When I was seventeen, I found a paperback copy of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier at a yard sale. The acid paper of the cheap Signet edition had browned with age and was crumbly to the touch. The drab, gray cover gave the retail price of thirty-five cents, inside the sale price of ten cents was written. No name, no inscription was to found on the inside of the cover; a brief description of the contents was printed on the back above a catalogue list of other inexpensive Signet editions.
What exactly a copy of this book was doing at a yard sale in western Indiana, I couldn’t say. I’ve speculated about it numerous times since; perhaps its subject matter—the conditions of coalminers in Northern England in the 1930’s - struck a familiar note with some of the locals as it was a coal mining region also, or its lengthy argument for joining the Socialist movement, for Indiana was the home of the great American socialist Eugene V. Debs, might explain its presence, but there is no real way of knowing why the book was there.
If it seems I am inferring precociousness on my part, I would like to disabuse you of that now. I was only vaguely aware of the coal mining industry and its history in my corner of the world. Of course, the slag heaps, and the occasional tunnel collapse brought it to the dimmest reaches of my consciousness, but I had no sense of its history or the effect it had on my home.
As for the socialist aspect, it was certainly quite fashionable in 1970 to describe oneself a socialist, or a radical of some kind; but again, it was hardly a well thought out political or philosophical stance. Suffice it to say the authority figures in my life—teachers, coaches, priests, and policemen—were all unified in the view that socialism was a bad thing: therefore, it deserved my unswerving attention.
It was as a result of one of my many infractions with the aforementioned authorities that I came to read The Road to Wigan Pier. I had been sentenced to several days confinement to a study carrell to think over what I had done. Truthfully, I have no recollection of my transgression, but in all probability it had something to do with some surly remark, or insolent rolling of the eyes that were correctly perceived as a sign of disrespect.
If I read the introduction, I have no memory of it. It was not until several years later while at the university did I understand the significance of Victor Gollancz disavowel of Orwell's peculiar take on what he had been commissioned to do. Gollancz had assigned Orwell to produce a documentary account of unemployment in the North of England for the Left Book Club. In part, Orwell succeeded, but it was nothing the orthodox leftists had expected and I will return to that in a moment.