By Patrick Scott
27th International Churchill Conference, Charleston, South Carolina, March 2011
Explanations first. I’m not a professional historian, not a theorist of politics and political leadership, not a military expert, not a specialist in rhetoric or media. So I am a little daunted to talk in this company about Winston Churchill, whose achievements deserve all of that expertise and more.
I am relieved to be speaking about something I like, know and care about—why rare books matter, and what they can do, and to tell you about a recent generous gift to this state’s flagship university, a hundred miles up the road in Columbia.
Libraries like ours at the University of South Carolina are built over time. We’ve been collecting books for over 200 years. We had the first freestanding college library building in America, and last year the Rare Books Department moved into a brand new building, the Hollings Special Collections Library. I won’t linger on this point, but we are proud of the collections and what we can now do with them.
Shortly before we moved, Dr. Conyers O’Bryan, a distinguished cardiologist and longtime trustee of the Medical University here in Charleston, gave the University of South Carolina his Winston Churchill collection. As some of you will know, collections like Dr. O’Bryan’s are not built lightly or in a hurry. The collection honors Churchill the leader, but it also embodies Churchill the writer and Churchill the artist.
It brought to the University over eighty volumes of Churchill’s own writings: first editions, early books, books in fine bindings, inscribed and signed books, even books presented to Churchill and books from his library at Chartwell. And it also brought important artwork and memorabilia, including a signed photograph, a great engraving of Churchill as wartime prime minister, and an original Churchill oil painting from the 1930s. We’ve brought selected items here for the conference, and I hope you’ll come and see them in one of the breaks.
Based on the O’Bryan Collection, I have quite a simple idea or message to deliver, especially to those who themselves collect Churchilliana. It’s this: rare books are not just for advanced research. They are unique assets for teachers, especially at the undergraduate level.
Most of us, certainly most Britons of my generation, have always known of Churchill, known the Churchill story, almost taken for granted his central role in history. In prep school, I lined up for “means” under his portrait and a framed letter. For a school competition, the Churchill Prize, I learned by heart a poem from World War I that Churchill himself made famous when he recited it at the poet’s memorial service in St Paul’s Cathedral:
If I should die, think only this of me,
That there’s some corner of a foreign field,
That is forever England.
When Churchill returned to office as prime minister in 1951, it seemed simply the restoration of a natural order of things. Where I went to college, Churchill’s father had been a student; Churchill himself was an honorary fellow, and a young Martin Gilbert was a junior research fellow embarking on his life’s work. Churchill was simply a fact of life.
I’m surely not alone in retaining a vivid memory of the great State Funeral in 1965 when the dome of St. Paul’s, symbol of Britain’s survival through the Blitz, echoed with The Battle Hymn of the Republic. We felt it not as a funeral, but as the end of an era.
But that was nearly fifty years ago. How do we convey to a new generation this sense of Churchill as the last great forest tree towering over his contemporaries? Where do we begin? Rare books have some- thing special to offer. The scale and range of Churchill’s achievements, symbolized by his collected writings, the thirty-eight volumes of his collected works and essays, is simply overwhelming. Students don’t have the context or background to begin. But they can be intrigued or puzzled by historical objects, and rare books are not just texts or sources—they are things, historic things, that can be touched and that provoke wonder. Rare books can be entry points to a world many students hardly know.
Students are surprised how often Churchill’s life touched the same geographical flashpoints as our own time. I’ve been told I can’t get away with labeling young Winston “the Forrest Gump of the Victorian Empire,” so I won’t try. But what historical chain, one wonders, leads from the horsemen of the Mahdi, against whom Churchill fought with the 21st Lancers at Omdurman in 1898, and the mounted Janjaweed militia of modern Darfur?
Contemporary materials in their original format, ephemeral pamphlets and the like, show us Churchill as his contemporaries saw him. In a big research library, a single resource like the O’Bryan Collection is extended by relevant material in related collections—such as Bernard Baruch’s 80th birthday letter to Churchill, a World War II propaganda magazine with an article on Winston Churchill as orator, and an issue of the British Gazette, the newspaper he edited for the government during the General Strike of 1926.
Historical anniversaries provide hooks or opportunities for exhibits, and the upcoming centenary of World War I will provide a five-year window for talking about Churchill, as will the 50th anniversary of his death.
Perhaps surprisingly, students are fascinated by books as physical objects—both books in original condition, as their first readers saw them, and the ones in Dr. O’Bryan’s amazing special Cosway bindings. Flip this Cosway binding, and there is our author’s signature under glass, inlaid in the back cover.
The issue to make young people think about is what this transformation of binding might mean. What does it say about Churchill that political speeches, printed cheaply on acidic newsprint in 1910, would be treasured enough by the 1960s to be gilt-decorated and rebound in full navy morocco? His works are, obviously, precious.
The O’Bryan Collection includes several signed or inscribed books. One was inscribed to Churchill by the King of Denmark after the war, in 1950. By itself the signature says little, until one starts asking how very different the wartime experience had been in the Scandinavian countries, what Churchill’s attitude was toward postwar European development, and why Denmark should especially have valued WSC. In looking for the back-story of the inscription, the physical object becomes an entry-point.
Another inscription (actually an inserted letter from Churchill) shows a different, less public side of his character. It sends best wishes and a signed copy of his autobiography to the policeman on the door at the House of Commons who was about to retire.
Objects like a silver pillbox make great puzzlers for students, because they provide no words to tell you what they mean. Ours was given to Churchill in 1955 as a birthday present by his lifelong friend and admirer, Lady Violet Bonham-Carter. It raises all kinds of speculations about the trade-off, as leaders age, between the constraints of health and the benefits of experience. What kind of pills would Churchill have carried round with him in the 1950s? It’s a researchable question—but unlike a book, a pillbox doesn’t answer the questions it provokes.
The greatest entry point for modern students remains The Voice itself, in the immortal wartime speeches. The Churchill Centre website keeps recordings available to use with the printed texts. It’s still a puzzle how words so shaped our world and our future—and even more a puzzle how words can evoke deep latent shared values and deep resolve in those who hear them. But Churchill had been honing his skills with words for fifty years before he became prime minister. Simply to read or hear those speeches now is to tap into his time and his greatness.
A local connection also helps to make historic materials speak to new audiences. The famous poem quoted by Churchill in his broadcast on 27 April 1941 has a Charleston connection: The poet, Arthur Hugh Clough, was raised in Charleston on East Bay Street. There’s a memorial to him down on the battery. And if you go in the back gate of St. Michael’s Churchyard, there’s a gravestone carrying another poem he wrote—memorial verses on his brother who died here in 1841.
Churchill quoted Clough’s poem “Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth,” which was first published in America in the 1850s. Most remembered is the last line. Churchill had used the line twenty-five years earlier, when America entered World War I. But this time, in 1941, he also quotes two full stanzas in which Clough recalls long, hot South Carolina summers on the beach at Sullivan’s Island:
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward, look, the land is bright.
Clough’s words encapsulate one of the great strands in Churchill’s vision: the need to see not just the directionless eddying, the to-and-fro, of day-to-day events, but the great currents of human history.
Clearly, rare books are not just for specialist research. They can be the entry points through which undergraduates first encounter history at first hand. If you are yourself a Churchill collector, at least consider helping a local college begin to gather interesting provocative original Churchill material that can play this role in its students’ education. Collections no longer have to be exhaustive to be useful—much if not all of the context for further student research is or soon will be available in digital form. But the rare book or letter, the signed edition, the physical object, has a unique role to play in initiating such interest. Stop by and visit the O’Bryan Collection, and see if I am right.
Mr. Scott is director of the Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections and Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus at the University of South Carolina. He spoke to the Conference on 27 March.
Get the Churchill Bulletin, delivered to your inbox, once a month.