice Munro has devoted readers in all parts of the world. The world is more connected now than it has ever been.  Stories have to reach out beyond the fire.  In terms of the history of the short story, this expansive trend emerged in the sixteenth century when the “sketch” developed.  This was a short piece of writing almost journalistic in its intent.  The sketch writer’s aim was less to define the fireside group as introduce readers to places or facts with which they were unfamiliar.  Alice Munro has the spirit of the sketch in her work, a sense of bigger things beyond the bounds of her stories.  There is the characteristic quirk, for example, that Munro’s characters exaggerate drama in small things, and underplay drama in big things.  Canada is a place of everyday lives and trifling events: Canada is also an ancient landform called “the Precambrian Shield,” which sits in vast time and space outside the windows of a train carrying a young woman to college or a new job.  This limitless and ancient landscape bleeds into apparently small lives, revealing great space and universality in them.  Ordinary people have psychic powers, mundane events have mystical overtones, and minor accidents have wide, almost predestined consequences.

The serious reputation of short stories has always suffered in comparison with the novel; but short fiction could actually be the tip of a modern iceberg, suggesting much that lies beneath the surface. Short stories could actually lay a claim to represent a definitive modern form.