Rebecca Solnit, the great essayist of this time, gave us a fresh understanding of George Orwell with her brilliant 2021 book Orwell’s Roses (Vikings). But as with all things Solnite, Orwell’s Roses is about a good deal more than its nominal subject: the flowers that the author of animal farm other 1984 planted in the garden of a rented cottage in the English village of Wallington. I spoke with Solnit about the need for bread and roses—especially in perilous times. —John Nichols
JN: Why Orwell? Why now?
RS: The book kind of ambushed me. Although I’d known the essay where he described planting those roses well, I’d never thought about what it meant that our great prophet of totalitarianism, the man famous for facing unpleasant facts, was planting roses. It let me talk about all these things that I wanted to talk about—essentially about the left, about how we lead our lives, about what it looks like to lead a sustainable life.
It was only after I met the rose bushes and started reading Orwell’s domestic diaries and letters that I realized that I, like most people, had a misapprehension of him as this grim, pessimistic figure, and that he took immense pleasure in a lot of everyday things, and that’s what kept him going.
JN: In a sense, you’re looking at how people on the left might keep a sense of perspective in the face of overwhelming challenges.
RS: I learned a lot from writing the book. I didn’t understand—few of us do—what “bread and roses” really means, and that has been such a wonderful piece of equipment for my thinking and arguing.
We all know what “bread” is: food, clothing, shelter, the bodily necessities, which can be more or less homogenized and administered from above. But “roses” was this radical cry, in a way, for individualism, for private life, for freedom of choice—because my roses and your roses won’t be the same roses, you know? It’s saying that people are subtle, complex, subjective creatures who need culture, need nature, need beauty, need leisure.
This is not something the left has always been good at defending or even recognizing. We’re also in a really difficult time, and it’s not going to stop being difficult for the foreseeable future, with the climate chaos and the new authoritarianism, etc. We all have a lot of work to do.
As somebody who’s been around the left most of my adult life, I’m seeing bitterness and burnout. It felt like Orwell suggested some of what it looks like to remain committed to the work without getting embittered by it—without losing your sense of what you were for.
JN: It’s interesting the extent to which Orwell has become a reference point in discussions about Donald Trump.
RS: Well, I remember Ronald Reagan being “Orwellian.” I remember both George Bushes being “Orwellian.” I say at the end of the book that it’s almost too easy to explain how “Orwellian” or whatever (since I question that adjective) this era is. It just feels like it would be really valuable for people to talk about the politics of lying—the inextricable relationship between authoritarianism and lies—and you don’t need to name Trump. But I also knew that by the time the book came out, Trump might no longer be president, which turned out to be the case.
JN: Despite it all, you bring us back to hope.
RS: I’m not quite a broken record, but I’ve been attacked a few times for repeating myself, and it’s like, “Do you know how many times Aretha Franklin sang ‘Respect’?” I’ll say it until it’s no longer useful.
I said when Trump was elected, “Thirteen years ago I took personal responsibility for hope, and I’m not giving up now.”
I think a lot of people on the left think they were personally appointed to be in charge of despair—or cynicism—and how to spread it, judging by how they conduct themselves or how they clobber people with it.
Having hope as your assignment is kind of great: You’re looking at who’s heroic, at what we’ve achieved, at what’s possible—and so much of it comes from what I think of as having a historical imagination.