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Book Review: The Literary Churchill

By (June 10, 2014) No Comment

The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actorthe literary churchill cover

By Jonathan Rose

Yale University Press, 2014


Readers having the perhaps forgivable impression that the world groans under a surfeit of Winston Churchill books, readers driven to cynicism by thousand-page biographies of the man, by quote-books of the man, by “leadership secrets” handbooks of the man, readers who are so sick of his balding pate, his capstan-cigars, and most of all his bulldog tenacity that they’d like to declare a moratorium on all things Winnie, might want to hold off on the cease-and-desist orders just yet. Jonathan Rose, whose 2001 book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes was a stunningly comprehensive look at the place of reading in ordinary daily lives, has tightened his focus in his latest book – concentrating on one reader, one writer, and a life that was anything but ordinary. And against all odds, The Literary Churchill succeeds in making its over-familiar subject feel vividly new. The book is a masterpiece.

“All politicians are authors,” Rose writes by way of defining his terms. “Most politicians, like most authors, are hacks who simply recycle clichés; a few are genuinely creative visionaries. But either way, what they write (or have others write) sets politics in motion.” And although The Literary Churchill never quite settles on whether its subject was a hack or a visionary (Rose’s tag of “a tremendously successful middlebrow author” almost smacks of eating one’s cake and having it too), the book’s subtitle could well be “politics in motion” – by focusing on a Churchill who lived by his pen and needed always to be writing, revising, haggling, and pitching, Rose gives us a more mentally nimble version of the man than any previous portrait.

Despite having been born at Blenheim Palace as an offshoot of one of England’s noble families, Churchill did indeed need to live by his pen for virtually his entire life. He took to it with a will and flat gusto characteristic of many genius alcoholics and discovered (as an Edwardian contemporary of his once acidly observed about a literary foe) “how readily industry is accelerated once contemplation is removed.” Newspaper articles, journal articles, book reviews, ghostwritten pieces of all kinds – whatever Fleet Street was buying, Churchill provided. He eagerly sought out military action in India, Egypt, South Africa, and anywhere else shots were being fired, and he did it only in very small part to satisfy the outmoded notions of gallantry his generation was the last to feel: his main motivation was the money he’d earn from chronicling his exploits.

These chronicles turned into books, and the books tended to sell well, which brought him more public notice and more good will from publishers, which in turn brought more contracts and further book deals (as Rose rightly points out, Churchill could have supported himself “handsomely” as a writer even if he’d never thought of entering politics). It would have been a busy career even for somebody who did nothing else, but Churchill was also all the while assiduously climbing the cursus honorum of English politics; Rose’s focus on the man of letters ends up making the man of law look all the more impressive.

The book enthusiastically charts the ups and downs of any working writer’s life. In May of 1929 Scribner’s paid an astonishing $25,000 for the American rights to Churchill’s two-volume biography of his illustrious ancestor the Duke of Marlborough (the book would later swell to six volumes), for instance, which Rose characterizes as “one of those heady and ill-conceived investments made just before the stock market crash.” But “not many Americans in the 1930s wanted to buy a very long and expensive biography of a founding father of the British empire,” and the book’s author needed more than twenty years to earn back his advance. Churchill had a nineteenth-century view of the literary marketplace, but the American publishing world, headed by smart sharps like Maxwell Perkins, knew better:

Maxwell Perkins realized that readers wanted young rebels like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe. If the House of Scribner continued to rely on authors such as Winston Churchill – English, middle-aged, bumptiously patriotic, with a distinct Victorian odor – it would go bankrupt.

All through the 1920s and ‘30s, while Churchill was “in the wilderness” politically, he continued to pour forth an endless stream of written material, including his fairly profitable series of potted biographies in the Great Contemporary series. But the supreme opportunity for Rose’s “author, reader, and actor” was darkening the horizon as the ‘30s dawned, and by 1938 he was writing in no uncertain terms about the evil of Nazism:

It leaps out upon us from the Dark Ages … This combination of mediaeval passion, a party caucus, the weapons of modern science and the blackmailing power of air-bombing, is the most monstrous menace to peace, order and fertile progress that has appeared in the world since the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.

It was Clement Attlee who said of Churchill in this period, “He was so perfectly suited to fill a particular need; the need was so vital; and the absence of anybody of his quality was so blatant that one cannot imagine what would have happened if he had not been there.” The timing was crucial, and Rose is in complete agreement about its perfectly-orchestrated outcome:

… Churchill still retained his nineteenth-century confidence in progress. Like modernism, melodrama portrayed the world as an arena of crisis but unlike modernism, it promised happy endings. No matter how terrible the odds or how long the struggle, good would triumph in the end. Churchill dealt with public fears not through bland assurances (the great error of the Phony War) but by confirming and even amplifying those fears – and then promising ultimate victory. It was an obsolescent Victorian theatrical device, which would have been ridiculed a few years earlier, but in the crisis of 1940 it worked brilliantly. Through such alchemy was the Age of Anxiety transmuted into Their Finest Hour.

The book naturally hits its most heroic tones in the war years (The Literary Churchill is all but silent on the subject of ghostwriters, let alone radio impersonators), when, as has so often been said, Churchill “mobilized” the English language. In those dark years before the United States entered the war, Churchill threw defiance at the master of Europe and issued stern encouragements to his countrymen in rolling cadences that actually deserve a fair measure of the immortality that’s been conferred on them:

You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal.

The last third of The Literary Churchill is necessarily autumnal in tone. A gallon of whiskey and thirty cigars every single day, day in and day out, will take their toll, and perhaps also there was less in the gray and rationing postwar England to evoke those rolling cadences, or justify them. Churchill wrote (oversaw? Again, near silence on the point) his multi-volume history of the Second World War, and in 1953 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. But these pages shade subtly into matters of literary legacy – including some wonderfully illuminating discussions of the Churchillian echoes in the prose of President John F. Kennedy, who conferred honorary US citizenship on Churchill in 1963.

Rose rings out his superb, revelatory account with his portly prince being borne offstage:

As every observer noted, Churchill’s state funeral on 30 January 1965 was his greatest performance, the kind of spectacle usually reserved for royalty. Breaking precedent, the Queen and the royal family were in attendance. With some show business friends, Noel Coward watched the whole four-hour pageant on television, “in floods of proud tears most of the time. No other race could have done so great a tribute with so little pomposity and so much dignity.” Though Coward did not say it, it was also the grand finale of the British Empire. In that performance Churchill won what he had always sought: it was watched by the largest American television audience up to that point in history, larger even than John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963. In his condolence note to the Queen, Charles de Gaulle chose exactly the right epitaph: “In the great drama he was the greatest of all.”

“The greatest of all” is a phrase Churchill himself would have loved, and so it must be distrusted (and insolubly argued: Americans will rightly claim it for FDR). But even the most cynical Churchill-discounter will finish Rose’s book with a smile of pure thrill at such a bravura new take on the man and his life. The Literary Churchill is most certainly not just another Winston Churchill book – nobody should miss it.