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'It is not easy to get hold of any facts outside the circle of one's own experience, but with that limitation I have seen a great deal that is of immense interest to me. . . . I hope I shall get a chance to write the truth about what I have seen. The stuff appearing in the English papers is largely the most appalling lies.'
Letter to Victor Gollancz (Barcelona, 9 May 1937)
In the decade following his demoralised return in 1927 from service with the colonial police in Burma, George Orwell quite determinedly widened his circle of experience. Afflicted with a condition of 'bad conscience' in Burma, he explains, he was driven by the need to escape 'not merely from imperialism but from every form of man's dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants' (148). This feeling dictated the kinds of experience he would pursue: living on the rough with tramps and beggars in England; menial work in the cellars of fancy Parisian restaurants; wandering the streets of poverty in England's depressed North; fighting with the Catalonian workers' militia during the Spanish Civil War. Although Orwell recalls embarking on this programme out of a commitment to 'failure' - 'Every suspicion of self-advancement . . . seemed to me spiritually ugly, a species of bullying' - these ventures paradoxically inaugurated his success as a nonfiction writer: the authority of direct experience strengthened the impression of truth in his reportage about circles of social and political life remote from most of his readers.
Well, we're tremendously moral for ourselves - that is for each other; and I won't pretend that I know exactly at whose particular personal expense you and I for instance are happy. What it comes to, I dare say, is that there's something haunting - as if it were a bit uncanny - in such a consciousness of our general comfort and privilege . . . as if we were sitting about on divans, with pigtails, smoking opium and seeing visions. “Let us then be up and doing” - what is it Longfellow says? That seems sometimes to ring out; like the police breaking in - into our opium den - to give us a shake.
James composed The Golden Bowl during 1903, the year when he was planning his extended return trip to America, and writing to American friends of his great curiosity, his eagerness to see the country after two decades of living abroad: “The idea of seeing American life again and tasting the American air, that is a vision, a possibility, an impossibility, positively romantic.” Although the direct impressions from the trip would later go into The American Scene, the indistinct anticipatory vision corresponds to the vagueness of the place called America in The Golden Bowl.
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