Icons & Inspiration: The History of George Orwell’s "Nineteen Eighty-Four"

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As most of you have probably heard, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, along with several other dystopian novels, has been elbowing newer novels off the top of the bestseller lists. With all of this new interest I thought it would be fun to take a look at how Harcourt, Brace & Company (one of HMH’s predecessor companies) came to publish Orwell’s great novel in the first place.

The short answer is that they published Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949 because they had published Orwell’s previous book, Animal Farm, three years earlier. But you’re here for the long answer, so let’s dig in.

Animal Farm

By the mid-1940s Harcourt, Brace was twenty-five years old and had been publishing British authors since their inception. In 1920, they published their 21st book - the important and highly influential The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was so pleased with the new firm that he recommended it to his fellow writer friends, many of which were very good writers, including Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Rosamond Lehmann. Soon enough a steady stream of well-received novels, biographies, and collections of essays came across the Atlantic to Harcourt, Brace during the twenties and thirties. Donald Brace was the lynchpin of the firm’s English connection and he made many trips back and forth to London during those years. I haven’t been able to find any proof of a previous connection between Brace and Orwell, but I suspect that Brace’s love of all things English may have played a part in Harcourt, Brace’s decision to purchase Animal Farm – the only American publisher willing to do so. In a letter written on January 3, 1946 and now printed in George Orwell: a Life in Letters (Liveright, 2013), Orwell tells his friend Dwight Macdonald about Harcourt, Brace’s Animal Farm purchase: “I have just fixed up to have it done in the USA by a firm named Harcourt & Brace who I believe are good publishers. I had a lot of difficulty to place it in the USA. The Dial Press who had been pestering me for some time for a book rejected it on the ground that the American public is not interested in animals.”  

Orwell also had difficulty placing Animal Farm in England as well; among those turning it down was T.S. Eliot (a Harcourt, Brace author), in his role as partner of Faber & Faber.

 T.S. Eliot Letter

Many were wary of the book’s politics (the Soviet Union was an ally and had endured incredible suffering during the Nazi siege of Leningrad) but there was also a paper shortage due to wartime rationing.  Eventually, a year after accepting the novel, Orwell’s British publisher Secker & Warburg had enough paper to print 10,000 copies in August 1945. It sold out in a couple of weeks and they scrounged around for the paper to print more. By the time Harcourt, Brace’s publication date of August 8, 1946 arrived they were confident it was going to sell well.

Animal Farm 

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Following the success of Animal Farm, Orwell, a widower, moved with his young son and his sister to a farm on the island of Jura, one of the Inner Hebrides islands in Scotland, where they fished and farmed and he began to write Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell was quite ill with tuberculosis, so the work went slowly. In December 1947, Orwell sent a letter to his agent, Leonard Moore, which included this line: “Could you also thank very kindly Harcourt Brace for getting & sending me a pair of shoes (just arrived) & find out from Fred Warburg who paid for them, ie, who I should repay.” When WWII ended, things quickly returned to normal in the United States but Britain was still rationing, and many goods were still unavailable there; in our archives there are quite a few letters from British HMH authors to American HMH editors thanking them for sending food and other items while the rationing was in effect.

Orwell finished Nineteen Eighty-Four in early November 1948. It’s hard to conceive of now, but back then, in order to have clean copies to send to his agent and publisher the whole manuscript had to be retyped. He couldn’t get a secretary to travel to the remote island, so he did it himself, often in bed and often, so he says in his diary, coughing up blood. He finished retyping on December 4, 1948, and copies were mailed out, with a carbon copy sent to Harcourt Brace in New York.

By that time, Robert Giroux had returned from the army to his position as editor at Harcourt Brace; he was the star of the company, editing T.S. Eliot and Thomas Merton and other important people like Robert Lowell and Eudora Welty. He must have been given Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four manuscript too, and he wanted to make two changes that irritated Orwell immensely. On March 2, 1949, Orwell wrote to his English editor, Roger Senhouse: “I’m afraid there is going to be a big battle with Harcourt Brace, as they want to alter the metric system measurements all the way through the book to miles, yards, etc., and in fact have done so in the proofs. This would be a serious mistake. I’ve already cabled in strong terms, but I don’t like having to fight these battles 3000 miles from my base.”

And then later, on March 17 he wrote to his agent, Leonard Moore, about some cuts that Giroux proposed to the book to have it chosen for the Book of the Month Club: “You will have had Robert Giroux’s letter, of which he sent me a duplicate. I can’t possibly agree to the kind of alteration and abbreviation suggested. It would alter the whole colour of the book and leave out a good deal that is essential. I think it would also make the story unintelligible. There would also be something visibly wrong with the structure of the book if about a fifth or a quarter were cut out and the last chapter then tacked on to the abbreviated trunk. A book is built up as a balanced structure and one cannot simply remove large chunks here and there unless one is ready to recast the whole thing. In any case, merely to cut out the suggested chapters and abridge the passages from the ‘book within the book’ would mean a lot of re-writing which I simply do not feel equal to at present.” Orwell won both arguments and Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in the US on June 13, 1949, five days after the English edition appeared.

Nineteen Eighty-Four 

Harcourt announced the book with a two-page press release as well.

Nineteen Eighty-Four 

Orwell died less than a year later, on January 21, 1950.  He was never able to enjoy the money or the fame that came his way for these books, or hear things described as “Orwellian.”

Other Orwell Publications

Dickens, Dali & Others

While Orwell was working on Nineteen Eighty-Four, both Harcourt, Brace and his English publisher made plans to reprint some of Orwell’s earlier work in order to capitalize on the success of Animal Farm. Of the four novels and five non-fiction works that Orwell had written in the 1930s and early 1940s, only the novel Burmese Days (1934) and the memoir Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) (both published by Harper & Row) and the collection of essays Dickens, Dali & Others (1946) published by Reynal & Hitchcock appeared in the United States.

On January 19, 1950, just two days before Orwell died, Harcourt Brace published three of Orwell’s books, Burmese Days, Down & Out, and Coming Up For Air. Later in 1950, Harcourt published the first American edition of Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays and in subsequent years published the first American editions of Homage to Catalonia (1952), Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1956) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1958).

Coming Up For Air  Shooting an Elephant   Homeage to Catalonia   Keep the Aspidistra Flying  The Road to Wigan Pier 

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