October 17, 2008

By Kjell Stromberg

    On occasion, the Swedish Academy has surprised everyone by its choice of Nobel laureates. It happened in 1953, when after awards for literature to Per Lagerkvist and Francois Mauriac in the preceding two years, the Academy chose Sir Winston Churchill. Whatever may have been the literary merits of this extraordinary laureate, it is certain that for most people throughout the world he was chiefly, if not exclusively, the great statesman who had been the architect of victory in the greatest of all wars. Another point was that, after six years out of power, Churchill had become once again Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1951, and it was generally believed that the Swedish Academy had assumed a tacit obligation not to crown any writer who was either holding a government position or playing a political role of first rank in his country at the time his candidacy might be presented.

    This time the Academy ignored such considerations. Churchill had been proposed for the Nobel Prize for Literature —and probably for the Peace Prize as well—as early as 1946, after having been forced out of power by the Labor party in the 1945 elections. The Nobel Committee had had plenty of time in which to crown him during this period when he was only a Member of Parliament and leader of His Britannic Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and decidedly a writer by profession. His six years of involuntary leisure had been devoted to composing six powerful volumes of notes and memoirs on the Second World War, of which the last was published in 1953. Perhaps the Swedish Academy had decided to wait until this full stop had been put to an entire life’s work (almost half a century) as historian and writer of memoirs before awarding him a Nobel Prize.

    Churchill’s name was first thought of in connection with the Prize by the Swedish. In later years, this candidacy, which quickly became popular, was proposed again and again, almost exclusively by Swedish writers and historians. Several of these were members of the Academy, and they were quick to settle on this name, which by mid-century was illustrious above all others. Even so, it was passed through a fine critical sieve by two reporting Academicians.

    The first report on the candidate, written by the aged Per Hallstrom, former permanent secretary of the Academy, was rather negative in its conclusions. He found no literary merit whatever in the little adventure novel entitled Savrola, which a youthful Lieutenant Churchill had written to relieve the boredom of garrison life in India when there was no enemy to fight. Although his first attempt at autobiography, a self-portrait based on childhood memories (My Early Life), is not entirely lacking in charm, or in artistic quality, in Hallstrom’s opinion, only the four-volume biography of his great ancestor Marlborough, the conqueror of Louis XIV, can serve as a basis for a judgment of Churchill as a historian. He dismissed The World Crisis, Churchill’s highly praised account of the First World War, as history. Recalling that only Theodor Mommsen had been judged worthy of a Nobel Prize for his work as a historian, the reporter asked the historians among his Academy colleagues whether the award of such a distinction based on only the Marlborough biography could really be defended.

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    Two years later, in 1948, Professor Nils Ahnlund of the Swedish Academy answered his venerable colleague in preparing a second report, which was not limited to his own opinions of Churchill’s historical works. First of all he referred to Professor George Trevelyan of Cambridge University, an eminent authority on English history in Marlborough’s period. A great admirer of Churchill’s work, Trevelyan was himself to propose Churchill for the Nobel Prize in spite of the violent abuse which Churchill had heaped upon the celebrated historian Macaulay who was Trevelyan’s great-uncle and the first biographer of Marlborough.

    Unlike Hallstrom, Ahnlund stressed the great documentary value of Churchill’s magnificent work on World War I. At no place in the exceptionally rich historical literature on that war, he observed, was the true pulse of the age to be sensed so well or the direct breath of the great events to be felt so clearly. To create such impressions called above all for outstanding literary and artistic qualities, and in Ahnlund’s opinion Churchill was the incomparable painter of the history of our time. And yet, he concluded, perhaps his historical work could not, by itself, justify the award of the Nobel Prize. But if his literary reputation were to be reinforced by his activity as an orator, there would be no doubt that he would fulfill the conditions of the Prize, for Churchill was an orator without a peer in his century. “No man has better known how to awaken such an echo by his eloquence, or to reach so vast a public,” Ahnlund commented. “It is, then, basically for his oratory that Churchill deserves the Prize; but his art as an orator is well framed by the rest of his production.”

    In spite of this extremely favorable second report, the Academy eventually waited another five years before yielding to the appeals which came with ever greater urgency from all corners of the globe. In 1953, Churchill not only received the Nobel Prize, but also, at the time of the Queen’s coronation, was awarded knighthood in the Order of the Garter.

    Competition for the Nobel Prize that year was not particularly fierce. The Swedish Pen Club, under its very active president Prince William, had had good luck with its choices in previous years, but for the moment it confined itself to backing once again the choice of its British counterpart—E. M. Forster. Included among the twenty-five remaining contenders were the American Ernest Hemingway, the Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness, and the Spaniard Juan Ramon Jimenez; all three were successively to win the Prize in the following years. At any rate, they did not offer a serious threat to Churchill’s candidacy. On October 15, the Prize was voted to him “for his mastery of historical and biographical descriptions as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”

    Because of the particular position of the new laureate, the Academy gave a flexible interpretation to its rule, always scrupulously respected before, concerning the secrecy of the vote until the final count. Thus Churchill was approached through diplomatic channels several days before the final count to learn whether he would be disposed to accept the Prize. The Prime Minister replied without hesitation that he would be deeply honored. He told the Swedish Ambassador to London, Gunnar Hagglof, when the latter went to No. 10 Downing Street to confirm the Academy’s decision, that he especially appreciated such an award for his literary work. He would be delighted to go to Stockholm to thank the Committee personally, to present his respects to “the illustrious and learned Swedish Academy,” and to admire the beauties of the city—the only European capital which, to his regret, he had never visited. Then he added that being almost eighty, he was obliged to ration his strength and to limit his participation in the Nobel Prize festivities—no public address, except for a few words of thanks at the banquet following the distribution of the Prizes, and no press conferences. He would of course attend the traditional dinner given by the King, whose guest he was to be during his entire stay in Stockholm, and he hoped to do considerable sightseeing.

    Unfortunately, even this limited program could not be carried out. Much to the disappointment of everyone in Sweden, the great statesman was held up by an international conference in the Bermuda Islands, where President Eisenhower had summoned English and French leaders to discuss certain questions regarding the mutual defense of Europe following the death of Stalin and the first experiences of atomic warfare. Instead, Lady Clementine Churchill went to Sweden with her youngest daughter, Mrs. Mary Soames, to represent her illustrious husband at the Nobel Prize festivities.

    Lady Churchill and Mrs. Soames were guests of the King. During the banquet at the Stockholm Town Hall, following the ceremony of the distribution of the Prizes, she read her husband’s acceptance speech—a charming address in which Churchill’s delightful humor counter-pointed his graver statements, which were often moving. The speech was heard in a deep silence by a gathering of nearly a thousand and greeted with a veritable thunder of applause.

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