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“Churchill: The Power of Words” Opens at the Morgan Library in New York

Successes in Rhetoric: Language in the Life of Winston Churchill 

A long-anticipated new exhibit “Churchill: The Power of Words” opened at New York’s famed Morgan Library June 8, 2012. Curated by Churchill Archives Centre Director Allen Packwood, the exhibit includes a wide range of rarely-seen drafts, speaking notes and correspondence as well as recordings from some of Churchill’s most compelling speeches and broadcasts. Highlight of the show is Churchill’s original certificate of American citizenship signed by Pres. John F. Kennedy in 1963.

The exhibition opened to wide acclaim, including this review by the New York Times:

THE NEW YORK TIMES, 8 June 2012—EXHIBITION REVIEW. The orotund proclamations will be unavoidable at the new exhibition “Churchill: The Power of Words,” at the Morgan Library & Museum, because at the center of the gallery is a semi-enclosed theater. And from it, however muted, will emerge recordings of Winston Churchill’s voice, speaking to Parliament, to British radio listeners and to American audiences, breaking on the ear like waves, rising and falling with every breath, sometimes suspended unexpectedly in midair, other times rushing forward with renewed vigor.
Cable to Churchill after D-Day. ©Churchill Archives Centre.
If you enter that small theater to hear excerpts from eight of his landmark speeches more clearly, you will also see the words on screen, laid out in poetic scansion (“The whole fury and might of the enemy/must very soon be turned on us”), just as Churchill wrote them, to match the rhythms of his voice.

But ignore the sound, if you can, and leave it for last. For it is best first to be reminded just how important those speeches by a British prime minister really were, and what difference they made.

This isn’t a history exhibition, so you won’t be able to take their full measure; you won’t fully grasp how washed up Churchill’s political career was in the mid-1930s; how few in England were prepared to recognize what was taking place in Germany; how few were also prepared to think the unthinkable about war, scarcely 20 years after the continent was so stained in blood; and how visionary Churchill was, in knowing what would happen and in understanding what price would be paid.

So you won’t really be able to understand that there was a period — between Germany’s beginning to bomb England in 1940 (killing more than 40,000) and the United States’ entrance to the war at the end of 1941 — when England might well have fallen or made generous accommodation to German demands, had Churchill not been a master of words and ideas, rallying his “great island nation” as prime minister with promises of blood, toil, tears and sweat.

But you will see enough to get a sense of what his wartime leadership meant. And what the rest of this fine exhibition accomplishes is to show how Churchill’s words can seem the expression of a life force, mixing mercurial passions and extraordinary discipline, passionate devotion and exuberant self-promotion, extravagant indulgence and ruthless analysis. The show, which opened on Friday, helps put a life in perspective that even during the years after the Sept. 11 attacks has been energetically celebrated as an ideal and just as energetically derided by critics for its intemperate character.

More than 60 documents and artifacts have been gathered by Allen Packwood, the director of the Churchill Archives Center at the University of Cambridge, England, for this exhibition, also drawing on the holdings of Churchill’s house at Chartwell, Kent. There are few opportunities to see these documents on public display, even in England, though many have been digitized as part of the museum at the Churchill Center and Museum in London.

There are letters from Winston’s difficult childhood, when his wealthy American mother and neglectful, titled father sent him to boarding school at 8. (An early letter home from 1883 or ’84 is scrawled with a child’s “X’s” — kisses rarely returned by any but his beloved nanny.) And there is a report card in which the child, not yet 10, is described as “a constant trouble to everybody.”

But we see the adventurer and historian begin to evolve, courting danger in battle and then writing its history. (“I am more ambitious for a reputation for personal courage,” he wrote his mother in 1897, “than of anything else in the world.”) There are drafts of speeches that are mapped out like poetry, a sample of Churchill’s amateur landscape painting, his Nobel Prize in Literature from 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory.” (The onetime Prime Minister Arthur Balfour described Churchill’s three-volume history of World War I as a “brilliant autobiography disguised as a history of the universe.”)

Perhaps the most remarkable document here is a New York doctor’s prescription from Jan. 26, 1932. Churchill had been on a lecture tour when he was hit by a car at Fifth Avenue and 76th Street and needed medical assistance.

“This is to certify,” the doctor writes — this in the midst of Prohibition — “that the postaccident convalescence of the Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at meal times.” The quantity, the doctor continues, is “naturally indefinite,” but the “minimum requirements would be 250 cubic centimeters,” or just over 8 ounces.

That “naturally indefinite” quantity would become one of Churchill’s trademarks, along with his cigars and the rhythms of his voice, which was heavily used in his political career. He was a candidate in 21 parliamentary contests between 1899 and 1955, losing 5 of them. But all of this — even the elaborate touch screens showing every document in the exhibition, along with other documents and transcriptions of handwriting — would inspire purely specialized interest had it not been for Churchill’s speeches and writings from the mid-1930s into the 1950s.

This was a rhetorical achievement, almost a musical one, in which Churchill’s innate optimism provided a kind of elevating promise even as he was trying to map out the scope of cataclysm. It was also a strategic achievement, for in his speeches we can see him demonstrating that there were choices to be made. And it was a political achievement because before the United States was involved in World War II, America had to be addressed as well, made to understand the stakes.

Churchill shaped a notion of the “English-speaking peoples” that proved fundamental because he understood that the English literary and political traditions had defined the very character of liberal democracy that was coming under threat. Churchill’s speeches declared an allegiance of language and of ideology. They also helped shape that allegiance, celebrating a particular heritage and its possibilities, while emphasizing its vulnerabilities and the need for its defense.

The achievement is a little like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, defining the stakes of the Civil War while reshaping the America’s conception of itself. There are a few comparisons between Churchill and Lincoln in these documents, which seem thoroughly appropriate. (President Roosevelt framed some lines by Lincoln as a 70th-birthday gift for Churchill in 1944.)

Churchill was attentive to the long line of historical ideas. And his ability to conjure that tradition for support is another reason individual setbacks were less crucial for him. Something larger was at stake. It wasn’t just a matter of opposition; it was a matter of what was being championed, even if the British Empire was in its twilight and the United States was beginning to bear the standard.

This was a reason Churchill urged the United States to claim European territory in the late days of the war, to prevent Stalin from gaining too much control. It was Churchill, in the wake of the war, who saw what was on the horizon. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic,” he said in his famous 1946 speech in Fulton, Mo., “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” There would be no respite for the war-weary.

All this is latent in this marvelously compact and suggestive show. It also demonstrates why attempts to displace Churchill from a central position in recent history are misguided. Flaws and failings are plentiful in individual lives, as in cultures and civilizations, but there are more important things deserving recognition: traditions that run deep and wide, that justly inspire advocacy and allegiance and that might even lead, as Churchill promises, to “broad, sunlit uplands.”

Read the entire article at The New York Times

©The New York Times. All rights reserved.

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