A book -- really a series of essays -- written by George Orwell in 1937 (published 1938), immediately before he left England to observe the Spanish Civil War (and to participate, as it turned out, and ultimately to write Homage to Catalonia about the experience).

The Road to Wigan Pier was commissioned by the Left Book Club in London. The idea was for Orwell to travel around some northern English industrial towns, have a look at how bad things were for the working class, and come back with a book about it. Orwell did just that. He went among the employed and the unemployed, living with them, talking with them, and trying to get inside their heads. He went down into a coal mine, lived in filthy run-down boarding houses, and so forth.

It's not merely a documentary of industrial working class life in northern England in 1937, and this is why it's of more than merely historical interest. Throughout, Orwell's view of things is that of a member of the middle class trying to get outside of his upbringing. He offers himself as a case-study of the class distinctions he'd like to erase. His reactions to the subject are part of the subject. This is a tricky business, because it leaves him nowhere to stand: When you evaluate your own values, in what terms do you evaluate them? He's at his best when he just describes what he sees as best he can, in that clear, even Orwellian prose. But caveat lector: It's well known by now that his prose can be a pose. My understanding is that "Shooting an Elephant" (for example) is partially (at least) a fabrication.

Be it polemical or journalistic, it's still a pleasure to read, and at the end of the day he's got a good point to make: The thing to do is to go there and look and to keep an open mind about what you see. Try to understand your biases and allow for them, try to be an innocent eye until you've got all the facts. He's forever stopping and asking himself, "why am I assuming this?" when his middle class instincts kick in, but he doesn't always beat back his leftist instincts with the same stick. His more broad and "primitive" leftist instincts -- amounting almost to a primitive Christianity in spirit -- are where he ends up "standing" to observe the rest.

We've got as much to learn from Orwell's ideas about method as from his application of that method or from his conclusions. We've got a lot to learn from his prose because he wrote clearly, simply, and calmly. Orwell allowed for some of his biases but not others. He swung and he missed. We're up next.

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