Finest Hour 141, Winter 2008-09
Book Reviews – WSC’s Heights of Sublimity: A Landmark in Churchill Studies
“What a drill sergeant of words he was; what an outrage to let someone like him loose to embarrass and humiliate the rest of us mere mortal users of the language!”
By Manfred Weidhorn
Dr. Weidhorn is Guterman Professor of English at Yeshiva University and the author of four books on Churchill, including the seminal Sword and Pen (1974).
Churchill by Himself: The Life, Times and Opinions of Winston Churchill in His Own Words. Richard M. Langworth, editor. Public Affairs, 620 pages, illus., hardbound, $29.95. Member price $24.
When one reads a book or legal brief for the purposes of teaching or scholarship or rebuttal, the usual procedure is to highlight important passages. Richard Langworth has done just that with the vast corpus of Churchill’s writings and speeches. Within the covers of one thick volume, our Happy Reaper has gathered Churchill’s witticisms, maxims, and ripostes, as well as a rich selection of his scintillating prose passages. The source for each passage is scrupulously given (including the occasional uncertainty). And, at long last, those few famous utterances which Churchill, like Yogi Berra, did not really make are isolated in a limbo. No more should there be inquiries as to whether or where Churchill said this or that, and a department in Finest Hour can be shut down for good. Now, as Casey Stengel used to say, “You can look it up.”
Here is a distillation of Churchill the writer and orator at his best in the various periods of his uniquely long career—as a callow youth seeking both fame and vocation, as a fire-breathing young radical, as a superb “triphibian” military expert, as a Cassandra warning about India (alas!) and Hitler (cheers!), as the greatest war leader of a democracy in peril (with apologies to LG and FDR), as a prudent Cold Warrior (“jaw” rather than “war”), and, finally, as a sage in the era of Mutually Assured Destruction, unwilling to surrender hope despite the many ambiguities of technological progress which he himself had often noted.
What other political leader, living through so many phases and tackling so many different issues, possessed so much curiosity in so many areas, so much erudition and such a consistently mesmerizing style? Ah, but what other leader was a professional writer? This collection also reminds us of Churchill’s Falstaffian side—the corpulent man who likes his drink and who is seemingly never at a loss for a quip just when others think they have him trapped.
Though he trended through the decades from a severe criticism of laissez-faire capitalism to a severe criticism of socialism (which he brilliantly called “Queuetopia”), he, unlike most knee-jerk anti-communists, understood the complexity of life: “Bolshevism is a great evil, but it has arisen out of great social evils” (147); this insight he would also apply to Hitler and Nazism, though not so succinctly. He had a jarring warning for knee-jerk radicals, as well: “Those who talk of revolution ought to be prepared for the guillotine” (394).
Such observations are based on an understanding of the past: “Study history!” (18), and reading this book indeed reminds us of some of the fateful junctures of history. Not just that in 1931 he had a near-fatal street accident in New York City that almost lost us World War II but also that, in 1929, at the eerily arithmetical midpoint of his career, he was toying with the idea of retiring from politics and even emigrating to Canada (155). The letter expressing such velleities suggests that his My Early Life, being written at that time, was a valedictory memoir and that his sadly unfulfilled career might well have become a mere footnote in history, a “study,” as Robert Rhodes James put it, “in failure.” But he stayed on, and compelling are the selections from the speeches of the 1930s, on the rearming of Germany and the flaccidity of the Baldwin-Chamberlain response. Juxtaposed with each other in this anthology, these passages create a chill in the reader, as he temporarily suspends his awareness of the ultimate happy though costly outcome.
With such a wealth of material (15 million words) on such a wide range of topics, Langworth faced a major decision about organization: Would he go by alphabet, or chronology, or topic? Tough call. In the end, he arrived at a happy compromise: Broad topics (though in no inevitable pattern); alphabetically ordered subdivisions within them; chronology within the latter. As warranted, he allowed himself variations and exceptions. It is not always a perfect solution—for example, one of Churchill’s greatest sentences, the one about being turned out after five years’ success, is hard to track down, as is the fascinating question of when he first expressed the ambition to become Prime Minister, or when he spoke of being shot at without result (the index needs redoing; it simply cannot perform all that is asked of it)— but the result is better than that of all those other schemata that have been tried from time to time.
Greatly helpful are the cross references among the famous utterances. These are part of the editor’s sage interventions, as after every two or three items, Langworth provides brief comments (footnotes, as it were) which clarify, correlate, quote, refer, contextualize, and sometimes take a wider view.
When necessary, he glances at recent or current events and tendencies, but in an objective, non-partisan fashion. One cannot tell—rightly so—whether he is a Left or Right Churchillian, only that his erudition is immense. With these judicious notes, Langworth is the Virgil to the reader’s Dante. And that image is not far-fetched, for the journey takes us through vast tracts of Hell and Purgatory and even proffers (beyond Virgil’s power) glimpses of heaven—or at least of peace and relatively good times.
This book reminds the reader that, not only does Churchill’s prose (in any period of his career, unlike the poetry of the gradually maturing Shakespeare) roll as smoothly as the Mississippi, but, except for occasional boilerplate about patriotism, duty, and morality—values necessary in a leader’s rhetorical arsenal but often overdone by lesser politicians— it shows little of the Victorian purple rhetoric that some “modern” (as Churchill might have said with a sneer) literary critics have complained about.
Passage after passage demands to be read aloud for the sheer aural and verbal effects. Churchill’s brilliance in discursive reasoning and expository prose is there right at the beginning, as in, for example, his prescient and eloquent argument in 1901 that future European wars (which seemed to have become obsolete or unthinkable) would be dreadful (504).
Churchill’s is a unique way of expressing himself, whether in rolling period, in careful or stimulating choice of words, in surprising twist of thought, in inspired use of concrete detail. Just note one example of the many amusing ways he had of asserting that a political opponent was wrong or untruthful (or that the opponent had only by chance stumbled upon the truth): “An uncontrollable fondness for fiction forbade him to forsake it for fact.” (232) Where in American politics, since that lovable Senator Everett Dirksen in the 1960s— though he was often more windbag than Churchillian—do we have anybody like that? For shame, inarticulate Americans!
But no less stunning is the eruption of the homely simile or metaphor that brings the discussion home to even the dullest mind. To wit, many people have observed that the opposite extremes of Communism and Fascism actually meet; but only Churchill comes up with the apt analogy of the North and South Poles, equally cold and barren (384). Other examples: “China, as the years pass, is being eaten by Japan like an artichoke, leaf by leaf” (157). Warning against the “great folly” of extending the Korean War into China, he said, “It would be like flies invading fly-paper” (437). Or take this paean to democracy: “The alternation of Parties in power, like the rotation of crops, has beneficial results”(110). Or his poetic, patriotic, and mischievous praise of the American constitution: “…no constitution was written in better English” (127).
Then there is his unprecedented and risky injection of humor in speeches during dire situations: “We are waiting for the long-promised invasion. So are the fishes” (160). On discontinuing the plan to ring church bells to warn of a German landing: “…I cannot help feeling that anything like a serious invasion would be bound to leak out” (297). Hitler, in forgetting about the Russian winter, “must have been very loosely educated….I have never made such a bad mistake as that” (347). Or take the earthy way he has in making the pedestrian military observation that Hitler has lost air power superiority: “Hitler made a contract with the demon of the air, but the contract ran out before the job was done, and the demon has taken on an engagement with the rival firm” (207).
But to cite these examples is to betray hundreds of equally great ones. What a drill sergeant of words he was; what an outrage to let someone like him loose to embarrass and humiliate the rest of us mere mortal users of the language!
Legend has it that when Milton’s Paradise Lost was published, John Dryden, the greatest poet of the next generation, said to fellow poets, “This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too.” In the same way, all those collections of the “Wit and Wisdom of Churchill” are now rendered automatically obsolete. Indeed it is hard to think of a “Wit and Wisdom” vade mecum devoted to anyone (other than perhaps Shakespeare)—Pope, Twain, Wilde, Shaw, Proust, Lincoln—that is not diminished by the scope of this book, the volume of memorable utterances, the helpful commentary. As a trove of profound observations, rolling periods, amusing—often hilarious—one-liners, it threatens the hegemony of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Who could have thought that any one man had so many wonderful things to say? He makes the value of the other merchandisers of sagacity seem inflated.
Langworth’s previous Churchill work was A Connnoisseur’s Guide to the Books of Sir Winston Churchill, a definitive work of interest only to that class of harmless eccentrics known as book collectors. Churchill by Himself (nice title, too) is, however, of interest to anyone who loves English—nay loves language itself—for its evidence of how this puny, featherless, two-legged creature called man can use his invention of words to reach heights of sublimity. In short, although not conventional scholarship or criticism, which advances a new interpretation or reveals obscure documents or connects the dots in a revisionist fashion, this book is nothing less than a landmark in Churchill studies. Indeed, thanks to Langworth’s efforts, some academic scoundrel will no doubt spare himself the time-consuming task of reading Churchill’s forty or so books and rather use just this one volume in order to write a credible monograph on “Churchill’s political philosophy” or “Churchill’s Prose Style” or “Churchill and…” any number of topics. Churchill was certainly right to have his doubts about “progress.”
A compliment: the editor has placed the inevitable errata (mostly his words not Churchill’s) on the web, which readers can consult and even add to, pending the next printings. A cavil: The illustration of Churchill for the dust jacket of the British edition is an “unmitigated defeat,” while the U.S. edition is a smashing success. Poor Britons!
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