Nineteen Eighty-Four was published by Secker & Warburg on 8 June 1949. It was published five days later by Harcourt, Brace and Company in New York. Secker & Warburg printed 26,575 copies for the first edition; a second impression, of 5,570 copies, was issued in March 1950, and a third impression, of 5,150 copies, in August 1950. A second edition, entirely reset, was ordered in December 1950. Harcourt, Brace ordered 20,000 copies for its initial print run, and two further impressions, of 10,000 copies each, were issued on 1 July and 7 September 1949; fourth and fifth impressions, of 4,100 and 5,000 copies, were issued on 3 February and in June 1950. A Book-of-the-Month Club edition was issued in the United States in July 1949, and by March 1952 had sold 190,000 copies. Warburg gives figures for later printings and initial reactions to the book in All Authors Are Equal.
The novel was very widely reviewed. Bernard Crick summarises initial reactions and devotes a long section of his annotated Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) to ‘The Contemporary Reaction’. On 31 July 1949, The New York Times Book Review stated that some sixty reviews, coast-to-coast, were ‘Overwhelmingly (90 per cent) admiring, with cries of terror rising above the applause. . . . Few paid more than passing attention to the novel as fiction. . . . The emphasis was on the political ‘prophecy’ involved. . . . Even the ordinarily breezy New Yorker was so shaken that it found itself endorsing something awesome called Orwell’s “moral centrality.”‘ L[ouis] A[deane] in Freedom (11 June 1949) began by suggesting: ‘If it is true that satire admits an element of hope, then this novel is not satirical: it is a grim and convincing attack on the centralised State and on modern warfare, and its power is due to the complete pessimism with which every page is stamped’; he concluded: ‘Only an honest man could have written this book, and it is desolating that in our world such honesty should lead to such despair. Out of his despair, Orwell has made a protest more complete and more sustained than any other writer of his generation, and for this he deserves our praise and gratitude.’ Praise, with a summary of the book, marked most reviews. G. M. Thompson, in the Evening Standard (7 June), which made it its “Book of the Month”, also remarked on the savagery of the satire. Some reviews applauded Orwell’s vision but pointed to what they regarded as weaknesses in the novel. Bruce Bain, in Tribune (17 June 1949), did not think that Nineteen Eighty-Four was a great novel, because Orwell was ‘not in full command of his material, and the importance of what he has to say splits the novel at the seams.’ The Observer’s review (12 June)—by Harold Nicolson, who had asked to review it—whilst finding the book impressive, thought it was not convincing, lacking ‘either the high imaginative force of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” or the self-contained logic of Mr. Orwell’s own Animal Farm.’ In particular he thought that those who were twenty-five in 1960, when Ingsoc was established, could not have lost all remembrance of the past by the time they were forty-nine in 1984. Also, the task set ‘the staff of Thinkpol’ was beyond fulfilment. ‘Such inconsistencies of detail prevent our surrendering ourselves wholly to Mr. Orwell’s thesis: but it is an excellent thesis none the less.’
A fierce attack on Orwell, which arose from the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, was launched by Arthur Calder-Marshall in Reynold’s News (12 June 1949), a Sunday paper which supported the Labour Party. This was a biographical denigration of Orwell, accusing him, for example, of indulging in the thirties in ‘a peculiar, personal politics, playing the conflict between Comrade Orwell and Mr. Blair out on the political scene.’ He claimed that Animal Farm adopted ‘the cheap Tory thesis that Fascism and Communism are the same thing; a thesis which the lunatic fringe of the Labour Party has also adopted.’ Nineteen Eighty-Four made the same equation and would serve as election propaganda for the Tories. Calder-Marshall concluded: ‘The sooner Comrade Orwell assumes the pen-name of Eric Blair, the better. Except, of course, that Mr. Blair, ex-Etonian, ex-civil servant, has no literary reputation at all.’ The following week, H. Greville strongly defended Orwell against this ‘despicable attack,’ made because Calder-Marshall could not ‘stomach attacks on the realm of the great Stalin.’ Two more letters followed on 26 June, one from a person who signed a defence of Orwell as ‘Jewish Socialist,’ and one defending Calder-Marshall’s stance from the Labour M.P. Woodrow Wyatt; he claimed that Orwell’s ‘blank hopelessness’ made it impossible for him to count himself ‘among those who identify themselves with the aims and beliefs of the Labour Party.’
Calder-Marshall’s spite apart, he was correct in seeing that Nineteen Eighty-Four would be taken by some to be an attack on socialism and the Labour Party; this was especially so in the United States. Life published a descriptive summary of the novel, largely made up of illustrations drawn by Abner Dean (4 July 1949). This had a prominent sub-heading: ‘An Englishman writes a frightening satire about the cruel fate of man in a regimented left-wing police state which controls his mind and soul.’ Orwell was much concerned at this misunderstanding and particularly by an article in the New York Daily News which, he had been told, stated that Nineteen Eighty-Four was an attack on the Labour government. He therefore prepared a statement that this was not his intent and a summary was sent to Life by Warburg. On 25 July, Life published two letters about Nineteen Eighty-Four. One, from A. D. Crane, of Kingsport, Tennessee, said nobody should be scared by ‘Orwell’s prediction,’ because such forecasts never came true, and every decade since 1880 had shown ‘an improvement and advancement in real freedom and in every other respect’; the world had never gone backward. A more thoughtful letter came from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., whose The Age of Jackson had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945:
Your description of George Orwell (“who fought in the Spanish civil war, saw firsthand what the Communists were up to and has since devoted all his talents to warning the world of the fate which awaits it if it confuses liberalism with regimentation”) is liable to misunderstanding. Orwell fought on the Republican side in Spain. He was outraged by the behavior of Communists whose attacks on the non-Communist majority of Republicans played such a large part in delivering Spain to fascist tyranny. But Orwell hated Franco fully as much as he did the Communists.
The essence of Orwell’s position is a warning against totalitarianism—not, as your editorial writer puts it, just against “left-wing” totalitarianism. Your description would have been much more accurate if you had written of Orwell: “who fought in the Spanish civil war, saw firsthand what the fascists and the Communists were up to and has since devoted all his talents to warning the world of the fate which awaits it if it confuses conservatism or liberalism with regimentation.”
In that same issue, immediately below Schlesinger’s letter, Life published a summary of Orwell’s statement. This was not based on Warburg’s telephoned summary, but on a statement prepared for the United Automobile Workers.
Two early responses to Nineteen Eighty-Four were among Orwell’s papers at his death. Lawrence Durrell wrote from the British Legation, Belgrade, complimenting Orwell. It was, he wrote, ‘intellectually the bravest and cruellest book you’ve done. Reading it in a Communist country is really an experience because one can see it all around one—the ever-present fact which no left-wingers of my acquaintance will dare to look in the eye.’ On 12 June 1949, Bernard Sankey wrote from Belleville, New Jersey, enclosing the New York Times review; he had not yet been able to get hold of the book. He had gone to the United States because he thought it would be easier to earn a living there, he says, and he describes paradoxical characteristics of American life as they struck him, especially admiring ‘the wonderful library system.’ He evidently knew Orwell, for he twice refers to his state of health, showing some indication that he knew how very ill Orwell was. Unfortunately he has not been traced.
A third, more personal, response to Nineteen Eighty-Four is recorded by Jacintha Buddicom in her Eric & Us. On 11 June 1949, she went to Shiplake (where Orwell had lived before World War I) to see her mother, then very frail, who showed her daughter a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which she had had Bumpus (a London bookseller) send her as soon as it was published. Mrs. Buddicom reminisced about Eric ‘with affection,’ but his book she found morbid: ‘She had been very fond of Eric, and the defeatist destruction of all individuality portrayed by him in the nightmare world of Nineteen Eighty-Four upset her very much. So when I left on the Sunday evening, I left with her his letter declaring that nothing ever dies—to comfort her that perhaps he would have better luck next time. ‘Jacintha Buddicom never saw the letter again, nor her mother, for she died three days later. Thus, Nineteen Eighty-Four was inextricably tied up in her mind with her mother’s death. Writing it had ‘to all intents and purposes killed him’ and ‘it certainly did not make any happier her [mother's] last few days of life. . . . So I never answered his final lost letter’.
Finally, writing to Orwell on 26 August 1949, Arthur Koestler described the novel as ‘a glorious book’.
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See also: Research guide for Orwell’s 1984.