In Paperback: The Literary Churchill
The Literary Churchill:
Author, Reader, Actor
by Jonathan Rose
Yale University Press, 2015
Jonathan Rose’s superb book-length reminder of the enormous degree to which Wintson Churchill was not only a life-long participant in the literary life but also to a large extent a creation of that world is now in a sturdy paperback from Yale University Press, festooned with the praises it reaped in hardcover. Well-earned praises: in the hideously-overcrowded field of Winstoniana, Rose in these pages manages the almost unbelievable feat of presenting his subject in a new and interesting light.
This is Churchill the author, writing the melodramas he himself then acted out on first the national and then the world stage, and part of the genius of Rose’s approach is to face squarely the hypocrisy built into such a double or triple act. His Churchill is always ready with a well-polished phrase, even in defense of the indefensible:
Churchill the author had always been a passionate defender of freedom of expression, but the war brought with it the spectre of censorship. The Emergency Powers Act of 1939 gave the government potentially unlimited scope for restricting liberties. At its outbreak, Churchill declared that the war was being fought “to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and … to establish and revive the stature of man.” He conceded that war inevitably involved the suspension of some freedoms, but these measures would be temporary: “Surely and confidently we look forward to the day when our liberties and rights will be restored to us, and when we shall be able to share them with the peoples to whom such blessings are unknown.”
Re-reading the book is a good opportunity to relish how entertaining and insightful Rose can be on subjects that have nothing to do with Churchill. His mini-portraits of hapless Neville Chamberlain, opportunistic John F. Kennedy, Josef Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, and half a dozen others are memorably good, and some of his summings-up are truly outstanding, as in the case of Kennedy’s nemesis:
Nikita Krushchev was not Adolf Hitler, but he ominously resembled Wilhelm II. He was an authoritarian, though not a mass murderer. As leader of the world’s second superpower, he deeply resented the first superpower, engaging his rival in an arms race while also wishing for some kind of accommodation. He had expansionist aims; he freely resorted to threats and tirades; he took ruthless advantage of perceived weaknesses in opponents. His foreign policy was dangerously erratic and impulsive, more gefuhlspolitik than realpolitik, and sometimes resembling the theatre of the absurd. He commanded a vast military machine aimed to project power on a global scale, though his country did not really have the resources to support such an ambitious policy. For all these reasons, he was quite capable of blundering into a war.
Readers who missed this brilliant volume the first time around are urged to find it now in paperback. One of the season’s most welcome reprints.