The reader may notice, before he’s read so much as the first sentence of Rebecca Solnit’s biographical florilegium Orwell’s Roses, that Solnit has something important in common with the great English essayist and novelist. Like George Orwell, ne Eric Blair (1903-1950), Solnit is responsible for a large body of work — some two dozen books, according to her Also By page — but is known to the average reader, if at all, for two or three efforts plus one regrettably overused word. In Orwell’s case, those books are Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and that word is, needless to say, “Orwellian.” Solnit’s major works are A Field Guide to Getting Lost, The Faraway Nearby, and the smash bestseller Men Explain Things to Me, which inspired the term, now as ubiquitous as surveillance cameras, “mansplaining.”
The resemblance doesn’t stop there. Like Orwell, Solnit is a scourge of injustice. Her decadeslong activist career has been promiscuous in the best sense, ranging from the environment and climate change to America’s “forever wars” to domestic violence. Like Orwell, Solnit loves not only clarity and courage but also beauty in written language, and she calls a passage of Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” her credo: “But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. … So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”
Orwell’s “roses,” in Solnit’s account, are both the literal ones that he planted in 1936 at his rented cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire, and those figurative blossoms of earthy, “useless” joy that Solnit finds dotting the blasted landscape of Orwell’s political commitments. Solnit’s discursive approach takes her from Orwell’s former home, where she finds what she takes to be the descendants of his original shrubs, to Stalin’s doomed agricultural fantasies, Ralph Lauren’s floral patterns, and Colombia’s huge present-day rose plantations. Orwell’s Roses, a bouquet of loosely related essays, is tied together by the question of how much enjoyment it is acceptable for the crusading intellectual to take in, or alongside, her real work.
Whether one finds that question urgent or immaterial, helpful or hectoring, sincere or self-serving, it does yield an abundance of fascinating and undeniably beautiful writing on nature, labor, political and economic principles, the obligations of good citizenship, and the life, work, and historical legacy of Orwell. That said, it’s hard not to read Orwell’s Roses with breath anxiously held because a writer confident enough to align herself with a figure such as Orwell has invited deeper than average scrutiny for all varieties of cant, humbug, hypocrisy, and, in keeping with Solnit’s theme, self-indulgence. She’s invited it, certainly, but will she receive it?
The germ of Solnit’s book was, in a move familiar to readers of the modern personal essay, a detail noticed, then seized upon greedily, in an agreeably obscure work — in this case, Orwell’s 1946 essay “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray,” about the merits of planting trees. Orwell writes that “the planting of a tree, especially one of the long-living hardwood trees, is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost and with almost no trouble, and if the tree takes root it will far outlive the visible effect of any of your other actions, good or evil.” Following this simple and lovely bit of advice, he remarks in passing some roses he planted a decade earlier.
As is customary for many of our best essayists and for their acolytes and imitators, Solnit becomes obsessed with these roses. She needs to see them in person. She rebukes herself for not having thought about them “hard enough,” which is an essayist’s oblique way of pointing out how hard she thinks about things the rest of us might altogether overlook. She uses trees and plants to introduce her passion for environmental crises and causes, her near-mystical absorption in deep time, and her “rhizomatic” processes of thinking and writing. That word, which comes from botany and that “was adopted by the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to describe a decentralized or nonhierarchical model of knowledge,” may sound familiar; plug it into Google Ngram Viewer and one finds that it has achieved the faddish saturation of “skein” as shorthand for a jumble of pleasing and suggestive juxtapositions.
The roses were “saboteurs of my own long acceptance of a conventional version of Orwell.” They raised questions “about who he was and who we were and where pleasure and beauty and hours with no quantifiable practical result fit into the life of someone … who also cared about justice and truth and human rights and how to change the world.” These questions send Solnit after Orwell into the coal mines memorialized by The Road to Wigan Pier. She visits an industrial-scale rose farm in Colombia but thinks better of asking its laborers any questions on the grounds that, at best, they’d be forced to lie and, at worst, they’d get into trouble. The reader is left to infer horrible conditions from the presence of the kind of cheerful, teamwork-oriented slogans (“Effort and passion make us feel satisfied in our work”) that one might find in any American workplace.
Orwell, who wrote a dazzling, hilarious essay on the garbage that goes into the typical book review, might have smiled at an environmental activist flying hither and yon to collect the decorative set pieces that go into the typical work of creative nonfiction. He might have smiled at the genuflection to “raising questions,” questions that may never be answered, that may never even be directly asked. Is it OK to enjoy life, hobbies, aesthetic pleasures, while others struggle, while inequities exist in labor and consumption, while totalitarian regimes oppress their people, while the planet is in danger? Yes. Solnit reminds us that there is no point fighting for something if you’ve lost sight of why you loved it in the first place.
But who on Earth needs this reminder? Who sees himself as Atlas, bearing the troubled world on his shoulders and wondering if he can take a knee and a drink of water? It is an eye-popping sleight of hand for Solnit, in a book containing descriptions of immiserating toil in mines and farms, to conflate her activism itself with labor. It takes a special kind of tone-deafness to write things such as “And so I went to the Cambridge University Library” or “I’ve seen [wild roses] from subarctic Canada and the Rocky Mountains … but the most remarkable were on the Tibetan plateau” and imagine that her readers can distinguish this “work” from the pleasure that Solnit is so conflicted about taking. Solnit is clearly writing with an audience in mind, an audience that takes itself as seriously as she does.
There are many such instances of obliviousness on Solnit’s part. Orwell’s Roses is to be commended, in today’s climate, for retailing the horrors of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Less cheering is the breathless quality of Solnit’s history lesson. The widely documented useful idiocy of figures such as George Bernard Shaw and Walter Duranty is treated like the result of some dogged archival deep dive. When Solnit informs us of a massive Soviet human rights abuse “sometimes called the Holodomor” in which “about five million human beings” perished, one can’t help imagining the same sentence amended with “Holocaust” and “six million Jews” and wondering why it’s been phrased this way in a book for historically literate adults.
Despite its defects — a tendency toward self-aggrandizement being chief among them — Orwell’s Roses is a remarkably pleasurable read. It is filled with excellent writing, not just Solnit’s but countless cuttings from Orwell’s prose gardens. It stimulates thought and argument and militates for freedom of expression. It illustrates much of what some of us find insufferable about career activists, but it also demonstrates that we have much for which to thank them. Above all, it celebrates all of the reasons why we write: to prune our prejudices, to cultivate our minds, to get our hands dirty, and sometimes, as is our right, for no reason whatsoever.
Stefan Beck is a writer living in Hudson, New York.
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