George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1937)
Commonly available in paperback (Harvest Books, Penguin, e.g.)
In 1936, the Left Book Club, a socialist group reacting against the growth of fascism in the 1930s, commissioned George Orwell to study the problem of unemployment in the north of England. When Orwell returned with The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937, the Club considered his clear-sighted indictment of armchair socialists (in the second half of the book) so controversial that publisher Victor Gollancz prefaced the text with a rather tormented apologia to Club readers.
Neither the book nor the preface saw publication in the United States until 1958. By then, Orwell was dead and his reputation sealed with the novels Animal Farm and 1984. Wigan Pier received glowing reviews in papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. The New York Times review by Charles Poore neatly deconstructs Gollancz's "censorious" preface and reveals that the two politically-charged decades between 1937 and 1958 were enough to "enhance the volume's historic value."
Orwell divided The Road to Wigan Pier into two sections, the first detailing the wretched living conditions of working-class people in the North. He lived in a boarding house, accompanied coal miners down the shaft, visited about 200 working-class homes, and maintained a novelist's nose for aromas as well as an architect's sense for the lifestyle implications of placing two bathroom-less houses back to back. His attention attaches even to the minutiae of how the dole would divvy up among a family of 10 in a two-room house.
And throughout the first section, Orwell is putting this wealth of detail into context: after railing against the "disgusting" habits of his boarding-house keepers, he calls them "one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the civilization that produced them."
The second section of the book allows Orwell to contextualize at length. He wrestles with his own socialist ideals, and rejects the hypocrisy of most left-wing bourgeousie: "The fact that has got to be faced is that to abolish class-distinctions means abolishing a part of yourself." In these chapters Orwell overtly plays the devil's advocate and argues against socialism in an attempt to explain why it's still struggling, and how it can be made to resist a rising tide of fascism.
Excerpt from The Road to Wigan Pier